How Daniel Handler's Racism Overshadowed The National Book Awards

This is what happens in a white-dominated publishing world that gives lip service to diversity and then hires a white guy to host the most prestigious awards ceremony in the industry.
Publish date:
November 20, 2014
racism, casual racism, racism in literature

Book fans in the audience may have heard of the National Book Award -- it's kind of a big deal, like, the biggest deal in the publishing industry. There's a reason those little gold medals on the front of books are coveted; it's not just about the sales numbers, but about the community recognition.

So, like the Oscars and other major awards ceremonies, the event hosted to showcase the winners is also a pretty big deal. This year's event was hosted by Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, aka, apparently, Giant Racist.

You may have heard about his racist behavior at the National Book Awards via Twitter this morning, where a lot of people were talking about it, but it raised some complicated issues, too. As is often the case with diversity in publishing, the majority of the voices speaking were people of color, with white people either ignoring the issue or saying they wanted to stay quiet to be "respectful" to the voices of people of color -- even though writers like Daniel Jose Older and Saeed Jones were asking white folks to step up.

There's a difficult line to walk as a prominent white person in publishing, journalism, or any other industry. There's a long history of white people appropriating, talking over, or, case may be, ignoring the words of people of color. As a white person myself, I tend to be careful about when and how I comment on race issues; not because I'm afraid of the mythical mob of people of color that will attack me, but because I don't want to distract from the voices of people directly harmed by racism. White voices tend to drown out people of color, as a function of the racist institutions we operate in.

It's a hard line to weigh, sometimes. Sometimes you need to be sit down, be quiet, and listen. Other times, you need to talk. As someone who experiences both power and oppression, it's something I consider on nearly a daily basis -- and I don't necessarily get it spot-on any more than anyone else does. Hint: When someone is talking about experiences, listen. When someone from a community is providing information on how to work in solidarity, listen. When a fellow member of your privileged class is behaving unacceptably, speak.

Operating in solidarity means that you can't just ignore racism, and staying silent on it is ignoring it, especially in the face of calls from the community we claim to work in solidarity with. Speaking up about racism in publishing has been a theme this year, with #WeNeedDiverseBooks going global, but it's telling that the industry itself has given only lip service to the concept; the single panel on it at the American Expo America, the industry conference, was pretty pathetic.

Other diversity panels have fallen short in a number of ways, like being staffed primarily by white people (who don't represent other minority identities like disability or queerness), for example. Speaking out about the lack of diversity can be viewed as being "difficult," which is why some people are afraid to speak up, but I say fuck that.

Guess what: Those risks and consequences are bigger for minorities in the industry. I'm going to be difficult. Publishing is racist. (And that's not the only problem with it; check out the representations of disabled people, of LGBQT people, of non-Christian people...)

What happened last night, when Daniel Handler hosted the National Book Awards, was unacceptable, and also completely avoidable. Handler could have chosen not to make racist jokes. A person of color could have hosted, which would have been a striking statement about the industry's commitment to diversity -- put your money where your mouth is, publishing, and make a place for people of color that's not about "tolerance" but instead "full inclusion."

Handler's behavior would have been appalling on the basis of one racist joke, but he actually made three.

1. The watermelon joke

This is the one that's really making the rounds this morning, because it's so egregious. Jacqueline Woodson, an amazing writer, picked up an award for "Brown Girl Dreaming." Oh, wait: Not just an award. The 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Handler decided to celebrate this by making a watermelon joke, because, hah hah, get it, Black woman, watermelon!

I told you -- I told Jackie she was gonna win, and I, uh, said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her 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. She said, YOU put it in a book. And I said, I'm only writing a book about a black girl that's allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama saying "This guy's okay, this guy's fine." [Laughs] Alright, we'll talk about it later.

"Let that sink in your mind." Sure am, Daniel. I sure am. So did attendees, apparently, because the scattering of nervous laughter betrayed a deep discomfort with what he had just done. The layers of racism going on are truly astounding here, as are the "well, they're friends" thing. Did he really pull a "my Black friend" argument?

2. The poetry joke

Not one but two Black nominees -- Claudia Rankine and Fred Moten -- were longlisted for National Book Awards in poetry. Pretty revolutionary for the publishing industry, and definitely worth a remark. Here was Handler's:

Handler referred to the two black nominees in the poetry category as “probable cause.” Yikes. You can argue it’s satire, and it likely was its intention, but at the National Book Awards, which is a highlight for many authors’ careers? Not just poor taste, but extremely disrespectful.

I'm sorry, what. Because it's so funny to joke about Black people and probable cause, given the generally racialized problems with the US justice system but especially with the country on edge waiting for the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury deliberations. But sure, let's turn racial profiling into a joke! I'm totally laughing over here.

3. The Coretta Scott King Award

For those not familiar with the ins and outs of children's fiction, the Coretta Scott King Award is given to "outstanding African American authors and illustrators" of kids books. It's a big deal in terms of national awards in general, but also in terms of recognition for diverse writers and books; in other words, exactly the kind of thing we want to be encouraging if we care about diversity in literature, and especially children's literature.

To Daniel Handler, apparently it's a joke.

Handler introduce[d] Sharon Draper, another award-winning black author, by mentioning that she's won the Coretta Scott King Award -- 'a prize I hope to one day receive myself. That's a children's publishing joke. We'll explain it to you later.'

So, that's nice. Because, you know, white people should get all the toys.

This isn't just about "some awards ceremony" or even "some white guy." It's about a systemic problem in publishing: People of color are underrepresented in the industry, they have to fight racism on a daily basis, and they experience racism and humiliation at public events like this one. Handler may have apologized after public pressure, but he doesn't really seem to understand why what he did was wrong.

Note a word that doesn't come up in those apologies? "Race" or "racism" or "racist." Handler's not owning what he was doing, and he's not owning the problem with his jokes; it's not that his jokes were in poor taste. It's that they were racist, and that they overshadowed the accomplishments of the writers of color attending the event.

Join me in being difficult. Support people of color in publishing. When you see something, say something. While you're at it, buy books by diverse authors. If you're pissed about what happened last night, say something about it, and then go pick up a copy, or two, of "Brown Girl Dreaming," and works by people of color listed as National Book Award finalists.

And then go watch Ursula LeGuin's amazing speech, which, along with the amazing accomplishments of the National Book Award winners, was completely marred by Handler's casual racism.