Before anything else to do with the international politics of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest was overtaken by the likelihood that Eurovision 2019 will be held in Israel (with reverberations that will link the call for a cultural boycott of Israeli state-funded arts to the spectacle of Eurovision for the first time), the most unexpected – and unnecessary – collision between Eurovision and the history of colonialism came when some fans noticed during the first live rehearsals that the staging of the Dutch entry looked… at best, uncomfortable. And, at worst, downright racist.
Some of my most recent research is about stereotypes and fantasies of race, blackness and Africa in European popular music – the first chapter of my new book Race and the Yugoslav Region traces them through examples from Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav pop, and refers to the work of Gloria Wekker, a black feminist in the Netherlands who uses evidence from historical media alongside her own observations of racism in Dutch society to debunk myths of white Dutch ‘innocence’ about race.
When the Dutch song, Waylon’s ‘Outlaw in ‘Em’, unexpectedly qualified from the second semi-final on the Thursday night, I spent two hours writing a Twitter thread on why viewers had been finding the performance racist, to help explain why some of them had felt discomfort without necessarily knowing why, and so that users who wanted to call attention to how it looked on their own feeds didn’t have to make the argument from scratch.
(Parts, at least, of Eurovision’s many overlapping digital fandoms are no stranger to conversations about cultural appropriation on the Eurovision stage – including the Native American war bonnet worn by the Dutch representative Joan Franka in 2012, the East Asian visuals problematically surrounding this year’s winning song, and the dancing gorilla that joined Italian favourite Francesco Gabbani on stage in 2017, apparently as an allusion to ‘the naked ape’. Early reactions in the same circles to how the four black men around Waylon, a white Dutch country singer, had been asked to dance were suggesting its impression was a different order of unacceptable altogether.)
Dozens of people since then have tweeted me to explain why I was wrong.
- It isn’t automatically racist to have one white guy and four black guys on stage. (It isn’t, which is why, say, Swedish boy-band Panetoz, who have one white band-member and four black, haven’t made fans who notice racial representation on stage feel uncomfortable like this. But then their four black guys aren’t always arranged around their one white guy.)
- It’s demeaning to the dancers, who are showing off their talent. (Has anybody asked them? How freely do they feel they can speak about racism on Dutch TV, if they want producers to book them again?)
- Waylon thinks it suits the song, and the dancers think so too.
- The producers chose the most talented dancers. They didn’t think about race.
- I’m insulting Waylon.
- I don’t know what the intentions behind the act were, so I can’t comment. (I don’t know. I do know how it was looking to viewers who remarked on it, which kind of matters in a competition where 50% of the points come from an international public vote.)
- I don’t even know Waylon. (This is true.)
- Waylon is a very kind man to his fans. (That doesn’t prevent someone staging a racist show.)
- They don’t get angry easily, but it makes them angry when they read this nonsense. (It made me angry to be staying up two extra hours before I ought to catch an early morning train because nobody on the Dutch production team realised this looked racist. It would have made me angrier if I’d been a black viewer getting the message that Eurovision didn’t care whether the party includes me or not.)
- I’m the one who’s creating the problem, by talking about it. (I feel like I know that one.)
- Waylon is half-Indonesian, so this isn’t a white guy with black dancers like I said. (I didn’t know anything about his family background when I wrote the thread, describing the impression Waylon’s placement on stage makes as a white man. But in a contest where family heritage is often part of the narratives that contestants give to try and connect with the public, that part of Waylon’s background hadn’t reached me (we heard much more about his love of country music and the US country singers like Johnny Cash who had inspired him). Most viewers who didn’t already know him well as a singer would also be perceiving him as a white man. And we can still say, via the history of images of race, that a performance where he seems to be in control over four black men identifies him with images of whiteness. Also, anti-black racism expressed by other people of colour is a thing.)
- Waylon is half-Indonesian, therefore he can’t be racist. (The same; also, anti-black racism expressed by other people of colour is a thing.)
- I’m taking the song out of context: it’s about standing up for yourself (‘When they knock you to the ground, you ain’t gonna let nobody keep you down’). (The viewer hasn’t heard that when they see a bare-chested black man seem to lash out at the camera, the very moment they hear ‘knock you to the ground’.)
- I obviously didn’t listen to the lyrics. (Obviously.)
- The dancers are krumping because young people on the krumping scene use those moves to transform violence into dance.
- If you don’t like it, don’t vote for it. (I didn’t.)
- It’s four handsome black guys, spicing up a dull performance. (Do you really want to bring up the racial politics of spice now? Because we can if you want.)
- It’s a shame I’m bringing up their skin colour, not how well they can dance.
- Americans and Europeans aren’t the ones enslaving male African refugees in Libya. (Somehow, this is meant to have something to do with Europeans designing a dance routine that calls to mind racist stereotypes of black men.)
- Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet don’t come at Christmas like I said, they come on the 5th of December. (OK, I had said ‘every Christmas’ there are protests in the Netherlands over the blackface of Zwarte Piet. The date is the least important thing in that sentence, I’d suggest.)
- Zwarte Piet gets his black face from coming down the chimney to deliver presents, not because he’s meant to represent black people. (Here we go.)
- The people calling Waylon a racist are the ones seeing colour.
- I’m seeing racist things where there aren’t any.
- Waylon wanted the best krump dancers, and they happened to be black.
- If Waylon was black and the dancers were white, would I still be saying he was a racist?
- Waylon wanted to be multicultural.
- I shouldn’t be commenting because the UK has only ever sent white acts. (Not true, though the last UK featured act at Eurovision with a black band-member was in 2011 and its last non-white soloist was 2009.)
- Finding racism in every little thing is more racist than that.
- It’s a shame that I’m a lecturer.
- I ought to get therapy.
- It’s a shame that I’m a lecturer and not responding to the people who have calmly taken their time to inform me of all of the above.
- A lot of quote-tweets in Dutch, which might have made their authors feel better, but didn’t make whatever they wanted to call me have much effect on me because I can’t read them. (That doesn’t mean I ought to get a free pass to make comments about the cultures of countries where I don’t speak the languages. Far from it – I need to be even more sure that I’m right before I speak, not less. But I was rather grateful that I couldn’t read them.)
I was cheered by this picture of a talking gammon.
I was also cheered by the number of tweets I got from people who did find the performance uncomfortable and hadn’t been sure why, or who had enjoyed the song but changed their mind after reading more about the context.
Especially those second people, who were open to seeing something they liked from a more critical perspective even in something they love as much as Eurovision, where fans identify so much with their favourite songs! YOU ROCK. Loreen, or your Eurovision patron of choice, would be proud.
Things people on the internet have not said to me for explaining why the staging of the Dutch Eurovision entry look racist:
- [Racial slur.]
- Go back to your own country.
- [Another racial slur.]
- Any words the BBC wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast before 9 pm.
- [Racial slur.]
- [The same racial slur again.]
- [Racial slur mixed with homophobic remark.]
- Any of the bile that historians like Priyamvada Gopal get through the post.
- Any of the death threats that black academics who speak out about race have been getting.
This is because I am not a woman of colour speaking up about the racism that blights her life.