Tweeting Racism: Lessons From Justine Sacco’s Twitter Scandal


December 30, 2013 05:59 EDT

South Africa’s AIDS epidemic exists because of colonialism and apartheid.

In what has been dubbed the "Tweet heard around the world," Justine Sacco, former head of corporate communications at InterActiveCorp (IAC), tweeted the following before stepping on a plane to Cape Town: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" Since the infamous tweet, Sacco has been removed from her position and has received widespread censure.

The shelf-life of Sacco’s Internet infamy is nearing its end — if it hasn't reached there already. The former public relations manager tweeted, traveled, apologized and was fired in quick succession, while the rest of the world has moved on even as it participates in shaming and "tsk-tsking." Much has been written about what Sacco did, and much has been written about the response. But how does this affair reflect on Africa as a whole, as well as our perception of the continent?

There is an important place for anti-racist activity. Calling out racism, especially its structural manifestations, is a vital part of dismantling it. In fact, calling out a racist joke for being racist is something that needs to be done, but that shouldn't be the end of it. And yet, this is all that came from the Sacco affair. Instead, there should be an effort to have a broader discussion about why this incident happened in the first place.

Africa: The Constant Other

After all, Sacco could only think that AIDS being a (black) African disease was funny because, as Aaron Bady notes: "It’s something that a lot of people actually, secretly believe, but feel precluded from openly saying, because, hmm, that sounds racist." 

Bady is also quick to point out that even the good-intentioned responses to the Sacco hubbub are tinged with racism, by turning Africa from the punchline of a joke into a pet project. AIDS exists around the world, but today we raise money for AIDS victims only when they are from Africa.

Africa’s place has changed rapidly in the past decade. It has been depicted as a hopeless continent and a rising power, but almost never anything in between. Africa is submerged in war or crippled by corruption; it is creating vibrant art or innovating new technologies; and it continues to be an "other" that is not part of the conversation. 

The response to Sacco could easily be categorized as what David Brothers calls, passive white supremacy – a conversation that could be about AIDS in Africa is instead turned into a conversation about Sacco being racist, and the masses of the Internet were able to be not-as-racist-as-Sacco, while still largely enjoying the privilege of being white and not having AIDS.

Apologies and the Truth

It is a given that Sacco made a racist joke, while others can debate over whether her fate was just. In her apology, Sacco said: "There is an AIDS crisis taking place in [South Africa], that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis." She also said that she was ashamed "for being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly." 

This is what we expect and even what we want her to say in an apology; however, what she said isn't entirely true.

AIDS does discriminate by race. It does this because our societies allow it to. Sacco’s joke is a joke precisely because it is true: being white means she probably will not get AIDS. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS for blacks in South Africa was 13.6% in 2008. For whites it was 0.3%. While the conversation rightly lambasted Sacco for a stupid, awful joke – the discussion should also turn to why the AIDS crisis has unfolded the way that it has.

South African history, like much of African history, is fraught with racism that resulted in real damage to black lives and livelihoods. South Africa’s AIDS epidemic exists partially because of what colonialism and apartheid did to South African livelihoods — that much is clear. The forced migration, the damage to family life in rural tribal lands, and the lack of proper healthcare in predominantly black areas are all remnants of colonialism that have a hand in the current AIDS crisis. 

Sacco’s joke was hinged on this being clear. And yet, it seemed like people ostracized her not because they felt a need to help Africa fight the AIDS crisis, but because they needed to make sure they were not associated with her.

What Sacco’s tweet and the subsequent uproar show is that Africa is still absent from our consciousness. For both Sacco and her critics, Africa remains a place that one "goes," not where one "is." We should be talking about Africa, its good parts and its bad, as a part of the global community and not as an "other." If Africa really is "rising," as so many magazine covers have claimed, then it is time to engage the continent as an equal and not as a faraway place.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved


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