Daniel Handler, also known as author Lemony Snicket, came under fire recently for some racially insensitive comments. Unlike other people who have made similar missteps, Handler did not rush to defend himself. Instead, he graciously apologized. He had the humility to admit that he was in the wrong.
As the host of 2014’s National Book Awards, Handler was tasked with introducing the award recipients. While presenting the Young People’s Literature Award to Jacqueline Woodson, he made the seemingly lighthearted comments that resulted in the ensuing scrutiny. Woodson, a black author, had previously spoken about the impact of racial stereotypes on her personal sense of self. She mentioned how absurd she finds the pervasive images of black people eating watermelon, since she is allergic to it; this supposedly quintessential aspect of the black American identity is completely irrelevant to her actual experiences as a black woman. She was using that example of a stereotype to make a larger point about how white Americans simply refuse to let go of their prejudices and how she dealt with feeling forced to absorb those preconceived notions even though they have absolutely nothing to do with her as a human being. Woodson is clearly a gifted thinker and writer worthy of her award.
Handler reduced all of this nuance and deep introspection to a context-free announcement that Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Though it is easy to see how a white man would find this amusing, it was still a tasteless thing to say. He was criticized for minimizing a triumphant moment in Woodson’s life and for making light of a significant moment of visibility for black women.
What happened next surprised everyone. He accepted the blame for what he said without justifying it or making excuses. He acted like an adult by acknowledging that he still has a lot to learn. He willingly attached the “racist” label to his statements, something that is very rarely done in public apologies. He even donated $10,000 the We Need Diverse Books campaign and pledged to match other people’s donations up to $100,000. It showed incredible good will and strength of character to not only admit that he was wrong, but to use his apology as a platform for real action. He then did what he should have done from the beginning: he turned the proverbial microphone over to Jacqueline Woodson and encouraged the public to read her wonderful work.