Friday, November 21, 2014

Why I Can’t “Get a Sense of Humor” about Racist Jokes

by Linda Rodriguez

UPDATE: Handler has come out with a real apology that acknowledges the racist content of his remarks and is now matching the next $10,000 donated to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks fundraiser.

I congratulate him on actually dealing with what he did.

Wednesday night, the National Book Awards took place, and a multiple-New-York-Times bestseller and hugely successful white male author of children’s books, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), was the host. During the course of the night, he made several racist jokes, including bemoaning the fact that he hadn’t won a Coretta Scott King Award (for African American children’s book writers or children’s literature showcasing African American life--both categories together make up less than 3% of the field), calling two African American nominees for the award in poetry “probable cause,” and topping off his whole night of micro-aggressions with a major watermelon joke directed at African American writer, Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the award in children’s literature.

Here’s the entire event on C-Span. You’ll find the watermelon joke just after the 40-minute mark.

The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, and a number of other mainstream news outlets covered the awards the next morning and complimented Handler’s performance as emcee without ever mentioning any of these remarks. Just as the overwhelmingly affluent white audience laughed and applauded.

Not surprisingly, people of color and white people of good conscience were upset by Handler’s behavior at one of the most prestigious book award ceremonies in the United States. Articles and blogs were written. Twitter came alive over it. Finally, Handler apologized on Twitter with the usual non-apology—“my failed attempt at humor.” People rightly asked, “In what world are these things supposed to be funny?”

Then, the defenders came out. Online comment after comment after tweet after Facebook post after blog post of “What’s the big deal?”, “race-baiting,” “Get a sense of humor.” I’m used to them. We all are. Every time someone wealthy, famous, and white (and usually male) says or does something racist or misogynist, the defenders come out in force with these same comments. The comments include many that are much worse and sometimes downright foul, but I won’t detail those here because they’re from real trolls, while I think the comments I have listed are sometimes, at least, from people who genuinely don’t see or understand the racist or misogynistic content of the controversial remarks.

People try to explain why these remarks are a problem. I know I have many times. Usually without success. Perhaps it will help if I spell it out this time, looking at the watermelon joke, which caused the most uproar because Handler dragged it out for several minutes and included Cornel West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama. Woodson is a gifted young writer who has twice before been a finalist for this ultimate award. Winning it should have been a pinnacle point for her entire career. At that moment, this wealthy, successful, white male writer in her own specific field (children’s literature) reminded her publicly that, no matter how much she achieved, she would always be Other and lesser in his and everyone else’s eyes.

When you face these kinds of insults and injuries in little and big ways every day—even if the people who say or do them are truly unaware of the offense (and let’s be honest, they usually know quite well)—it takes a toll on you. Then, if you object, if you try to say, “This is wrong,” others who share the offender’s views tell you not to take it so seriously—“Get a sense of humor.”

I want to turn that back on them. To all those people who think it’s funny to insult and stereotype people of other backgrounds and genders, you get a sense of humor. Learn what’s really funny and not just cruel and embarrassing and referencing for fun traumas that have been inflicted on whole peoples. Grow some intelligence and wit, instead of making watermelon jokes when someone wins one of the highest awards in the American literary world.

REPLIES TO COMMENTS (because Blogger hates me):

Thanks, Pam. Aren't you getting tired of these idiotic things, too? 

Mary, when they call me 'humorless,' I just ask them how something like this can be called humor.

Yes, Kay, it was very belittling. And one would hope that we were further advanced than that by now. Unfortunately, not.


  1. Well said, Linda, well said.

  2. Yes! This so-called humor is just another form of attack. It really is everyone's job to stand up to offensive behavior . . . quietly tolerating it just allows it to spread. My brothers learned to avoid racist humor around me. They may have called me humorless, or worse, in private, but they spared me having to hear garbage . . .

  3. A watermelon joke in this day and age? Shocking...and mean...and belittling. I'm glad Handler got called on it. At the least he is harboring subconscious anger.

  4. I am really surprised at the stupidity of people. My big family represents many races and I don't want any of my grandkids or greatgrands being hurt by stupid racists jokes. Frankly, that isn't humor. Good post, Linda.