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Being a White Guy in Children’s Books

BadBeginningDon’t get me wrong. White guys working in children’s books have it good. In fact, it would be fair to say we have it pretty much made. But in the wake of host Daniel Handler’s remarks at Wednesday’s National Book Awards, I find myself thinking about the privileged but peculiar position white guys have in this field. (Some of what I have to say applies to the non-white guys, too, but I am not going to generalize that far.)

I wasn’t at the event and can’t bring myself to watch the video because I know it would have me writhing in empathetic embarrassment. So all of my information is from the transcript and subsequent internet outrage. And what I’m left with—even more than my happiness at Jackie Woodson’s win—is how sorry I feel for Handler, and how easily I could have fallen into the same trap. (I confess to some impatience with all the talk of him stealing Her Moment because Woodson is getting a way longer moment than any children’s National Book Award winner has ever gotten before. Quickly, who won last year?)

The main thing about being a white guy in children’s books is that you get a lot more attention—not to mention Caldecott Medals!—than you would otherwise, and than is really good for you. Award committees want you as a member. Conferences want you to speak. People look to you for a “male point of view”—especially when they are seeking to solve the perennial problem of The Boy Reader, attention to whose needs getting far more ink than the needs of his sister. If you’re good-looking—and here I speak from observation—you are really set. Molly Ivins would have said that you were born on third base, and, professionally speaking, she would have been right.

It’s a nice life that’s easy to get used to. But as Handler learned, it can bite you in the ass. There he was in the spotlight, doing what he’s been amply rewarded for doing for years, and he overreached. He was trying to show us that he was as cool as we’ve long been saying he was: I am so cool I can get away with a racist-not-racist watermelon joke. He couldn’t, and I’m sorry there was no one to tell him he wouldn’t. Or maybe he didn’t think to ask? It’s the least a guy can do.

[Edited 11/26/14 to add: I see this is still making the rounds on Twitter, so I just wanted to make clear that I have since realized how stupid it was (as I posted in the comments on Monday). See also yesterday’s entry, “Some People Smarter than I.]

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. I think there’s another cautionary tale in all of this, and one that applies to all of us: Beware of misconstruing a warm, private exchange with one other person — in which the only observers are the participants themselves — as a license to turn that private exchange into public speech observed and interpreted and judged by uncounted others.

    I get the temptation. I really do. Sometimes I succumb to it myself, and though my sharing happens on a much smaller scale than the National Book Awards, there’s still a danger there. Sometimes it’s best to just keep that private moment private and come up with something new to say when you bring others into the conversation.

  2. Cynthia Kadohata. Will Alexander before that, Thanhha Lai before that. I hope we can grant all these winners more than 24 hours of a moment–as well as the children’s literature luminary who just won the award two days ago. This post seems to imply that there is something exceptional about the fact that we still care about her book 48 hours later, and everyone raising the issue should just be grateful.

    This seems like a really good instance when, if we don’t see why something like this does step on someone’s moment, to listen to the people who are explaining it so cogently. Here is Nikky Finney:

    This is also excellent:

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Since I’m in blunt mode I might as well say that the Finney essay makes me want to scream, and not in a righteous way. It feels to me like she is hijacking the moment for her own self-glorification every bit as much as Handler was.

  4. But, Roger, if you were to watch the video, who would you experience “empathetic embarrassment” for? For him, or for Jacqueline Woodson? The rest of your post seems to point to the former, while personally, I feel something else. I feel for Ms. Woodson, having to gracefully deal with this horrible, sticky situation when it has nothing to do with her book, it has nothing to do with her achievement.

    Sure, you can feel embarrassed for him (I do, and I’m sure he does too). But what’s the point of using this (well-respected, widely-read, usually thoughtful) forum to come to the defense of someone who uses their voice to make light of our racist culture? Why not, instead, voice your support of person who was harmed?

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yes, I meant embarrassment for him. But if you think I was defending him, you haven’t read this post very carefully.

  6. Disagree with you on the Finney essay. I don’t see anything self-glorifying about it. She’s a past winner of an NBA giving a personal reaction to racist comments a current NBA winner had to endure. And since the NBA hasn’t bothered to comment, she felt she needed to.

    I’m glad that Handler apologized and then put his money where his mouth is by donating to the We Need Diverse Campaign. But if we’re going to be embarrassed by anything, shouldn’t we be embarrassed that the book community keeps glorifying white guys in the way it does?

  7. The moment is obviously about Jacqueline Woodson more than anyone else, but it’s also about everyone who witnessed or learned about Handler’s enraging words, and everyone who’s following or participating in the ensuing conversation. Every defender of the status quo and active opponent of diversity was bolstered by those racist jokes. Every person of color who’s experienced a lifetime of being told that their race is both the only important thing about them and the thing that makes them something other than human felt the impact of the racist jokes, an impact which landed on top of the countless other times they’ve heard similar things. Every author who’s not a white man was reminded that someone out there will always be willing to devalue their talents and achievements, and that it doesn’t matter what the context is. It can happen in a deserted hallway of an otherwise empty building with no witnesses, but it can also happen in front of the brightest lights, biggest personalities, and most influential movers-and-shakers an industry has to offer. It can happen during one’s greatest moment of triumph. That’s why the swift, enraged response was so important, and so necessary: it was an unmistakable declaration that WE WILL NOT LET THIS KEEP HAPPENING.

    It doesn’t really seem like this post is defending Mr. Handler, to be fair – there seems to be some irony and other semantic prestidigitation going on. But it is fairly easy to interpret it as such. I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Sutton, which probably doesn’t mean a whole lot, but eh, I’m gonna flatter myself by believing it’s not totally meaningless. I have no doubt you could inadvertently stumble into such a situation by mistakenly believing you have latitude where none exists. I have no doubt that I could stumble that way too, in other contexts. This was a bad one, though. An egregious case. Like you, I’m sorry he didn’t have anyone tell him before the event that he was about to do a miserably hurtful and destructive thing, but I’m not sorry that people are telling him now. Not at all.

  8. Justin Chanda says:

    Roger. Respectfully, I have to disagree with you here. And perhaps I should add that I am saying this from the aforementioned “white guy in publishing’s perspective.” Embarrassment for Handler makes sense. Because it is embarassing to watch someone be so ignorant so publicly.

    But feeling sorry for the guy? There’s literally no way I can wrap my head around that statement being thought, much less written down in this way.

    I am glad he apologized and I do think his actions to try to make ammends are admirable and true. But feel sorry for him? How could I? How could any of us? He embarrassed himself and the industry. No other way to say it.

  9. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Mike, I really like what you say about “inadvertently stumbling into such a situation by believing you have latitude where none exists.” I think that’s a big part of what happened. And I don’t have a problem with the public shaming. But I’m having trouble seeing Handler’s remarks as emblematic of the status quo in children’s books. Is anyone defending them?

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I find writing like “I was born into this violent and strange Black people and watermelon world. I grew up hearing and seeing watermelons, not as ruby sweet fruit, but as strange fruit slung into my face and hanging from trees as accompanying racist representation of Black people and the cutting emotional and physical violence that stalked us two hundred years ago and keeps stalking to this day” overheated.

  11. No, I don’t see anyone publicly defending him, and I doubt that I will, unless I go looking for it. I suspect there are people inside the publishing industry who think the reaction is overblown, but of course I have no idea if I’m right, or who those people might be. If there ARE any, I suspect they’ll keep those thoughts to themselves. I was thinking more about people outside of the industry – I’m far from the most prominent member of We Need Diverse Books, but I’ve heard my share of dismissal or denunciation of work relating to the diversity gap, and the organization as a whole has seen more than I have.

    Now, it’s entirely possible Handler’s comments AREN’T emblematic of the status quo among people in the industry. The numbers from the studies done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and individuals like Malinda Lo don’t lead me to think I’m wrong about the status quo, but of course those numbers are centered on publishing statistics, not instances of racist speech, and maybe we have entered a period of real, significant change, all the way down to the level of day-to-day decisionmaking by industry professionals. The huge, angry response to Handler’s remarks is hard to describe as a good thing – it’s hard to describe any of this as good – but if it’s a sign that the status quo is shifting, well, I would applaud that. It’s what a lot of people want. The fact that this incident happened at all is a sign that we still have a long way to go, however.

  12. Wait. So you’re using this forum to discuss your reaction as a fellow white man working in the industry (including being left feeling most sorry for Handler, out of identification and empathy. Nothing was taken away from Woodson– look, she’s gotten attention.) Yet, Finney writing about her reaction as a black woman writer is “highjacking the moment for her own self- glorification.” Honestly, one of the most glaring aspects of this entire thing has been the difficulty many white people– yes, particularly white men– have with the notion that not everything is about our experiences.

  13. Jordan Brown says:

    Perhaps you’re not defending Handler, Mr. Sutton, but the question I’m left with is: why? What’s the purpose of this post? You say that you feel more sympathy for Handler than happiness for Woodson. Whether or not that’s true, do you really think that’s an appropriate response at this important moment? I’m a bit baffled and upset right now, that someone would think that what this debate needs is the assertion that the real winner when racist comments are made in public is the person of color, and the victim (or, as you say, the one deserving of sympathy) is the rich white man who made the racist comments.

    Like you, I am a white man in publishing. Like you, I often fear my privilege will doom me at a key moment, that I will make a mistake along these lines, because my sense of empathy will always be a work in progress. At these times, I have to remind myself that often the best thing to do is not to talk, but to listen. I thought about this in the aftermath of Handler’s comments. And I’m thinking about the same thing reading your post as well.

  14. I do feel sorry for him, because I can imagine the enormous shame he’s feeling now. I was completely stunned by his racist remarks and couldn’t believe they came from the same person who wrote so thoughtfully about inequality:

    I was shocked and horrified not just that anyone would think to say the things he said (and, worse, someone representing US, the children’s books community), but that it came from somebody who had always seemed decent and intelligent. He’s going to have to live with this forever, and I’m guessing he’s feeling it very painfully.

  15. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    It’s not THAT she wrote about the moment, it’s HOW she wrote about it–see the quote above. (I really don’t understand how the comments appear on this platform, sorry.)

  16. There is, too, something inherently problematic about implying that someone from a marginalized group who speaks up about prejudice is doing it for self-promotion, when that accusation is so often used in these situations to silence and discredit. And I’m certainly not saying that’s what is happening in this case, but there is a lot of baggage when a powerful white man publicly says that a black woman talking about the racist words of another powerful white man is doing it for self-promotion.

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Jordan, I don’t see where you get my declaring Handler ‘the real winner” from this post.

  18. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sorry, Jordan, I had that backwards. What i meant to say was that I don’t see where you get my declaring Handler the *victim* from this post. We can’t have empathy for the transgressor?

  19. I don’t know that being a white man in children’s books is any different from being a white man in the world at large. It’s almost always an unearned advantage in every way you can imagine. And for people who have spent their lives trying to prove their equality only to be paid less, respected less, and ignored more, empathy isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind.

    Empathy is not a bad impulse, of course. And Daniel Handler has been a good advocate for independent bookstores. But money and power do tend to insulate people from the sharp edges of reality in strange and terrible ways. Anyone with any sense would have come up with better material. It’s just so shocking.

  20. Also, if Finney’s language is heated, so what? I have a problem with the idea that people who have experienced racism — or sexism or whatever ism — always need to be subtle in their reactions:. Outrage — visceral, personal, heated — is a reasonable response to something as unsubtle and demeaning as a watermelon joke.

  21. Teddy Kokoros says:

    I don’t see how what Finney wrote is in any way shape or form similar to what Handler did. It is important to note, Finney’s post was written on her own website while Handler told a racist joke that diverted attention away from Woodson’s win while on stage at the event she was being honored at. Second, of course Finney is going to be “heated” in her writing. She is discussing her experiences with racism. It would not difficult not to be “heated” while writing about that. Calling it “overheated” seems to imply that her thoughts and feelings on the subject are not valid.

  22. Jordan Brown says:

    We can have empathy for anyone, I suppose. But you didn’t say empathy – you said sympathy (“I feel sorry”, not “I see and identify”), and demonstrated your own as a model for how we all perhaps ought to think. I’m just not entirely sure that’s what the debate needs right now–the assertion that we should be more sorry for Handler than we are happy for Woodson (and if that’s not what you’re saying, why use your platform? That’s where my question came from). It sounds like derailment to me, to be honest. Inadvertent, perhaps, but derailment nonetheless.

  23. Chris Buttimer says:

    “Overheated”?!!! Have you read none of the anti-racist, anti-oppressive literature about how White men belittle and discredit the opinions — sometimes full of righteous indignation — of women and/or people of Color by using words like “emotional”, “oversensitive”, and, here, “overheated”? I can’t believe you compared Finney’s beautiful, heartbreaking piece about being a Black woman in the writing industry and in America to what Handler said, while making the ridiculous and offensive claim that they were an attempt at self-glorification. That is truly indefensible and, like Handler, you owe an apology — to Ms. Finney and to your readers. I found your original post borderline offensive (nothing “bit [Hander] in the ass” — he bit himself in the ass by choosing to make racist jokes; and if moments can’t be had and hijacked at awards shows, why does your organization have one every year? but lucky Jacqueline Woodson, in your opinion, for having a “way longer moment” thanks to her being the target of a racist monologue; finally, Handler’s words were *racist* — there was nothing “racist-not-racist” about it). But your replies in the comments section are even worse and have proved to be a second example in the last 48 hours of a White man who shouldn’t have opened his mouth.

  24. Since this comment also addresses my point above, I want to add that this baggage includes critique of the method over the message–quite literally it’s-not-what-she-said-but-how-she-said it. This kind of critique pats the message on the head while implying the speaker has still transgressed–in this case, through a profluence of poetry. Since Finney is a poet, this seems a rather natural way for her to write about something that affects her profoundly. But even if the medium isn’t your style, it seems that the message important enough not to publicly dismiss. Again, I do not imagine this is anyone’s intention, but these critiques do carry a great deal of baggage.

  25. Christine Heppermann says:

    I think Jordan was saying you declared it an even bigger win for Jackie because she is, in your words, “getting a way longer moment…” And I have to agree with Jordan, that’s some pretty twisted logic.

  26. She’s a past winner of the National Book Award for poetry. That her writing style isn’t really your thing… frankly, feeling the need to share that here in this context feels condescending. I don’t understand why having the humility to step back and just listen seems to be so difficult for many with power. But it’s a problem that has effects on our whole industry.

  27. But wait a second, Roger. I’m trying to figure out what the “trap” was/is.

    I keep reading what you said and thinking that the ‘trap” is a bad word choice.

    Do you mean uttering racist remarks? What was it you said not long ago about circling the wagons and the wild west?

  28. Allie Jane Bruce says:

    Roger, I truly appreciate the way you examine your privilege as a white man in this industry and delineate the ways you directly benefit from it.

    Yet for all that naming of your privilege, you fail to do the same for Handler. You in fact paint it as if he were the victim, and you imply that his white male privilege put him on the path to that victimhood.

    You say he “fell into a trap”. No, he didn’t; there was no trap.
    You say it “bit him in the ass”. No, “it” didn’t; he bit himself.
    You say he did it because “we’ve been telling him he’s cool.” No, he did it because he was surprised and delighted that a Black person is allergic to watermelon, and his hope of getting a laugh outweighed his concern at perpetuating a dehumanizing stereotype.

    White men need to name their privilege more, but they also need to explicitly name the damage done by racism. Why did you not name that by associating Woodson with a reductive stereotype, Handler belittled her enormous talents and accomplishments?

    In framing the whole thing as a joke and offering to “talk about it later”, Handler used his privilege to perpetuate, rather than fight, racism. You examine your own privilege quite nicely. Why not examine his?

    NB #1 – Daniel Handler has apologized and is taking action to make things better. He has, in fact, utilized his privilege and power today, to mobilize donations to We Need Diverse Books, and I give him credit for that. My remarks above are solely about RS’s interpretation of the events of last night.

    NB #2 – My opinions are mine alone. I am not speaking on behalf of any of the organizations I work or volunteer for.

  29. Tatum Flynn says:

    I’m sorry, your primary reaction ‘is how sorry I feel for Handler, and how easily I could have fallen into the same trap’ and ‘impatience with all the talk of him stealing Her Moment’? A person has had one of the best days of their lives tainted by racism and you’re IMPATIENT about it and more sorry for the person who said the racist thing? (And btw I do believe Handler is sorry, and am glad to see him attempting to make amends.)

    And then you accuse a WOC of responding in an ‘overheated’ way and seeking to self-promote? I’m white, and I would *never* seek to police people’s reactions to a thing I have never in my life experienced, never mind lived with day in day out.

    As someone in the books world, I’d think you might know this quote:

    ‘First of all,’ he said, ‘If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-‘
    ‘-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

  30. Roger, I am truly disgusted with this article and agree with all of the comments that are challenging you.

    This article is an example of how many people with white privilege will unite with other white people in the face of racist jokes and comments. It translates roughly to read, “Oh man, White Guy! I’m another White Guy! You got caught being racist. That could have been me! Here, let me help you with that. I have an idea: I’ll use my energy and platform to talk about how rough it must be for you White Guy, instead of using my power, privilege and platform to address the racist comments that you made that changed what should have been a moment celebrating the brilliance and work of a black woman’s art and genius into a situation that slammed reminders of anti-blackness and the real pain associated with it all over the room/internet/world. I’ll focus on the empathetic embarrassment I would feel if I could bring myself to watch the video. That way people will feel bad for you and we can both just sweep this under the carpet ASAP.”

    Additionally, what you’ve said in your comments about Ms. Finney’s piece is completely racist. It is part of the “angry black woman” narrative which goes something like this: White supremacy stands on the throat of black women, in this instance, but if they resist, critique or do anything more than just be silent and take it, then it is…what was your word again? “Overheated”.

    Handler’s comments were yet another example of how, often when a black woman is perceived as “winning”, some white person will swoop in with racist comments. And this functions as a reminder of who has power to take away or ruin or just generally put a huge and systemic oppression-based damper on what should be a celebration of her work.

    You have the privilege, and have exercised it, to guard yourself from watching the racism that happened at the ceremony. And for what? What you’ve written here implies that as a white man, seeing a white man say racist comments is just too much for you to handle. You have the privilege to do that. Part of addressing racism has to do with confronting it. Seeing it. Seeing how it relates to you and to the people in your community. It has nothing to do with trying to fan a narrative of “Daniel must feel *soooo* bad. I mean, I feel bad for him- it could have been me.”

    It is sad to think that a white man like yourself has a choice to address racism head on, but instead chooses to cover his eyes and flush himself down a toilet of commiseration with racist behavior.

    But that’s the thing about white privilege: You get to make that choice.

  31. To acknowledge privilege is a fairly rare accomplishment. It’s usually followed by feelings of dismay. Guilt even. Not complacency. Privilege can “bite you in the ass”? Not nearly as much as marginalization can.

    I don”t have any trouble remembering who won last year. Maybe she should have been asked to moderate this year. Ah well. Hindsight is 20/20.

    What happened this week was that a writer who’d worked for years finally had a moment of glory… in which she was unexpectedly assaulted by racism. Her moment was stolen. And then a story that should have been about her and her book became about him and his behavior. Then, just as the kid lit world remembered that and sought to correct it… he apologized nicely (good) and made a huge donation (good) and the story once more became all about him. (Not good.)

    Acknowledging that the kid lit world is steeped in white male privilege is an important step. But can you please take the next one and acknowledge it needs to stop?

    Maybe it’s the MOST a guy can do?

  32. Roger, you already know how I feel about this and many above in this comment stream have already articulated the problem effectively. But for those who missed some of the conversation about this on FB, here’s the comment I posted yesterday on FB:

    “You know, I think it’s in our nature to feel sorry for anyone who really inserts foot into mouth. I’ve done my share of that–woo, boy. And it’s hard not to feel a bit bad for a person who, by all other accounts, is a “good guy.” But I feel way more sorry for Jackie Woodson, who had to smile good-naturedly and endure that kind of embarrassment right on the heels of what should have been one of the best and proudest moments of her career. And for any author who, hearing those comments, felt degraded and reminded yet again of their “otherness.” And I feel even worse for our industry as a whole, which is fighting against the perception that we are all a bunch of whitewashing, elitist idiots, out of touch with the reality and diversity of this country and its children. That’s the thing for me; it’s not just embarrassing for Handler. It’s embarrassing for us all.”

    It seems like some people are getting fatigued and want to just move past this conversation. While I agree that the focus should rightly be on Jackie and her glorious book, that doesn’t mean these aren’t conversations worth having. They are tough and they can be uncomfortable. But pushing at the broader implications of Handler’s comments and examining our own biases and blinders helps us all move forward. It’s wonderful that he’s donating to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. But that does that mean all is forgotten?

  33. Kate Barsotti says:

    Well said.

  34. It’s hard to show a greater lack of nuance than by getting upset about a watermelon joke by a writer of whimsical children’s fiction. Cmon people, Lemony Snicket =/= Fuzzy Zoeller. But that’s to be expected from the offendocrats in our culture these days, unfortunately.

  35. Kate Barsotti says:

    I did not have that reaction to Finney’s essay. Self-glorification? Ouch. I saw it as an expression of her frustration and pain, and she was inspired to write about it after the awards ceremony.

    I get that, if we compare racism to sexism (there is overlap, but not complete similarity). I don’t respond to sexism in quite as raw a way as I used to (getting older, I suppose), but I’ve been there in a similar way from an emotional standpoint. You get worn down and a wounded place keeps being wounded. A comment or act that, on its own, seems relatively easy to brush aside, is not so easy to brush aside when you’ve taken a lifetime of such insults. Your anger may occasionally burn low, but it needs little fuel to ignite it again. Yes, that reaction I understand.

    I appreciate your concise list of the ways in which white men (attractive or not) seem to enjoy greater success and ease in this industry. It’s tough enough to be a writer and artist; any obstacle in your path can truly damage a career and the potential for a creative legacy.

  36. Kate Barsotti says:

    Thanks for these comments. It’s given me much food for thought, although it’s a tangent.

    I started to recall how many times I’ve been told, by men, my words were wrong.

    When I’ve expressed myself with passion, I’ve been accused of hysteria.

    When I’ve related a personal anecdote, I’ve been told I was mistaken, as if my personal history was only valid if a man witnessed it and approved. This particular one happens quite a bit, even among my close male friends. And it always hurts like hell.

    When I’ve defended an argument in a discussion, I’ve been told I don’t use enough logic to be considered rational, even if the man’s logic is based on his assumptions and judgments, not on hard facts anyone can agree upon.

    It’s interesting how we fence one another in, how limiting beliefs linger and influence our relationships.

    A sense a story coming on.

  37. I don’t want to get all #notall, but it makes me sad that many people see what Daniel Handler said as representing the industry. What about the National Book Award people who chose to honor a diversity of writers that night? What about the publishers who published them, the agents who represent them, and of course the writers themselves? What about all the people in the industry who criticized Handler’s remarks? What about the huge number of writers, agents, editors, and publishers who have contributed to We Need Diverse Books, both before and since the night of the awards?

    Does one writer really represent the industry more than all those people put together?

  38. Kirby Larson says:

    Roger, I appreciate your addressing this issue. Here is one thing that makes me especially weary with “white guys in children’s books” — why are they selected to be on stage in greater proportion than women when in fact they represent the smaller proportion of kid lit folks? And why can’t “white guys” realize award ceremonies are not about them? Daniel Handler sacrificed good judgment for a “joke” because of his need to be in the spotlight. It’s time for the women in the industry to be given the microphone at these award events. At the very least, we know how to give praise where it’s due. Long years of training have taught us that it’s not all about us.

  39. I think the comment above Kirby’s reveals the hazards of using such prominent space to frame this issue in terms of the white guys–and especially for another prominent white man to brush aside any harm done by Handler’s comments, or the critiques of people who were harmed by them as “overheated.” You are certainly not condoning or defending him, but coming very close to making excuses for him, and to those whose particular vision does not see the nuance in this post or hear the echoes in those jokes, it looks very much like support.

    I think, too, we do need a true examination of the culture that led to this horrifying fiasco (which I do think is a stain on our community), as Kirby says above. We do need prominent people to begin to examine the tendency to keep the spotlight so focused on white guys in the industry. What happened, for instance, when this years’ Horn Book winners came back as three white men? What happened when the picture books winner and finalists were all men (reflecting the Caldecott, as you say above.)? Did the committees then go back and examine their own biases? Do the ALA awards committees discuss bias? What efforts can we make to bring in women authors to the Boy Reader and reluctant reader conversation? What efforts can we make to talk about girl readers? Where do we start?

  40. Kate Barsotti says:

    This incident has followed me around, mentally and emotionally. So many layers. My feelings and opinions have clarified over the past few days, now the shock has diminished.

    Roger, I am a fan of both you and the Horn Book. But I am dismayed. If you are too “squeamish” to watch the video, you are too uninformed to comment about it, or the reaction to the incident. If that’s not white male privilege, then I don’t know what is: the attitude that “I know best” without firsthand experience. I don’t see empathy for Mr. Handler in these comments as much as I see defensiveness, and I felt more pity for him before you wrote this post. I am now empty of sympathy for anyone except Ms. Woodson and writers defined by racism.

    Mostly, however, I am grateful for the boost to the We Need Diverse Books movement and for the ongoing conversation. As a white woman, I know I have been and probably will be clueless if I don’t make it a habit to listen and learn. I am committed to a wider range of children’s literature. We are absurdly behind the times and children deserve to see themselves in stories. Perhaps if we had kept that momentum going after the civil rights era, we’d be less racist and sexist today. Better books in youth might have shaped me into a better person, and by that I don’t mean didactic lessons, I mean heroes and villains in all hues, and narratives derived from many people’s perspectives.

    The interesting thing for me, an aspiring author, is to see my best writing often comes from characters the most distant from myself. I cannot explain this phenomenon. Perhaps I am less likely to censor those characters and get myself out of the way. In any case, they have given me a gift, these imaginary friends, who are equal in my mind.

  41. REALLY? You’re going to do a dogwhistle for “angry black woman” (“overheated” below) attack on Finney? You think as a black woman having dealt with this all her life and a million other microaggressions besides she doesn’t have a place to speak out and say enough is enough and just how sick she is of this invading spaces where she and other black women excel? Her writing is emotional and powerful because it hits a deep emotional point. It’s not dry because it’s not a dry subject.

    This comment and your follow ups bother me more than anything in the post. If there is anyone who has a right to be talking about this, it’s black women writers. It’s certainly not white men who have nothing to offer beyond lamenting how hard it is not to be racist. (Seriously, how would his joke have had any contextual humor unless she was something like president of the watermelon appreciation society. It’s only funny if she can be presumed to love watermelon. Because she’s black. That’s a no-brainer. And racism is hard to unlearn, so I get Handler initially thinking that it was amusing when she told him. But why that thought wasn’t followed by shutting it down…that’s the problem.)

  42. Yes to the comments above, and to add to Anne Ursu’s excellent questions: why does the dominant culture in our children’s book community seem, so often, to hold up this particular form of white male irreverence as the ideal? (Perhaps this is one of the questions you were attempting to address in the original post– though in a way that also perhaps mirrors the question?) So often within our field, I see an “edgy” white male sensibility presented as a breath of fresh air or a needed antidote. What does this say about what people feel most needs rebelling *against*?

    Rarely do I see the work of black women writers, for example, described as “subversive” or “edgy.” Finney’s writing is instead “overheated.” Similarly, critiques of books (both contemporary and classic) on the basis of race and gender, and also gender inclusiveness, sexuality, class, body shape, physical ability… are too often described as “censorial” rather than lauded as attempts to engage with and subvert stifling dynamics.

    I agree with others that changing this culture, with self-reflection, involves looking it full in the face.

  43. michael grant says:

    I think you got it exactly right, Roger.

  44. michael grant says:

    It trivializes the real and still-virulent sickness of racism to describe Handler’s remarks as racist. Daniel Handler is not responsible for the lack of diversity in publishing. Daniel Handler’s just a guy who thought he had standing to play a joke close to the line. Turned out he didn’t. Turned out he wandered into it and couldn’t find the way back. But that does not justify turning him into the avatar of all that’s wrong with publishing.

    Kidlit publishing is upper middle class white women from Seven Sisters schools hiring other people just like themselves. (The same process you see in law firms or onWall Street.) You want to change that, take on the corporations, take on the publishers, take on the people who make the hiring decisions, don’t scapegoat a decent man who just screwed up one night.

    This is an actual human being we’re talking about here. I’m pretty sure he is capable of feeling pain and embarrassment and worry. That actual human being is being used as a symbol of a problem for which he is in no way responsible. He’s being condemned out of convenience. And a lot of people who should know better are not exactly covering themselves in glory by cringing silently in a corner while Handler gets beat up.

    The phenomenon of guys in kidlit getting more platform time to give dopey speeches is something that I – as a white guy marginally in kidlit – have noticed, as everyone has. When the audience is overwhelmingly female, as it is at ABA, NCTE, ALA and SCBWI, “the guy” is a novelty for female audiences who spend most of their working day with other women. We’re freaks and freaks draw attention. Without exception on occasions when I’ve been “the guy” I’ve been under orders that came from women – believe me, I don’t go searching for opportunities, as the female publishers, editors and publicists who run my life can testify.

    Racism is a huge problem, a problem that has taken and continues to take lives; has caused and continues to cause great disadvantage to targeted communities; has been and remains a stain on this country’s honor. The damage from racism, from slavery to Jim Crow to the quieter Jim Crow of voter suppression, police brutality, wrongful conviction, political scapegoating, red-lining, and yes, a practically minority-free publishing world, is terrible. Daniel Handler is responsible for precisely none of that.

  45. Michael, Daniel Handler *admitted* to making racist comments and apologized for them. No one is scapegoating him or condemning out of convenience. No one is suggesting that he and he alone is the root cause of the lack of diversity in publishing (or Jim Crow or police brutality or red-lining). And yes, the white women– I include myself here — who make up much of publishing have to examine our own privilege, too, as well as our own internalized sexism. That’s why initiatives like We Need Diverse Books campaign are so vital. Plenty of people are challenging publishers to do better. Plenty of people are trying to do better. I’m trying. But as many, many people of color have pointed out over and over again, as much as it might hurt to be called out for racist remarks, it’s much, much worse to be on the receiving end of them.

    To imagine that “jokes” like the ones Handler made aren’t harmful or somehow don’t qualify as racist? To say that we’re trivializing the issue when we discuss this debacle? Well, I’ll just leave this link to Ashley Ford’s column because she says it better than I ever could:

    Meanwhile In America, Brown Girls Are Still Dreaming:
    Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and she deserved better than a racist joke.

  46. Handler’s remarks were racist. Period. The end. Just because he didn’t show up sporting a white hood and a burning cross doesn’t make his comments any less racist. Racism is not a matter of degrees. You can’t hold up a thermometer and say “eh, this was a little racist, but not quite racist enough to qualify.” His comments were racist, and his words reflect the thinking of many in this country who still find jokes based on racial stereotypes and white superiority power structures funny and not an issue. And that is why Handler is getting so much angst, because his actions, and his initial glib apology, are symptomatic of a larger problem.

    Also indicative of the larger problem? Pointing to more extreme forms of racism as the only “true racism”, like the minor transgressions don’t count. This isn’t the Highlander. Racism takes on many forms, some of those small, some larger. But they all serve the desired effect of othering and limiting the rights and choices of the minority population.

    Even more telling was that Handler had the insight to properly address his racist faux pas and make amends. Good on him, acknowledging that he was wrong an attempting to do better. That’s really what should have been discussed here, how we can all do a little better, and how sometimes it is hard to acknowledge that we come from a place where we don’t realize how problematic our actions are until we have to face them head on.

    But this was probably a wasted comment, since someone who has no problem typing the phrase “Kidlit publishing is upper middle class white women from Seven Sisters schools hiring other people just like themselves” is probably so steeped in his own white dude privilege that he doesn’t have time to learn about something he has never experienced. Yanno, like racism.

  47. Allie Jane Bruce says:

    Michael, Daniel Handler is not more responsible for the racism that plagues our society than any of us (and speaking as a white person, I believe we are VERY RESPONSIBLE), but as a white person in this world he has privilege and power, and a responsibility to use that privilege and power to combat racism. He failed miserably and publicly.

    Roger Sutton also has privilege and power as a white person in this world, and the same responsibility to use that privilege and power to fight racism. He has also failed. He chose to write a piece in which he suggests that Handler’s privilege and power led him to make such jokes.

    Sutton uses language like “fell into a trap” and “it bit him in the ass” when it’s abundantly clear that there was no trap and he bit himself. Then, when questioned about why he painted Handler as a victim, he blatantly denied it and said “where did you get that?” Multiple commenters answered: From the language in this very piece!!

    And what we’re seeing now–and I’ve seen this over and over again–is how every time a white guy screws up and says something racist, another white guy comes to get his back. Sutton did it for Handler. And now you’re doing it for Sutton.

    Why describe those who close their mouths and listen as “cringing silently in the corner”? Why can’t they be listening and learning rather than speaking? I salute those white men who have seized this as a learning opportunity, and who realize that marginalized groups need to make their voices heard, and that to achieve that, dominant groups sometimes need to stay quiet. I suggest you try it.

  48. ChristineTB says:

    1. Why this is EXACTLY about the current climate in literature. A couple of things to think about. Daniel Handler did not speak out, to my knowledge, when he was asked to sit on an all white male panel at BookCon. Rachel Russell had outsold him and James Patterson but was asked to moderate after the media storm hit. She protested, a social media storm started, and she was added.

    So sorry – Handler had to know he was part of a small annointed group that do point to the problem in children’s publishing. Is he the cause? No. But at NBA he suddenly became the symbol. So he is fair game for the discussion because he put himself there, albeit not on purpose. Yep. Sorry but yes. A donation is not the same as a wound eraser.

    Also —

    2. RE: The Finney article. The tone and language wasn’t directed at a white audience nor written in a mainstream vernacular which is why some had such a strong reaction to it and I didn’t. She was code switching and speaking to her own culture.

    Because, like most of us, she’s conveying that this one slight isn’t JUST about this one slight but about a death by a thousand cuts. And it is made worse when people not of a culture complain that those who were offended are being overly sensitive. Sometimes we should just accept that perception of the writer is her reality. How else is she supposed to express herself? Code switch for a suburban sensibility Should we get a Star Trek universal translator?

    Handler stepped in it. He’s an idiot. Racist? Probably not. Crass and inappropriate? Yep. The apology was made, his career is now in the spotlight in a way he didn’t intend. The first part about awareness of potential privilege is to try to learn the nuances of other cultural norms and cues. The speech patterns and the delivery in my culture read one way. The same thing said the same way in a white suburban area might mean militant and self important. Likewise there are idioms in the Midwest that might not go over well in Boston because of “interpretation.”

    Still, I got Finney’s intent. She’s pissed. Handler was a accidental jerk who’s financial resources says volumes if he can plege $110,000 (says this mom who’s kids own the entire Unfortunate Events Series all personally autographed but won’t do it again).

    Woodson is going to sell a lot of books from the media attention. The Earth is still spinning. The universe moves on. Maybe we should too.

  49. Debbie Reese says:

    Handler said something racist.

    My first info on it was a tweet from Daniel Jose Older. Next morn, tweets from Roxanne Guy.

    Handler’s first response avoided acknowledging the racism in his remarks.

    Finney asked NBA to apologize. They said no.

    Mainstream media did not report on Handler’s remarks.

    What made Handler issue new apology? What made NBA issue statement w apology?

    People who chose not to look away. I hope this moment marks the change that is needed.

  50. When will people stop being offended when people identify their racist actions as racist and instead start being offended by racism? Michael, what Handler said was racist. What racism is is a system of disregard, oppression, and disenfranchisement of people of color, and it is enacted every time a comment like Handler’s is made. Being told something you did was racist is not an insult, and it’s unacceptable when people act like victims because their racism is called out. You don’t get to be offended when someone decries your racism. The only acceptable reaction is to ask or explore why what you did is racist, to admit it, to learn from it, and to work not to do it again. That, thankfully, is something Handler did, and that’s amazing and quite rare. Nobody is saying that everything about Handler is awful because of one comment he made, but neither is it appropriate to say that because he’s generally a nice guy, the racist thing he did doesn’t count as racism. That’s the problem with racism. It’s insidious, and the people who benefit from it every day are the ones who continue to use it, even if unintentionally. You don’t get to whine about people calling you racist – people are not saying Handler is a flaming racist (and yet, people always seem to need reminding that racism is more than just an old guy waving a pitchfork on his porch and yelling the N-word), but that what he DID was racist. And he agrees, because he’s not an idiot.

  51. michael grant says:

    I don’t know how many of you have done this kind of stuff, the panels, the speeches, all of that crap, but as a general rule it’s something I’m doing to be nice, to work and play well with others.

    People (publicists) say, “Why don’t you be on this panel and give a speech?” and I groan, and say, “Okay, whatever.” The request comes months in advance, and I immediately put it out of my mind and hope naively that something will happen to release me from the obligation so I can keep doing what I do: write. The notion that I become responsible somehow for the make-up of the panel is just unrealistic and unfair. We writers don’t organize this stuff, we’re just the actors, quite often reluctant actors, on a stage created by the event organizers. I would literally have no idea who to talk to about the make-up of a panel. I don’t know who runs NCTE or ALA or Comicon, I’ve barely taken note of what the damned thing is supposedly about. I get there twenty minutes before it starts, and try to fake my way through it.

    I’d be very happy to see more diversity on panels and podiums and so on. Anyone who has read my books knows how I feel about race and gender and about privilege. I’ve written tens of thousands of words about racism, sexism, homophobia and religious bigotry. But I’m just a writer, I’m 100% responsible for what I write, but I’m not responsible for who is or is not on some panel in some dreary basement conference room or gaudy banquet hall. I’m just the dancing monkey brought in to amuse the people in the seats. Handler’s just a better dancing monkey — well, usually.

  52. michael grant says:

    By the way, let me just point out, that I barely know Daniel Handler. We run into each other from time to time in cramped little rooms while waiting to do some event. I’m in no way speaking for him.

  53. I’ve been in this business 30 years and there were men of ALL races and colors who tried to make me feel small, put me down, been lewd, crude, and rude to me. Sadly, I’ve curtailed hanging out with colleagues for self-preservation sake.

  54. This article is amazingly self-indulgent. Reading it was like watching someone drink their own bathwater.

  55. Just because Daniel Handler isn’t responsible for some of the things you have listed doesn’t mean he isn’t responsible for perpetuating racism. He is. Instead of focusing on Jackie Woodson’s accomplishments as an African American writer, he made fun of the fact that she is allergic to watermelon, which in his mind is funny because of course EVERY black person likes watermelon. People of color are sick of being reduced to stereotypes for the bemusement of white people.

  56. Michael, yes, the authors on this thread do know how it works. I, too, have been on panels and am delighted for the opportunity to promote my books, and, more, to meet other people who care about this literature–though I am unburdened with male-ness, I suppose, and cannot understand what it is truly like to be so in demand. Or to be run by “females,” (or as I like to call them, “women.”)

    The incident Christine is referring to–and yes, she knows exactly what she’s talking about–was a highly publicized middle grade panel announced months in advance at a commercial event. The white-maleness raised a huge outcry and was in fact the impetus for the founding of We Need Diverse Books. During this very public call for diversity, the only author on the panel to give the issue any notice was Rick Riordan.

  57. What has our community come to when we refuse to get over things like racism? I mean, Handler apologized. AND like Michael Grant said, he’s a human being. Human beings make mistakes. Look at slavery and female oppression. Those things were mistakes, and mistakes need to be gotten over. We have to feel empathy for transgressors because otherwise they will realize that they did something wrong and feel guilty. They might go to national award shows with speeches written ahead of time. Maybe some notecards that say “Award show jokes.” They are so rich and white and male that they don’t even know what’s happening. It could easily be the Horn Book editor guy or Michael Grant. We need to make “racist things to not say” flash cards.

    I’m so glad Michael Grant and HB exist to explain to people of color and women how hard it is to be a white man in this industry. Empathy.

  58. I just wanted to add my voice to the many others here who have already cogently and persuasively critiqued Sutton’s post. What you all have said. Thank you.

  59. Chiming in to agree with everything Anne Ursu said in response to this comment by Michael Grant. Yes, many of us are familiar with how panels at industry conferences etc. are organised.

    If you’re serious, Michael, about wanting to increase diversity how about next time you’re asked to give a speech, or be on a panel, you have your publicist check to see if there are any other authors who aren’t white on that panel, giving a speech. You’re in the enviable position of being able to insist on more diversity. John Green has been doing exactly that. Why not join him?

  60. michael grant says:


    Since the bulk of the people upstream are not identifiable, I assumed some of them were not authors and thus not familiar with the drill. So I explained to them.

    I also call women women, except when I refer to them as female, which isn’t a term of derision, unless of course you have a problem with women? My wife is a female, and I checked with her and nope, she did not find it offensive.

    And, FYI, my female wife gets probably three requests for speeches and panel for every one I do. I don’t want to speak for her but my strong impression is that she feels about them the same way I do.

  61. Justine and Anne – yes, perfect, 100%. You say everything I want to say. Just throwing my support here.

  62. michael grant says:

    Boy are you clueless. Now I’m not only male and white but rich, too?

    1) Sutton doesn’t like me and HB pretends I don’t exist. I understand from my friend Elizabeth Law that he comes from hardscrabble background, as do I. But we aren’t pals, let alone co-conspirators.

    2) I was born to a 16 year-old mother, abandoned by my birth father, raised on an enlisted soldier’s pay in trailer parks. At age 11 I was sexually molested, at 16 I dropped out of school, by age 24 I was in jail on felony burglary charges. I went on the lam (as they say in the old movies) and for a while lived under a freeway overpass while keeping my stuff in a Trailways bus station locker. I waited tables, mostly. By age 34 I had advanced to the point where I was cleaning homes during the day and offices at night. I scraped people’s shit out of toilets the day Katherine and I sold our first book.

    By age 39 I’d bought my first non-junker car, and by age 45 I’d co-created a worldwide bestselling series featuring series lit’s first serious way-pre-Katniss action girl, as well as writing black and Latino characters in something like 50 or so books by that point. After ANIMORPHS, EVERWORLD and REMNANTS, I became a media consultant to the DLCC creating ads for Democrats. Then I went back to work and wrote the GONE series, 3000 pages in which, among other things, I wrote what I expect is the first undocumented Honduran hero in series land.

    Everyone who’s been threatened by the KKK, raise your hands. What, no one but me? Everyone who has a 10th grade education and still managed to rise in kidlit ?Everyone who has created more than, say, 50 gay, black or Latino characters raise your hands. Still just me?

    One of the key intellectual errors of all bigots is to conflate the individual with the group, which is what you’ve just done to me. You assumed that because I was white and male I must be blah blah blah. You attacked me not as an individual but as a representative of a group.

    Tell you what, rather than trying to demonize me and impute to me attitudes I do not have, attitudes that given my rather advanced age I’ve probably despised longer than you have, and did in places and times where it was physically dangerous to do so, why don’t you go see if you can create half the diversity in kidlit that I have.

  63. I think you should have written more carefully then. Or observed more carefully, perhaps. Can you even imagine the humiliation and shame of that moment for her? The horrible awkward feeling that engulfed what should have been a wonderful moment. Daniel Handler may not be a bad person. I have no idea. But he does not deserve our sympathy. He could have chosen to use his powerful position in a way that lifted up Ms. Woodson and took himself out of the limelight. He did not.

  64. michael grant says:

    Honestly I’m trying to avoid giving speeches. I’m not part of the scene and don’t want to be. I like to write, not talk to people about writing. I enjoy talking to fans and do so as much as I can, but I have zero desire to do the whole public thing. As you know, there’s web of obligation that comes into play and so I do sometimes have to do panel or whatever, but I am not in that business and don’t want to be.

    As for “creating diversity” I kind of thought that’s what I was doing in the 150 books I’ve authored or co-authored, and that that was a greater contribution than worrying about who is on a panel I don’t want to be on to begin with.

  65. Roger where is the Finney essay? Would like to read it.

  66. michael grant says:

    Okay, this is becoming about me, which is dumb and I probably shouldn’t have bothered responding.

    So this is my last comment. I’m a liberal, and to me at least that means having some compassion, some tolerance, and some forgiveness. It does not mean looking for excuses to pounce on anyone who says something dumb, which we all agree Daniel Handler did. It does not mean treating the individual human being as nothing but a part of a group. It certainly does not mean trying to shout down anyone who takes a different position.

    I have needed more than my fair share of forgiveness in my 60 years of life, and I have made more mistakes than I should have. Daniel Handler is a man, a real, actual, flesh and blood man who said something I don’t believe for a minute that he meant, and which was not intended to harm anyone. The reaction to that should have been compassion and correction.

  67. What does being a liberal have to do with anything? Most of us have already pointed out that it is a huge deal that Handler apologized and said straight out that what he had done was racism. I know I am quite appreciative that he didn’t hide behind fake apologies that didn’t take responsibility.

    But like I and others have explained tirelessly, here and elsewhere, RACISM IS AN INSIDIOUS SYSTEM AND HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CONSCIOUS INTENT. That doesn’t make it NOT racism. It is still racism. That is the entire point, that it is so insidious that people do it without realizing they’re doing it. Handler doesn’t deserve the wrath and disrespect of everyone forevermore; he made a mistake and acknowledged it. But he doesn’t deserve compassion, either. It’s absolutely appalling that you think that someone who committed a racist act deserves compassion for not meaning it to be offensive.

  68. What does being a liberal have to do with anything? Most of us have already pointed out that it is a huge deal that Handler apologized and said straight out that what he had done was racism. I know I am quite appreciative that he didn’t hide behind fake apologies that didn’t take responsibility.

    But like I and others have explained tirelessly, here and elsewhere, RACISM IS AN INSIDIOUS SYSTEM AND HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CONSCIOUS INTENT. That doesn’t make it NOT racism. It is still racism. That is the entire point, that it is so insidious that people do it without realizing they’re doing it. Handler doesn’t deserve the wrath and disrespect of everyone forevermore; he made a mistake and acknowledged it. But he doesn’t deserve compassion, either. It’s absolutely appalling that you think that someone who committed a racist act deserves compassion for not meaning it to be offensive..

  69. kirby larson says:

    Michael, here is one big difference between you and me; when I get asked to be on a panel or to present somewhere, I actually take time to prepare. I find out with whom I’ll be presenting – even reading my fellow presenters’ books (imagine that!) — and I take time to understand the audience. NCTE? IRA? Okay. One appeals to teachers, one to librarians. I actually care enough about my audience and my fellow presenters to organize thoughts and gear them appropriately.

    What a concept. Evidently that is too much for certain male minds to handle. I know this because I have seen it over and over again: guys get up in front of the mike and wing it. Women respect their audiences sufficiently to actually carefully prepare comments.

    This is why I think we should quit giving the mike to men who only agree to present because it will make them look good and turn it over to women who (a) have the capacity to gear their comments to their audience, and (b) who realize that not all public events are about them and (c) who can set aside their own egos to celebrate other writers.

  70. Boy, we’re really squeezing out sparks with this one, eh? Lively discussion, to say the least.

    There are a lot of people I respect posting comments here, it’s a not-half-bad representative slice of Mike Jung’s Personal and Literary Heroes. After reading all the comments here and thinking about it all to a degree that is possibly detrimental to my emotional well-being, I think I have at least a partial understanding of what everyone’s saying. Some I understood much more clearly from the start, of course (gimme a holler, Anne Ursu! Awkward high five, Laura Ruby! Library-to-library fist bump, Allie Jane Bruce!). I’d even go so far as to say I grasp at least some of the intent and points behind Roger’s original post (presumptuous of me, beg pardon, Roger) and the ensuing comments by Michael, who I feel less presumptuous calling “Michael” if only because we’ve had actual conversations in the past.

    I don’t know Daniel Handler – we met for a nanosecond in one of those cramped little rooms, but I don’t know him. My only sense of him as a human being is via his public statements and actions. Some of those actions have been very good. The action we’re discussing is one I found deplorable, harmful, and inexcusable. I don’t think he’s THE AVATAR OF CHILDREN’S PUBLISHING IN THE MILKY WAY, but at that moment he was occupying arguably the single most visible, amplified, and scrutinized position in children’s publishing. At that moment he was the center of a greater concentration of public attention from publishing pros, authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, teachers, and readers than any other member of the children’s publishing world. That didn’t make him the permanent face of the industry, but in that moment he really was the industry’s most loudly broadcast voice. And pardon my French, but he royally fucked it up.

    I don’t know what he thought or intended as that moment happened – like I said, I don’t know the man. But I do know what he said, and in my mind, what he said has indisputable primacy over his thoughts and intent, hypothetical or otherwise. To publicly argue “poor guy, he’s taking so much heat for that stupidly hurtful and racist thing he said” is to give primacy to his thoughts and intent OVER what he said, which was a stupidly hurtful and racist thing.

    Handler’s miserably racist jokes merit discussion, criticism, and yes, reactions that are heated to a thermonuclear degree, if that’s how offended parties actually feel. I’m not of the belief that his apology shouldn’t be accepted, but I don’t feel critical of those who do hold that belief. I actually don’t believe that it’s verboten to feel bad for Handler, if that’s another way people actually feel – we have agency over ourselves – but airing it publicly in a way that’s very easy to interpret as criticism of those who feel nothing but anger? Yeah, that’s problematic. Airing it publicly in a way that’s very easy to interpret as saying it actually benefited Jacqueline Woodson? *sigh* Anyone who slammed their head several times on the nearest hard surface has a comrade in aggravation right here.

    Michael, we don’t know each other, but for the record, I have an enormous amount of respect for you. You’re an abrasive pain in the ass sometimes, it’s true, but having actually talked to you a couple of times, I’m utterly convinced you’re a decent human being who tries like hell to do what’s right for the world at large. I know you’re not a racist. And I actually applaud your belief in compassion and forgiveness; I believe in those things too. But I think your comments here are easy to interpet (accurately? Inaccurately? I don’t know, I can only go with my interpretation) as saying that there’s a margin of error in the balance between racist words/deeds and reactions to said words/deeds, and that the margin of error should be tilted in favor of the person responsible for the racist words/deeds. If my interpretation is accurate, well, there are cases where I have done that, and might do so again. But I imagine you know as well as I do that on a societal scale, on a global scale, that margin of error has historically been tilted in favor of the person responsible for the racist words/deeds far, far, FAR too often. And the balance needs to tilt back the other way.

    I don’t know Daniel Handler; I don’t know if he’s a genuine, card-carrying racist. But he engaged in a racist act, and a lot of people aren’t willing to let it slide. I’m one of them.

  71. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Roger. So, as a white guy myself, I certainly understand why your sympathy in this situation goes directly to Daniel Handler, and why the takeaway for you is that you worry that you’ll end up in a similar position. Race and gender have a lot of power in how we view situations and how we empathize. However, (again as a white guy) I think it’s important to be aware of the context of that empathy, and what it means exactly that white guys like you and me find it so much easier to see things from the perspective of the white guy involved. Why is the reaction to racism here instantly turned into a worry that you’ll be perceived as racist? Why is a racist remark directed at a black woman an occasion to talk about the difficulty of being a white guy in the industry? Why when black women write about how painful and disheartening racism and sexism are in their lives, do you react by accusing them of grandstanding?

  72. michael grant says:

    Dammit, Mike, I said I was outta here, but then I felt rude not replying.

    I tilt, and I hope I always will, in favor of believing the best of people until they prove otherwise. Sounds like we know Handler about equally well, and I’ve only read one of his books, but none of that’s the point: he has an assumption of innocence, at least as to his intent. I’m rather too quick to drop that hammer, actually, but I’m still going to need some evidence of intent.

    I disagree with the notion that intent is irrelevant. There’s a great deal of difference between driving too fast and accidentally hitting someone, and deliberately murdering them. Issues of intent are recognized in law and in common morality. Of course we have to consider intent, it separates good from evil.

    And our responses should recognize that there is a line between good and evil. Racism is evil. It’s not just wrong, or impolitic, it’s evil or the word has no meaning. Reducing that terrible fact to the level of Dan Handler running his mouth at NBA, trivializes the issue.

    There’s a trope in comedy that plays on the fact that men say stupid shit to their wives and vice versa. It’s an old trope that still gets played out today in stand-up. But the essence of the joke is that there is a difference between the accidental and the intentional. That’s understood by the audience.

    So if we are misinterpreting, perhaps it’s possible that what’s being conveyed is not condemnation of a malignant evil, but rather a conflation of an individual with that evil. If that were the case, we’d owe it to Handler to temper our condemnations of racism, with some compassion for Handler.

    I’m not a Christian, but Jesus was not a fool teaching that we should not judge, had no right to cast stones, and that we should forgive. Let’s attack what we all believe to be the real evil, and not Handler.

  73. The mention of wealth was, I believe, in reference to Daniel Handler.

    We all have experiences in our lives that we’ve overcome, and that are anything but “privileged”. We can ask for compassion for those experiences (and realize we’re not alone in them) at the same time as acknowledging the privileges we do have. Being white in this country carries advantages that are separate from class. It carries huge advantages in this industry, too. Consciously writing diverse characters as a white author is wonderful, but it doesn’t change the industry (and implying that it means one has done more to promote diversity than have writers of color is pretty offensive.) Looking at and trying to counter ways that prejudice operates within publishing: from hiring and promotions, to acquisitions, to marketing, to reviewing, to awards, to conventions, to panels, to school visits, to writing programs, to book buying (and thinking about the effect this has on kids) is something different. Discussing the larger context of Handler’s comments– including why it might be easier for some to identify with Handler’s experience than with those who felt the sting of the racist “jokes”– is part of that.

    (Also, if one is going to make sweeping generalizations about the class and educational backgrounds of all women in publishing, taking extreme umbrage when one feels subject to a similar generalization seems a little hypocritical.)

  74. Breanna M. says:

    I’m a real person. I’m a real person. I AM A REAL PERSON! I don’t believe that qualifying Daniel Handler as a real person should release him from being critiqued for his irresponsible remarks last week. I don’t want to get too overheated in this comment and I certainly don’t want to come off as too aggressive but validating Handler’s status as a real person with real feelings and possibly real remorse, is a reduction of Woodson’s position as a real person too. Writing a piece that whitesplains why Handler’s racist joke and the negative responses to his racist joke should garner anything other than disgust and outrage is dismissive and another example of the, “Let’s move on, shall we” attitude I’ve experienced since I joined this community. There was a duality to the presentation of Handler’s racist joke that I’ve only heard a few people talking about and that duality is a part of why I’m so horribly offended by this blogpost and some of the comments that followed it. To be clear, I am speaking as ONE black woman/aspiring writer/hopeful CHL scholar. I don’t stand as a representative of any other people or groups. What this black woman/aspiring writer/hopeful CHL heard and read into the comments made by Handler was one joke about black people and watermelon which also stood as an admonition to never forget my place. Never forget that whatever accolades or letters may come after my last name I am black and forever bound to the stereotypes that assert my status as subhuman. If I do ever surface to try and accept recognition for YEARS OF WORK, Woodson put in YEARS OF REAL WORK, I should be prepared for someone to first privately and then publicly remind my of my position as the darker sister and then tell me to go eat in the kitchen. I don’t have to see Handler or Sutton as representatives of this industry and discipline, because the academic sphere shouldn’t be ignored and allowed to wallow in its ignorance either, to know that I need to guard myself. I guard myself against the loneliness of being a person of color in this kidlit world and I guard myself against the defensiveness of the people who take my assertion of my identity as a direct affront to their ability to be “real people”. I’m just a nobody, with no renown, no following and no sure future but I don’t have to be somebody to know that this hurt my heart and that this cuts deep. DEEP. I, too, did not want to see the video because I did not want to see one of my heroes treated in such a low manner. I didn’t want to hear the laughter, uncomfortable or not, and know that if this is how one of the greats is taken down, even if it’s just this one moment, I don’t want to imagine what might happen to the child sitting in her room writing and writing and writing. I don’t want to think about those people writing and hoping that people really do see a need for more diverse books. I’m not sure who else is going to rise up next to twist the knife in some more but I know it’s coming and I’m on guard.

  75. first of all:
    Handler knew full well how charged watermelon jokes are. it’s obvious from his comments. ergo he used racist humor thinking that it wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass. WRONG!
    here are some step by step recommendations from one privileged white male to a successful, privileged white male:
    when you are told by a person who you just insulted with a racist statement that you made a racist statement you
    1) apologize for having done so.
    2) if you happen to be a successful, white, american (fill in the blank) you DO NOT say that it wasn’t meant to be racist bc that’s yet another insult to the intelligence of the person you just insulted.
    3) you sit down and listen so that you will hopefully never do it again. it’s called a learning experience and its supposed to be shameful. i am being told that it’s nothing compared to the shame and pain on the receiving end…

    The ones who come to the rescue of those who at least had the decency to apologize for their racism are even worse.

    oh, and to the ones who will bring up the “racism-goes-both-ways” argument: racism from a position of privilege/power really IS different from the one that goes the other way.

    $10,000 are a small price to pay for someone like Mr. Handler. He will write it off his income anyway. a decline in his book sales would actually hurt him. which (cynical me) is probably the real reason for his public apology.

  76. If nothing else, can we all agree on the importance of having a good editor?

  77. steph kuehn says:

    No, Michael. When you hit someone with your car, you’ve hurt them. That means you should apologize and take responsibility for that hurt. Of course, if you meant to hit them, well, then that’s a criminal act. The legal system will hold you accountable.

    Personally, I may have empathy for the driver, who made a mistake or used poor judgment. And who may genuinely feel guilty for their actions. But I hope to God they make an effort to improve their driving, since we’ll all be on the road together again.

    But my compassion is always, always with the person who was hurt. And I just don’t understand the desire to tell the hurt party they weren’t “really” injured because someone didn’t mean to run them over? How does that make sense? How can you deny someone their truth? How can you minimize their very real pain?

    I never comment on pieces like this, but this one has made me so sad and disheartened, I felt I had to.

  78. Wow, this is embarrassing.

    One of the most major children’s book review publications to black authors: Calm down, racism is not that big a deal. You should be grateful for what you get. What you really are is a bunch of bullies, and you’re being angry and irrational. When is someone going to think about my problems, like the fact that I could be held accountable for choosing to say something that hurts and oppresses people?

    Let’s be clear: when you say you or Handler could “easily have fallen into this trap,” what you’re implying is that racism is just floating around in the ether, and you could be on stage (or even, say, typing a blog post at your work computer), and it could just hit you, and suddenly you could find yourself spewing it. You’re also implying that the people who speak up about it are a part of the trap: that they’re waiting, watching for you to make a mistake so they can crucify you, cackling with glee, “Another white man down!”

    Shame on you. People, especially people of color, have a right to speak up when racism is directed at someone in the industry. They have a right to be angry; after all, they’ve been asking for equal treatment in this industry for as long as it’s been alive, and they’ve seen precious little progress on that front. And the rest of us? The rest of us have a responsibility to stand up for that right, to swallow our own privilege and our discomfort with acknowledging and confronting it, and to say that we, too, refuse to tolerate dehumanizing and disempowering behavior within our ranks. Not to victimize one person but to say, unequivocally, that there is no longer a place for the oppression of others in our industry.

  79. Daniel Handler made a racist statement. Daniel Handler sincerely apologized and admitted the statement was racist. Then he found a way to try to make reparations. And, as individuals, we can decide for ourselves whether or not that was enough. But, that doesn’t mean the conversation should stop. Handler’s comments are just one more example added to the heap of examples of the racism that lives just under the surface of our field, all too often popping it’s ugly head out of the muck.

    In order to move forward we need to talk about the greater context that makes it possible to make such statements in the first place. That means using concrete examples, especially because when you talk about racism or sexism in this and any field, and you don’t use specific examples, well then, it’s just all in your pretty little head, isn’t it? So, yes, we must continue to talk about Handler and his comments not to villify him, but to get a greater understanding of the problem, and to keep working toward equality.

  80. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Thank you all for your comments. To those who think I am defending Handler or that I am complaining about how hard it is to be a white guy in children’s books, all I can suggest is that you read what I originally wrote again. Also see the subject heading.

    Many seem to think that my blog entry was wrong-headed, that I should have been writing about how great (and victimized) Woodson was, not about how I felt sympathy for Handler. No one is happier than I that Woodson won this award, but that was not my subject. Sarah Hamburg, in particular, regularly comments on this blog that I am not asking the right questions. All I can say to that is what Woodson said to Handler about his watermelon joke: “YOU write it.” I do think I was glib in saying that the controversy extended Woodson’s Moment beyond the usual five minutes a National Book Award winner usually gets. It’s true, but that does not excuse an incident that surely will have Woodson remembering the evening for the wrong reasons. Beyond that, I would caution all of us not to pretend to know what Woodson thought or felt during Handler’s “jokes” or what she is feeling or thinking now. This does not excuse Handler’s behavior or statements.

    I was wrong to criticize Finney’s poem in this context. It was churlish, inflammatory, and unnecessary. But I stand by my opinion (for me, it was as if some kid called me a faggot and I wrote a poem called “I Am Matthew Shepard” in response) and hope we are not creating a world in which any artist is immune to criticism by virtue of her relative “status” to that of her critic. Name me an artist who doesn’t feel oppressed by her critics!

  81. Roger – I did read what you originally wrote. Many times. You use language that is in defense of Handler.

    In case you missed it, I said:
    You say he “fell into a trap”. No, he didn’t; there was no trap.
    You say it “bit him in the ass”. No, “it” didn’t; he bit himself.
    You say he did it because “we’ve been telling him he’s cool.” No, he did it because he was surprised and delighted that a Black person is allergic to watermelon, and his hope of getting a laugh outweighed his concern at perpetuating a dehumanizing stereotype.

    Your assertion that you’re not defending him is straight-up denial.

  82. I can’t possibly improve on Steph Kuehn’s comment about the car crash analogy and I’m not going to try. Well said, Steph.

    I’m not a Christian either, but I’m also a fan of Jesus’s teachings that we should not judge, had no right to cast stones, and that we should forgive. At the same time, Jesus was not averse to getting down in it and righteously kicking some moneylender ass. Racism takes many forms, including the one we’ve been discussing, and no, these jokes were not the worst possible example of racism that’s ever been, but they contributed to the unrelenting assault of racist sentiment that our society unloads on us in ways big and small.

    Michael, I’ve followed your philosophy in the past when responding to racist incidents, and I fervently hope I can always say compassion and forgiveness are indelible aspects of my personal worldview, but more and more I’m coming to believe there are times when we need to hit the pause button on that philosophy. It’s entirely possible that in the past I would have heard about this incident and said “Oh, that could have been me. I’ve done things like that. I feel compassion for that person’s mistake, and if I were to screw up in a similar way I’d want people to feel compassion for me.”

    My thoughts on this have changed; the things I say are different now. That could have been me. I’ve done things like that. I feel deeply critical of that person’s mistake and demand that he hold himself accountable, and if I were to screw up in a similar way I’d want people to be deeply critical of me and demand that I hold myself accountable. The standard I’m holding Daniel Handler to is the same one I want to be held to.

  83. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Allie, my theme all along has been that Handler set his own trap and bit himself in the ass. That’s why I labeled the post “Hubris.” I’m sorry that wasn’t more clear.

  84. Just read the whole thing for the 10th time. I really don’t see any indication, in your language, that Handler set the trap himself, or bit himself. I do appreciate your direct response and apology that it wasn’t more clear.

    The surest way to perpetuate racism is to fail to name it. In the future, you might try using more direct language to describe actions such as these – instead of “fell into a trap” try “uttered a racist remark”. And if you’re going to tag it with “hubris,” I’d suggest you also tag it with “racism”.

    Over and out.

  85. I’m not exactly sure why I’m being specifically singled out in this conversation, but I know that you’ve extended the invitation to write something (in response to criticisms) in the past, and I appreciate that. I don’t think that means either that I’m the only person who’s offered criticism, that this isn’t a place to talk about some of the dynamics among people with power in the industry (and I haven’t at all intended to single you out here, either), or that there isn’t a power differential in speaking up in this context, too.

  86. Unfortunately, glib or not, these comments read a certain way–as is apparent from the responses here– and did seem to mitigate the weight and harm of Handler’s words. The assertion that you’re impatient with the idea that he stepped on her moment is essentially using a high-profile platform to tell all of the people who are explaining why these words were so hurtful to simmer down. For a powerful white man to use his platform to tell people of color how they should react to something (and that is what the effect of these words are) and brush off the comments reifies every single narrative out there about the insensitivity of publishing to race issues. And seems to be about the worst thing that could happen right now.

    As a result, the assertion that Handler’s comments aren’t emblematic of a greater problem in publishing look wholly ironic; whatever your intention, this post looks like a key artifact of that problem. And this post is now getting passed around by highly-respected writers who have enormous platforms and are among on the most prominent critics of race issues in publishing and beyond, as Exhibit A in publishing’s race problem, given the author of it holds such a position of power. This is real. This is happening.

    Other emerging writers of color have taken this post (and general industry silence on it) as confirmation that the industry does not want their voices, that there is no place for them, that whatever they do they will get smacked down at the end. They are taking it as a reason to give up, and their tweets were heartbreaking. After the NBA writers of color said, again, and again, no matter what you achieve someone will always be there to remind you of the color of your skin. After this, some of these writers are saying every time you start hoping things are getting better, someone reminds you you don’t belong and they should give up. This is happening too.

    And that’s the problem. Words matter. The way people use their platforms matter, a lot. The way people in power respond to the words of marginalized people matter, especially when they are speaking up about injustice. Yes, there is a great deal to examine here–on privilege, race, gender–and the best thing we could do is have a serious conversation about how we got to this place and how we can ensure it never happens again. And I can see these questions in here–but the glibness, the carelessness about the real pain and harm these comments caused, that in itself is a slap in the face to everyone who felt marginalized or offended. (Not to mention that it’s giving people who don’t find the comments problematic at all support, as you’re seeing. With bonus sexism! And that’s a natural consequence of bringing the spotlight back on the white men.)

    Not to get all Spider-man, but with great power comes great responsibility. We’ve got to get better. The community is reeling from this fiasco. It is a privilege to be glib and have status as a contrarian. It is a privilege to have a platform. What do you want to stand for? What do you want to do with this moment?

  87. Christine Heppermann says:

    Roger, your “I Am Matthew Shepard” analogy doesn’t hold up because Nikki Finney clearly isn’t just speaking about herself. She’s urging people to put what happened into a larger context. As she says,

    “What was spit and spoken out into the celebratory New York City night was bigger than Daniel Handler’s racist joking comments and Jacqueline Woodson’s stunning marvelous win.

    News reports immediately called the comments “unfortunate.” Really? That’s it? That’s all you have to say?

    What was spit and spoken, was spit and spoken, into a National Book Award microphone, in front of a National Book Award logo, and launched out into a world that hears such “unfortunate” comments all the time and rarely does anything to try and make it right, in order to abort the next racist moment to come, rarely steps into the moment courageously, by saying something, anything, about it, no matter who said it, but decides instead to simply wait for the present “unfortunate” storm to pass so that we can get back to life as normal.”

    Sure, she goes on to describe her personal experience of living in a racist society, but she ends, as she begins, with a message of “collective responsibility.” With the belief that none of us should just stay quiet while racist, sexist shit keeps happening, that we should speak up. And so we have. And so she did.

  88. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    The invitation is still open!

  89. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I don’t understand why my expressing sympathy/empathy (I feel both) for Handler in any way implies that everybody should refrain from criticizing him.

  90. Beautifully, eloquently put, Steph. Thank you for breaking your “never comment” rule and articulating what so many of us are thinking.

  91. Christine Heppermann says:

    Because the overall tone of your post is, “I’m glad Jackie won, but boy, Daniel Handler sure had a rough night, didn’t he?”

  92. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That is not inaccurate! But you forgot the last part: “And here’s why.”

  93. Yes — I think what you’re hearing, Roger, at least in part is dismay that the empathy/sympathy you express here seems to *only* extend to Daniel Handler. Who is, actually, NOT the injured party. And I know you said you haven’t watched the video, so you should also note that this wasn’t the only problematic “joke” based on race he made that evening; he also made a “joke” about not ever winning the Coretta Scott King award and referred to two of the poetry nominees as being “probable cause.” Just imagine, for a second, that you are sitting in the audience at an event that’s probably one of the high points of your career and you (or anyone else!) is the brunt of a joke that recalls nasty racial stereotypes, that trades on pain. Imagine you just accepted an award and this is what happens next. There is an absence of that here, because, as you’ve said, it wasn’t what you wanted to comment on.

    But I encourage you to stop insisting that everyone has misread what you wrote and listen. Listen to why it upset them. Maybe realize that if so many smart people are reading it a certain way, the problem is not with their reading. It may not be what you intended or wanted to say. It may be and that’s it’s own issue. Either way, the problem is with what was said.

    Thanks to most everyone in the comments for this discussion.

  94. Kate Messner says:

    I sent these two articles to my college-bound son not long ago in the hopes that they would help him to understand the whole concept of privilege and the responsibility that goes along with it. Here they are just in case anyone here wants to read them, too.

    This was making the rounds a while back – an essay by a Princeton kid who doesn’t get what everyone is making such a big deal about:

    And here is the response explaining the concept, “To the Privileged Princeton Kid”

    Roger, I’ve always liked reading your blog, but this whole thing made me sad. I wish your post had celebrated Jackie’s book instead of expressing empathy for the MC of the book awards and criticizing another African American writer who dared to be outraged over what happened. Personally, I think that since you haven’t experienced racism, it would have been so much better to just do some listening this time.

  95. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Gwenda, as is so often true, you are right. Whatever I was trying to say–and even I’m not sure anymore–did not come out the way I wanted. I wonder if in trying to explore why white guys tend to step in it (short answer: because they CAN) I could not escape the very situation I was trying to describe. I’m sorry, everyone.

    Although I will keep this comment thread open for anyone who wants to say anything further, I believe I need to stop writing here. Despite the heat of this discussion, there was also much light, and for that I am grateful. Thank you.

  96. This entire thread of comments is so instructive. I’m filled with pride by so many of the empassioned, eloquent voices in our field patiently, respectfully and clearly laying what happened here and why it matters. (Mike Jung and Anne Ursu, you’re some of my new heroes.)

    To hang a lantern on what many have stated or implied: Roger, the responses to what you and Daniel Handler said are not to your INTENT, but to your IMPACT. That is because the biggest problems we have with racism in the children’s book industry (and everywhere else) are not individual and intentional but institutionalized and unconscious.

    (Michael Grant, yes, intentional racism is evil, but its unconscious cousin lives in most of us; according to neuroscientists at Harvard’s Project Implicit, 75-80% of white people reveal bias towards whiteness. And the institutions of racism – as on display in the examples you gave as well as in the statistics about the children’s book field – couldn’t continue to thrive if not for the unrecognized, unconscious bias that keeps most of us from seeing what’s happening and acting powerfully to change it.)

    As a number of commenters have noted, when someone calls us out on a racist statement, action or attitude, it’s of no use to protest, “But that’s not what I meant/said/intended!” Of COURSE it’s not. That’s not the point. My intent is not the slip that’s showing; my unconscious bias may be. And precisely because it’s not what I meant or intended, the best gift to myself is to listen, long and hard. To sit with the shame and the pain (about time some of this came my privileged way). So I can figure out what the impact was that I never intended, and how – since it’s not what I intended – not to do it again.

    The thing about unconscious bias – which neuroscientists like those at Harvard are now measuring – is that it’s unconscious. It’s rarely what I mean, believe or intend; in fact often the opposite. It’s completely invisible to me (but often not to others) unless I choose to make a practice of listening and learning what it looks like, based on the impact that other people tell me it has.

    Anne Ursu, you ask, where do we start? One useful step would be for every white person to make the intention of responding to every charge of racism with “Oh, thanks! That wasn’t what I intended, so let me go clean that up,” as if someone has just told you you have spinach in your teeth. Jay Smooth lays out this possibility in a delightful video which I highly recommend watching, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race”:

  97. Rachel Udin says:

    We all need an editor, but you seem to be complaining that:
    1. No one read your full article.
    2. That edits aren’t needed to the article to make it better to communicate what you want it to say. (Why won’t you edit it so it does say what you want it to?)

    So I thought I’d edit it for free. You know as a PoC who often has to talk to white people about race and has a lot of social Science education.

    >Don’t get me wrong.
    Usually a horrible start. Especially on civil rights issue… I’d cut this and try for a better introduction, such as the celebration of Woodson’s achievement. Lead with the PoC, rather than the white dude.

    >White guys working in children’s books have it good. In fact, it would be fair to say we have it pretty much made.

    Good–You admitted privilege.

    >But in the wake of host Daniel Handler’s remarks at Wednesday’s National Book Awards, I find myself thinking about the privileged but peculiar position white guys have in this field. (Some of what I have to say applies to the non-white guys, too, but I am not going to generalize that far.)

    So is this going to be a self examination post? I’d cut the “But” here… it sounds as if you are going to refute. Try starting with, “In the wake of” that way it doesn’t sound like a rebuttal. I’d cut the parentheses. You don’t have the right… and white [straight able-bodied] men do have an advantage.

    >I wasn’t at the event and can’t bring myself to watch the video because I know it would have me writhing in empathetic embarrassment.

    Of who or whom? You don’t make it clear. So far you only discussed Handler, not Woodson, so the attribution is to Handler by English rules.

    And even so, you should revise this statement to something like, “I watched the video and cringed at the comments.” Because you should and you should understand context for compassion before commenting on anything. It’s kinda like a reporter saying, “I have a story for you!” Boss says, “Did you do research?” Reporter saying, “No! None, and don’t intend to do any.” Would you really hire that reporter? Reconsider.

    I doubt a publisher would publish a story with lack of research. You keep defending this choice in the comments–but you don’t seem to realize how practical research is. *cough* And You are a writer?*cough*

    >So all of my information is from the transcript and subsequent internet outrage.

    Tone doesn’t tell everything, but it tells a lot.

    >And what I’m left with—even more than my happiness at Jackie Woodson’s win—is how sorry I feel for Handler,
    This is where you go into “What you said was racist” territory and people getting mad at you. You say “Even more” than Jackie Woodson’s win is that you feel sorry for Handler.

    Why does one emotion have to be comparative to the other? You are saying white guy’s racist remark has your sympathy *more* than the accomplishment of a black woman. Even if this is *not* what you meant, it needs to be edited so it doesn’t read that way.

    > how easily I could have fallen into the same trap.

    And here it continues. Instead of saying something like, “How I could have fallen into the same trap.” You could have said any of the following:
    “and I’m thankful he apologized for his racist remark–it was an embarrassing comment since I don’t feel that way.”
    “I would hope that when I say something racist, I’m faster to apologize.”
    “It makes me think that he shouldn’t have said something so racist at an awards ceremony that was public. Especially since we hold privilege, thus power.”
    or even thinking deeper… (Given your next comment).
    “But it makes me sad that people are more focused on the racism than Woodson’s great accomplishment..”

    >(I confess to some impatience with all the talk of him stealing Her Moment

    And the racism continues…
    Here you could try–“and I recognize he stole HER moment and he shouldn’t have said those things. Racism is not acceptable. He should have gotten an editor before getting up there to speak–or at least check with the PoCs around him before doing so.”

    >because Woodson is getting a way longer moment than any children’s National Book Award winner has ever gotten before. Quickly, who won last year?)

    Because talking about racism and ending it isn’t as important? This is what you imply with this line. That she’s crying racism because it’s “grabbing her attention.” You fail to recognize the history of the comment Handler made dates back to the black-facing Minstrel shows where white people would dress up as black people. You could have used this section to actually talk about the horrid history of the comment. Instead you are saying crying racism is crying for attention?

    If that’s not what you meant–you need to revise.

    >The main thing about being a white guy in children’s books is that you get a lot more attention—not to mention Caldecott Medals!—than you would otherwise, and than is really good for you.

    You deviate here. See, you finally mentioned the PoC (what halfway down) and then bring it back to white guys. I get that you are one, but seriously, when it comes to racism, this is the best you got? Lead with a white guy, then when you mention a PoC woman, you go back to the white guy dilemma… isn’t that a little self-centered? You should talk about white guys only in the context of white privilege *compared* to POCs’ experiences. There are a ton of ways you could have done this from the last year.

    >Award committees want you as a member. Conferences want you to speak. People look to you for a “male point of view”—especially when they are seeking to solve the perennial problem of The Boy Reader, attention to whose needs getting far more ink than the needs of his sister. If you’re good-looking—and here I speak from observation—you are really set. Molly Ivins would have said that you were born on third base, and, professionally speaking, she would have been right.

    I think you missed the White Privilege bit… Invisible Knapsack. This is pretty shallow inspection of White privilege since it fails to compare to say PoCs–which I don’t blame you for… Education in this country is like that.

    This can come off wrong–it can come off as, “I love White privilege” Instead of, “I hate the disadvantages that PoCs have.” See… the narrative needs to be changed so when you talk about racism, you recognize the *disadvantages* as much as the advantages–this is where you go wrong. It’s like a pat on the back and thanking your ancestors/white framers for the position.

    >It’s a nice life that’s easy to get used to.

    Again, a pat on the back. Edit this out.

    >But as Handler learned, it can bite you in the ass.

    I’d edit this. Try something like, “White privilege can often make you blind, but if one says something racist, they should apologize as quickly as possible. Whites should make an effort to learn and listen to PoC experiences. Here are a few books I recommend to do so.” (If you don’t know any, then why are you exactly speaking on this issue?) Speak plainly.

    >There he was in the spotlight, doing what he’s been amply rewarded for doing for years, and he overreached.

    Overreached? No. wrong word. You could try something like, “For years he was bathed in White Privilege and then he said something racist, which he shouldn’t have.”

    >He was trying to show us that he was as cool as we’ve long been saying he was: I am so cool I can get away with a racist-not-racist watermelon joke.

    Try direct language here. Try something like. “He shouldn’t have made the Watermelon joke because it made his White Male Privilege show. Tuck it in!” Or something like that. Instead, it sounds like putting in “Making himself cool” you’re trying to soften the blow. Don’t. Racism hurts.

    >He couldn’t, and I’m sorry there was no one to tell him he wouldn’t.

    So it’s PoCs’ fault? Really? OK, here we go. It’s not a PoC’s job to teach white people about racism. It’s White people’s job to try to seek out and learn about PoCs. I get it–your ancestors put you in this mess. Isn’t it about time you got yourself out?

    There were a thousand ways he could have *not* made that comment. Including, “Hey, can you check this joke for me?” before going on stage. Or if he wasn’t sure he could have *deleted it* It’s not anyone else’s fault but his own. You keep defending that you said it wasn’t anyone else’s fault, but his own in your subsequent posts. But look at your coordinating conjunction on THIS sentence. It’s clear you’re blaming *someone* Edit that puppy. It’s not the PoCs’ fault. It’s his. How about cutting it to “He couldn’t escape his white privilege.”

    >Or maybe he didn’t think to ask? It’s the least a guy can do.

    How about instead of softening it to a question, making it a statement. “He should have asked.” If you make it a question SAE… it’s a way of being not only indirect, but trying to soften it, and often divert. (Linguistics)

    Also, your article suffers from “What about White People” derail, which I highlighted.

    I read your entire little piece. I marked up why people objected line by line edits. Will you consider retracting or at least editing instead of doubling down–or at least conceding it was poorly written and white-centric? You say, “That’s not what I meant!” “You didn’t read what I wrote” then your job as a writer is to make your words say what you mean to the largest audience possible reading your words. Isn’t that the basics of a critique group? Or maybe get PoC to look it over… which seemed to be your point in the post (and instead you’re handling it worse than Handler by doubling down). Hey, I did it for you. Take your own advice? Or to quote you… “You didn’t think to ask. It’s the least a guy can do.”

  98. What a great video. What he says makes so much sense to me. Thank you for recommending it!

  99. I have to say, I really appreciated this conversation this morning as I sat at the breakfast table with my tea and my fifteen-year-old. My daughter is, right now, doing a unit on privilege as it pertains to citizenry and responsibility, and I think it was instructive for her to see that these are not conversations that only exist in high school classrooms (though, as her mother and an educator, I am grateful that they *are*), but grownups in the real world struggle and wrestle with these questions as well.

    Most instructive, though, was the fact that she noticed that there are some grownups here who seem to have the same embarrassed discomfort at best – and defensive posturing at worst – that her Caucasian classmates have at the mere revelation of privilege. (It should be noted here that in her school and in this classroom, white kids are the minority – about 35%. Regardless, their privilege is evident, every single day. Hence the need for the unit in Social Studies.) She said to me, “I guess I just don’t understand why it makes people mad when they have to notice their privilege.” It was a good observation, and it is a behavior pattern that we all can fix by simply reframing the experience.

    I have been talking to my kids about privilege since they were very small. Because they are privileged – even though their artist parents sometimes struggle to pay the mortgage and we don’t have house cleaners or personal assistants or consistently working cars or whatever else rich people have in their houses and family situations. But they are white in a country that gives all kinds of free passes to white people, and they are the kids of an intact family unit in a country where that kind of thing matters more than it should, and they are the children of college educated parents who themselves are the children of college educated parents. And that makes a HUGE difference. I talk about privilege not so that they have to apologize for their own experience – no one does. But rather, because I want to enlarge their understanding of the world around them so that they may better participate and know and love the whole human family. Privileges separates us. It insulates us from the pain of knowledge. It hides important facts, and alters our ability to analyze and understand even the most basic situations around us. It numbs us to the transformative power of empathy. It is the worst kind of blindness.

    And worse: privilege makes smart people stupid. As it did with Mr. Handler. It was his privilege that made him believe that he could say a racist thing and that people would think it was funny. It wasn’t something that happened to him, nor was it something that he fell into – like a hole. His privilege simply made him stupid. And then he thought something stupid. And then he said something stupid. And then the whole world sighed every conceivable sigh.

    And yes, the initial apology-non-apology was pretty bungled – though I think it was bungled in a way that is forgivable. It is a very human response to deflect. If he had stayed with that, then yes, it would have been unforgivable. But I do believe that the subsequent apology was sincere, as was his attempts at using his formidable clout to bolster the We Need Diverse Books campaign. At this point, the very best thing he can do is to shut up about the situation and start talking about the books that he’d like librarians and parents and bookstores to buy and shelve and share. Our voices sound sweeter when we use them to help others. My grandmother taught me that.

    And I don’t think it’s inappropriate to feel compassion for Mr. Handler. I certainly do feel compassion. Lots of it. Despite everything. I do think it’s important to not overemphasize that sense of compassion. A tremendous book by a tremendous writer won a tremendous award. Let’s focus on that, instead. Less Handler and more Woodson in our blog posts and discussions is likely a good course of action.

    When I talk to my kids about privilege, this is the lesson that I give them (at this point, all three of them can likely recite this word for word), “When someone points out your privilege to you – and believe me, this is going to happen a lot – there is only one proper, appropriate response: you say, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ Because that person has just opened your eyes to a thing that had been hidden from you. That person trusted you enough to believe that you were a good and compassionate person and would understand. That person just opened a door for you to allow you to be a more complete member of the human family. That person just did you the hugest favor ever. Don’t blow it.”

  100. Kate Barsotti says:

    My takeaway from this discussion (besides how tiring it is to keep having these discussions), is how hard it is to explain your reality to someone else. The privileged side sees/hears one incident or comment; the target feels yet another blow among many and reacts accordingly. It is so hard to explain the context and to show the whole fabric of degradation.

    It is hard to explain double standards. Some people are so enmeshed in that mindset (I can do this to you, but how dare you do it to me), that I am not sure any amount of discussion will help them. They don’t see it or recognize their own capacity for damage. I am not in any way singling out Roger here or referring to him personally. Double standards are all over the place. This observation is a general one.

    Books and stories may help, but my gut is telling me I will live with sexism and its consequences my whole life. Racism, too. I don’t feel very hopeful today, although I know some progress is being made. It’s much harder today to silence the victims.

  101. When I learned of Mr. Handler’s donation and pledge I wasn’t happy about it. I was still angry and disappointed. I would rather the remarks had never happened in the first place. Because it was ugly and awful and made us all aware that there is still much casual racism in this country.

    I do not think Mr. Handler is a racist. But his unfortunate remarks were. And yet he was able to own up to his mistake and apologize sincerely, without any qualifiers, and state unequivocally that yes, his remarks were racist. More than any donation that he made, I respected his apology and recognition that his words were hurtful, wrong and racist. A very difficult thing for any person to do, especially publicly. How ironic, then to read this post and the remarks of another white male poster, both talking about how we should sympathize with the offender more than the victim. And instead of approving of Mr. Handler’s sincere apology and how hard it must have been to rise above his own pride and embarrassment, they just feel sorry that he had to make it. This saddens me. But it also makes crystal clear how important it is to continue this dialogue.

    While there was no harm meant by either of the posters, the problem is that words have power. Words are weapons. When you say “I feel sorry for him bc that could have been me” then you are recognizing that you have the ability to make the very same mistake. That you yourself might have the same inherent bias that could lead you to make a highly inappropriate and racist remark. Instead of feeling sorry, what you should do is self-analyze this feeling and find out where that internal bias rests inside of you and then cut it out like a cancerous tumor. And then you will not have to feel sorry for Mr. Handler anymore.

  102. Tatum Flynn says:

    Just sticking my head back into this unholy mess to give a round of applause to Anne Ursu for the comment above (I saw some of the tweets Anne mentions, and they *were* heartbreaking) and also to echo what Gwenda said below – when so many smart people take umbrage at what you’ve said, consider that they might possibly have a point, and take a moment to just *listen*.

  103. Wow, Kirby. Really? I know a lot of guys who take public speaking very seriously, always show up prepared, and have nothing but respect for their hosts and audience.

  104. An instructional video: “Getting Called Out: How To Apologize.”

  105. Hear hear.

  106. Thanks for writing this.

  107. Freakin’ glorious. Thank you for going line by line.

  108. Very well said.

  109. I’d like to express my sympathy and empathy for Roger, who candidly expressed his feelings.

  110. Thank you everybody for a discussion that illuminates where we are. Roger, I am surprised that you haven’t watched the video. As others have pointed out, this was not the only joke made that singled out African-Americans. Mr. Handler also made an awkward comment about probable cause in reference to short-listed poets Claudia Rankine and Fred Moten. Interestingly, what we are discussing is exactly the topic of Claudia Rankine’s NBA-nominated book CITIZEN. I encourage everybody to read it to gain new perspective and insight into our ongoing issues.

  111. My sympathy and empathy also goes to Roger Sutton for being magnanimous and a true gentleman throughout. I can see people had their own interpretations of what was actually said. I loved Mr. Sutton’s rightful admission that whites have a stranglehold on the Caldecott Medal (they sure do for a host of reasons, though sheer numbers in a comparative sense make this rather inevitable) and are usually in an enviable position. For me this was a clearly a call by Mr. Sutton for racial diversity in handing out awards in honoring the Horn Book’s admirable melting pot approach year in and year out.

  112. Well said.

  113. Rachel Udin says:

    Personally, I think books can do that. All of what you said. The only ingredient you need on the other side, is the ability to understand, listen and not think, “This person is entirely unlike me in any fashion, so it doesn’t matter or apply to me.”

    It’s the second ingredient that is really difficult to come by. It’s not easy for people to let go of the idea they are “Normal” that they didn’t come here by the work of those peoples before them–that everything was their own effort–especially in an individualistic society. (or self reported that way.) It’s far easier to “Other” judge, and laugh at differences before understanding that sometimes the inside joke is funnier than the judging joke.

    With the erasure of much of history, and people denying over that history–it’s kinda self evident that humans kinda lean towards the path of judging first, asking questions later. Where self image of ourselves and our labels is more important than understanding.

    So I think the question is how do we foster the second ingredient better in our everyday–so when someone who is unlike us we are there to listen first and then ask questions second, and judge last. And celebrate those differences, while still remembering their humanity and commonalities in ourselves…

  114. Rachel Udin says:

    OK, I read the Finney essay here: nikkyfinney [dot] net/watermelon.html

    And those notes I gave you down the line–she does them brilliantly and then some. I hadn’t read hers before editing yours. So let’s walk you through–what she did different.

    You lead with the white guy and then yourself…. then after a fashion Woodson, then yourself some more, Handler some more… and that’s it. Mostly navel gazing.

    She leads with the winner, Woodson, then the problem, and then adds herself. See the order there? Winner, Problem, how she reacted. (This is something I remember from the well-taught five paragraph essay–you put the important parts first.) Then she lists a ton of other people and resources.

    The note I gave you about the history–she gives not only her personal history, but boosts and mentions other authors, which happen to include herself who have won the award who write POCs. You mentioned–well, One–Woodson. She mentions other winners of the award.

    She also happens to give boosts to books where you could read about racism in fiction–and does it smoothly.

    She talks plainly about racism–something you have trouble with, since it seems like you don’t mention PoC books at all. (Don’t worry, according to Social Sciences, this is a common issue… people often when listing books, don’t list diversity books unless asked… especially if they are privileged.)

    She also talks about actions, she personally took after the event. She says she didn’t only use words, but she used actions. (Something I couldn’t edit you to do–not within the bounds of a writing critique).

    And like a good essay–she also has a call to action to end racism and roughly how to do it/improve it. (Which IIRC my basic Lit/English classes, is a good thing…)

    Compare to… You tell the white guy to be more careful and soften your language that it was racist.

    And then in the comments you say she’s “self-glorifying” and “Overheated”.

    OK, most of your essay was talking about WHITE MEN. You mention three people. You, Handler and Woodson. She mentioned in her essay 25 and maybe 1/2 (Implied grandparent?) people. Who is Self-glorifying?

    “Overheated”–intersectionality of racism and sexism. Oh joys. Sorry, I’ve seen this a lot. Do you need a PoC woman to edit…? You didn’t think to ask…

    First of all, this is called Tone Policing and it’s wrong. (I’m naming you the derail card to look up.)

    Secondly, this is in a long line of sexism where men would put down women because they were said to be ruled by their uterus. (Never mind that anatomically the uterus doesn’t produce that many hormones, if at all, yet we still use the term Hysterical–mostly the endocrine system collectively in both male and females make hormones.) It’s saying women are irrational because you know, women have emotions and thus are not capable of so-called higher functioning thought. And that men being emotionless robots is so much superior. <–*sarcasm* Before all of the rational stuff borrowed from the Muslims, people were ruled by their humours (Spelled British way on purpose) which were, *gasp* emotions.

    This has overlap, aka intersectionality because women and PoCs were fighting together to get equal rights–easy transference–call black people women/inferior. (Often erased history from what I gather) So the best way to dismiss a person is to call them "Angry" and thus "Irrational" and thus, "Unmanly". Because apparently anger is not a valid emotion when talking about civil rights rather than *cough* yourself and your own privilege *cough*.

    Antiquated thinking which sadly still persists because of the lack of education and people doubling down on -isms and -phobias.

  115. I was wondering when you’d weigh in Annie…
    thanks for the video link, and thanks to Kate Messner for reminding us of the privilege articles.
    This ongoing debate and discussion is so rich, I’ve appreciated learning from many people in this thread.

  116. Well said, Mike.

  117. Woodson has an op ed in NYT regarding the joke: The Pain of the Watermelon Joke Here’s an excerpt:

    “By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”

  118. What Handler said was wrong and hurtful. They wrecked a triumphant moment for a wonderful writer. His contrition has been exemplary, in the best sense of the word. The scar will remain.

    Woodson’s article in the New York Times yesterday was hurtful in a different way. She said that Handler is a friend, and then shamed him in public. A person should never shame a friend in public. I hope she makes amends.

  119. She did not shame him in public at all. She mentioned and contextualized a comment that is now well known to all. In fact, I think her comments were incredibly velvet-gloved around the subject of Mr. Handler’s actual words. The rest of the piece was more of a meditation on where we have been and where we may yet go. She has nothing to make amends for. And, honestly, I find your assertion that she does to be rather odd.

    The only shameful thing were Handler’s actual words. She did not add to the shame whatsoever. I’m glad she wrote the piece. And my guess is that he is too.

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