Like pretty much everyone watching Handler’s remarks, I winced asthe words left his mouth, and my first thought was, There, but for me, go I. Because I have been steeped in —isms from birth, as have we all. I’ve laughed at racist/sexist/ablest/homophobic jokes; I’ve made assumptions about strangers based only on their physical appearance; I’ve patted myself on the back for accomplishments that are mostly or entirely the result of being white, male, heterosexual, and physically unimpaired; I’ve discounted the feelings of those whose life experience I do not fully comprehend.
I cringe to remember insensitive jokes and remarks I made forty or thirty or twenty or ten years ago. Or last month. I hope I get better every day—I try. Life is a constant struggle to overcome our preconceptions and prejudices. All of us fail at times, as did Daniel Handler last Wednesday evening.
And he knew it, in the moment. You can see it on his face. In that ten seconds he went from one of the highlights of his career—hosting the National Book Awards—to his greatest professional embarrassment. It is agonizing to watch, both for Handler and for Jackie Woodson. I feel bad for both of them.
But Daniel Handler is a smart guy. He knows he screwed up, and he has taken steps to make things better. No backpedaling, no justification, just a straight-up mea culpa, an admission that his comments were racist, and a penance in the form of cold hard cash. I am not big a fan of Handler’s brash, self-consciously clever public persona, but I think he’s sincere this time, and he has done what he can to make things right. I bet Jackie Woodson appreciates his effort, and so do I.
The happy outcome of all this is that We Need DiverseBooks has raised far in excess of $100,000 (plus the extra $100,000 promised by Handler), Jacqueline Woodson’s extraordinary novel Brown Girl Dreaming is being read by people who might not otherwise have heard of it, and Daniel Handler has been handed a life lesson of incalculable value—I hope.