Thursday, November 20, 2014

Daniel Handler, Racist Jokes, and the Disclaimer

A few months ago I wrote a CNN piece about the use of disclaimers as a way to get around offensive humor.

My piece and subsequent blog was specifically on the context of  Down syndrome jokes and disability humor. I believed, though, that there's a broader language issue here. We say something terrible, we bracket with disclaimers, and we get away with propagating stereotypes.

Last night Jacqueline Woodson, who is African-American, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for the work, Brown Girl Dreaming. She thanked people for changing the world.


Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, then made a joke about watermelon.


Here's the video clip. And here's my transcript:
Woodson: Thank you for changing the world.

[music]

Handler: I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.

And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book.

And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morisson, and Barack Obama saying, "this guy's ok! This guy's fine!"

Alright

[cackle]

Alright, we'll talk about it later.
For Handler, the disclaimer and humor, the wink that he knows he's on dangerous ground, functions to excuse a joke linking to a long racist history of associating black people with watermelon. Handler is a smart guy (I went to college with him, but never really knew him), he knows this history, and he thinks that because of his disclaimer, this is funny.

It's not. Woodson can make that joke about herself. But for a powerful white author to make a watermelon joke when handing out an award to a black author, the message is - no matter what you write, no matter what you do, no matter what you accomplish, you will always be a BLACK author, not just an author.

That's not Handler's intention here, but that's the effect.

And it needs to be called out. It especially needs to be called out by all those other powerful white male authors that populate the internet, have tens or hundreds of thousands (or millions, for Gaiman, who was doing a book giveaway with Handler earlier in the day) of followers on Twitter.

And then Handler can apologize, say that it wasn't his intention to be offensive (which is what they always say) and everyone will just move on. But the apology is necessary. It's necessary to make a loud, public, statement that this type of discourse is unacceptable.

UPDATE - A Few tweets, including Handler's apology.

This was written by noted speculative fiction author Saladin Ahmed before the apology. But like me, he knew it was coming. And I'm glad it was coming. 

Update 11/21/14: Handler has reportedly given $10,000 to We Need Diverse Books and promised to match donations up to $100,000. This is a good mea culpa, as such things go, and I'm glad to see it.



18 comments:

Janice said...

That just makes me want to cry. Instead of celebrating a great achievement by a creative peer, he cracked a joke with objectified her and detracted from her achievement. Why? Why?

David Perry said...

My gut is - he knew it would get a nervous laugh and be edgy, hence the "blurbs from ..." comment.

Karen said...

And this by people committed to the power of language. A crying shame.

Sherry Marts said...

Janice - this kind of behavior is a way of reclaiming and restating white male privilege. Anytime a nonwhite/male/heterosexual/cisgendered person, it's a threat to white male status. I'm not saying he stood there consciously thinking, "Hmmm, this Black woman is getting an award. This is unacceptable. I must do something to take this uppity so-and-so down a few notches. I know, I'll make a joke about watermelon. That'll be brilliant!" It's unconscious and almost like a reflex. It is about maintaining his position in the tribe. This is why all of us who carry privilege (I'm white) and who care about the human beings around us have to learn to recognize our privilege and the ways we act it out, and work to minimize how much we do that acting out. The onus is on us to do this, it is not up to POC or others to educate us, we must take responsibility for educating ourselves. It's not easy and I don't know any person of privilege who does it perfectly all the time. It's just that most of us don't do it quite this publicly.

mclicious.org said...

Yet another white man feeling threatened by the loosening of white men's hold on the world.

misscriss said...

YES Sherry Marts! Very well said!

Sherry Marts said...

mclicious.org - You said it well, and with fewer words and fewer typos than I had. : )

Kaethe said...

Well, that was a dickish move.

Karen Sandler said...

This is beyond shameful, and he certainly needs to be called out. To reduce Jackie to a stereotype and a bad joke just makes me want to dump a pile of Lemony Snicket books on his head.

Michael Klein said...

How about Handler admitting he's a RACIST?? The apology is an excuse for being one without calling himself out.

"Orange Mike" Lowrey said...

"Edgy" so often translates to, "I'm a privileged white person pushing the envelope because it is safe for ME to do so; and that makes me hip".

Margot Knight said...

Orange Mike nailed it.

taralazar.com said...

Still trying to understand how humor was an appropriate follow-up to her acceptance speech in the first place. Offer congratulations, offer your thoughts on the book and its place in the literary cannon. ANYTHING but jokes. (And certainly not racist/sexist ones.) It's not the freakin' Oscars. It's the NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS, for people who are supposed to act better.

Sheila A said...


There is nothing cute or clever about his comment. It's an out and out putdown. His apology is useless and insincere. Nobody who uses racist jokes is truly sorry, or they never would have made the comment in the first place. Daniel Handler is as sour as a lemon.

Bill Reese said...

What "privilege" do u speak of. Does there even exist this so called privilege anymore in this day and age where everyone is now on common ground? You are mistaken, tis not a privilege anymore but now a curse--the white curse

Diana Glass said...

If Bill Reese thinks white privilege doesn't exist anymore, he should walk around any independent school, or any Wall Street office, or any...okay, pretty much anyplace.

Marsha Gomes said...

You know...I had to Google why this remark was racist. It amazes me how being black in another part of the world is so different from being black in America. Watermelon?? Go figure. Now that I understand the implication, it was surprisingly inappropriate.

David Perry said...

Bill - one warning. Fact based or I delete you. Be polite or I delete you. There will not be a second warning. Troll will be deleted.