A few days ago, the Dutch free daily newspaper Metro decided to publish a cartoon of three people from Eritrea traveling to Europe by boat. The stereotypical portrayal of black people as well as the idea behind the cartoon has lead to various debates and community organising against this type of imagery. We know that, especially in the Netherlands, the right of the freedom of expression often means the right to offend to a great extent. There are of course many who argue that the right to offend is embedded in the freedom of expression. However, not everyone is targeted and protected in the same way from offensive speech. The Netherlands knows a long history of depicting black people in racialised and gendered ways. The cartoon published in Metro is part of a larger debate on undocumented people, race and the power of the media.
We decided to talk to Simone Zeefuik to hear her views on this insensitive and dehumanizing cartoon, and how we should understand the meaning of the cartoon in relation to present day politics in the Netherlands. Zeefuik is an Amsterdam based writer, community organizer and co-founder of UndocumentedNL. During the past days she has been active in mobilising people to speak up against the Metro for publishing the cartoon.
TIA: Can you explain to us what the cartoon depicts?
Simone: Cartoonist René Leisink shows us three Black men and one of them says: “If the water keeps rising we might be able to sail to the Austrian border.” With this disgusting drawing, Leisink violently mocks the men and women from various African countries who sail from Libya to Lampedusa, the Italian island closest to the African continent. It’s a dangerous journey and in the last 20 years the sinking boats have resulted in the deaths of approximately 20,000 people. It requires a monstrous lack of humanity to unleash such a devilish chuckle while thinking about these tragedies.
In mainstream Dutch media, all African countries are interchangeable and I doubt that the cartoonist would be able to locate Eritrea – as he wrote on the boat – on a blank map of Africa. He could just as easily have written Chad, Sudan, Niger, Somalia, Djibouti or Ethiopia.
TIA: In which ways does the cartoon reflect the public opinion of undocumented people and immigration issues in the Netherlands?
Simone: When I Tweeted Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland (the Dutch National Council for Refugees) to ask their reaction, they sent me another cartoon and stated: “We think this one is funnier,” implying they found the Metro cartoon ‘funny’, too. When confronted they replied: “We didn’t laugh about it this time.” On their website this council states: “Refugees have a right to a fair asylum procedure […] The Dutch Council for Refugees is an independent, non-governmental organization that defends those rights.” If this is how an organisation with such core values responds to Leisink’s cartoon, you can imagine how those who don’t even fake caring talk about these horrors. The fact that a national newspaper publishes something so hateful informs us that the overall national sentiment with regards to Black migrants and the hell they endure while travelling towards [what they hope is] a better life is one that both allows and stimulates such dehumanising violence. Indeed, violence. We truly need to stop calling this satire or dark humour… especially since this darkness is so fuelled by whiteness.
Aside from the public opinion of undocumented people and immigration issues in the Netherlands, Leisink’s archive also displays the national level of cowardice. It shows zero cartoons mocking the apartheid state we call Israel but on December 9 2013 he did, however, spit out a Mandela-cartoon in which we see Madiba standing in front of the gates to heaven and facing a white man who’s asking “Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell. Or do you also object to that form of apartheid?” It’s clearly only a matter of time before he draws something to mock the Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram or Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman sentenced to death for renouncing Islam and marrying a Christian man. Leisink is well aware of the hierarchies of sympathy in the Dutch media so he knows exactly who to ridicule and who to respect.
TIA: We have talked about the public opinion of undocumented people, how do you think this is related to broader debates on race and the media in the Netherlands?
Simone: With his drawing René Leisink perfectly captures the only way too many Dutch people, high on white privilege and the most anti-Black form of xenophobia, are able to discuss matters like racism and asylum laws. Here these topics demand sensationalism, dehumanisation and objectification. Also, whenever racism is discussed, the ground rule is that whiteness is the sole decider of what deserves our attention. Whiteness determines the difference between racism and humour, sensitivity and relevance, unfortunate incidents and systematic oppression. It prefers its own imagination over historical contexts and views racism as a game of quota in which one can earn the right to do or say something racist. Take Leisner. In one of his apologies he mentioned that he once housed a group of undocumented Armenians. By presenting this ‘proof’ of his okayness he’s basically stating that because of these ‘cool points’ he earned the luxury of being vile. Incidentally, of course, because the sleepover shows that he’s not always ‘like this’ and racism, of course, is something that only presents itself as a loud and steady sort of violence. The rest might qualify as poorly executed good fun but racism? Isn’t that the thing that carries around swastikas and nooses?
From René Leisink’s cartoons to the white tears staining the exhaustingly colonial reactions to “Afrika bestaat niet” (Africa doesn’t exist), Seada Nourhussen’s necessary article [in Dutch] about her fellow journalists’ problematic use of “African” as a generalising summary… from the Amsterdam-based debate centre De Rode Hoed hosting a debate titled “Can I call you Negro?” to fashion magazine Grazia calling Naomi Campbell’s afro a bird’s nest… the Netherlands clearly isn’t ready for the social, political and educational change it so desperately needs.
TIA: You have mobilised many people to complain to Metro about the cartoon, why is this form of community organising important?
Simone: It enriches our understandings and definitions of collective identities. With its extensive reach and the quickness with which it can get the word out, social media plays a crucial part in mobilising communities, amplifying our voices and reclaiming our narratives.
Please send your thoughts about the cartoon to the Metro editors at [email protected]