I read Sonya Bessalel’s recent WesSpeak “In Defense of Daniel Handler” with interest. I agree with her assertion that we should acknowledge that Handler has tried to make amends for his recent racist comments. However, I cringe to hear Bessalel describe the very real anger and outrage of many in the Wesleyan community as “moral superiority” in the last line of her piece: “It’s a shame many couldn’t set aside their moral superiority long enough to listen.”
The phrase “moral superiority” brings to mind a snob, a person who mistakenly believes that they are better than everyone else. I think that a lot of the anger at Handler is motivated by something more powerful than moral superiority. Can you imagine how crushing it would be, as a reader of color, to hear a children’s book author resort to tired tropes about black people in a speech? How would you feel to see a black woman mocked as she accepts an award for a book named “Brown Girl Dreaming”? I honestly can’t say that I have experienced that pain, but I am aware that racism is deeply hurtful to those who experience it. We should not dismiss some of our classmates’ outrage as “moral superiority.” I would never say that the people who organized the recent Black Lives Matter march did so out of a sense of “moral superiority.” I would characterize those actions, as well as the backlash against Handler, as anti-racist. Anti-racism is more than moral superiority. Anti-racism requires listening closely to the brown girls (and boys) who continue to dream in the face of prejudice at Wesleyan. I’m not saying that Handler should be condemned for his comments forever, but I want to recognize the rightful outrage of those on this campus who feel personally affected by Handler’s insensitivity.
Also, I want to question the idea that people are ignoring Handler’s entire career by focusing on one comment. If you look at Handler’s tenure as a novelist, it’s not quite clear that he has always been committed to featuring diversity in his works. While it’s wonderful that he donated $200,000 to the organization “We Need Diverse Books,” it’s also worth mentioning that there are few, if any, prominent characters of color in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I’m not going so far as to call him racist, but I wonder if he truly thought that racial diversity in literature was important before he was forced to. I agree with Bessalel that Handler seems genuinely sorry, and that it is important that he tried to right his wrong by donating to charity. However, I think Handler’s critics are savvier than Bessalel makes them seem.
Finally, while I support the idea of taking all of Handler’s work into account, I’d also like to consider how it might feel to spend your life fending off racist jokes. I think that many people, out of necessity, cannot afford to cut off relationships with others over a single offensive comment. Frankly, people of color on this campus don’t need to be told to forgive white people for their tone-deaf statements. They do it every day. I am thankful for my classmates who have helped me become a better person by calling out and forgiving any prejudice or ignorance that I may have expressed. However, I’m not going to judge them if they don’t extend that same generous spirit to Daniel Handler.