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.
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, 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.
…and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry. -DH [2/2]
— Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 20, 2014
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.
I’m tired of the racist joke-pillory-apology pantomime. Rather just see people give money and jobs to people of color.
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) November 20, 2014
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.