Friday, November 21, 2014

The Daniel Handler Thing

First off: context, for those who haven't followed this particular minor tempest.

I was struck by the fact that this was an entirely self-fulfilling prophecy: Daniel Handler pretty much exactly said "I could never write about a black woman allergic to watermelon, because a whole bunch of people would call me racist."

And, by saying that, he mentioned a black woman allergic to watermelon, and so was called racist by a whole bunch of people. That's it; that's the whole source of the complaint: he said that he learned that Jacqueline Woodson was allergic to watermelon, that she joked that he should put it into a book, and he replied that he'd need a half-dozen major Black Americans to say that was OK.

Now, people can and will get offended by whatever strikes them, and anything that offends a reasonable-sized number of people is at least problematic. (Though that's a sliding scale: the same people up in arms about Handler wouldn't care if a much larger group of white rural Republicans were pissed off at something they did, for example. We care about offending the people we respect -- no so much the others.) But this was incredibly thin gruel for "racism," and the more that responses like this are seen as knee-jerk reactions to minor gaffes and failed jokes, the easier it is to say that this is as bad as racism gets.

To be clear: what Handler said wasn't racism, and (as far as I can tell) it was entirely factual. There is racism out there, and I expect a Missouri grand jury will display a large helping of it any day now. Conflating major problems with any speech referencing stereotypes, though, will only confuse the issue and make it easier to deny.

Think about it this way: if Woodson had described the exact same conversation, would anyone have a problem with it? This is perilously close to "it's racist for a white person to talk about a black person" -- not "those people," but about a specific, actual person and describing a real event. If your aim is to get white people to understand and treat black people better, insisting that they never talk about black people is a really stupid strategy.

Complain about whatever you want, but don't be surprised if your lack of proportion makes other people increasingly ignore you. 

(It also reminded me of that blog post that's been a linked a lot in the SF world recently -- the very vague one that says something like "we People of Color are going to go off and decide amongst ourselves how everyone should feel about This Situation [unspecified; probably the Requires Hate ball of wax but not necessarily] and we'll tell you what to do and think once we've decided that for you." I suppose it's progress that we're supposed to take our cues from oppressed people rather than powerful ones these days, but it's still massively presumptuous. And, again, telling people what to think is not a good strategy to begin with, so telling them that you will tell them what to think sometime later is even worse.)

This may just be my particular bugbear: I'm a reflexive contrarian, so if someone wants me to believe X, I'm immediately gravitating to not-X. (I was a solid Republican for a couple of decades almost entirely because I went to a liberal arts college that tried really hard to indoctrinate me in the first couple of months of my freshman year.) But, really: a sense of proportion is a requirement for being a functioning adult. Try to develop one.

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