The scandalous and sordid tale of Justine Sacco … not so scandalous. Perhaps not so “racist” as folks are quick to assume. Just another day in the life of another social media maven tripped up by her own snark. In the race to out-snark the snarkiest, Justine throws tweets on walls to see if they stick.
Ultimately, it ends up like most case studies into the lives of the dimwitted who fail to understand the limitations of the public forum. But, is it so much an example of “racism” as it is an awkward lesson in social etiquette and how our myriad forms of communication continue to clumsily evolve?
Of all people, Sacco – being the top notch PR executive that she is (or was) – should’ve known this. Yet, the fact that she didn’t begs important questions about privilege and the myth of a meritocracy that we naively embrace despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. How does a twit get elevated to the upper echelons of the corporate elite?
While we’re on race or judging whether or not Sacco engaged in racist intent then why not question the composition of her employer’s leadership? IAC’s entire senior management roster is all white and very much male (save the one white woman who serves as deputy general counsel). Sacco’s now former boss Barry Diller expressed “outrage” over the fired executive’s comments, but it’s not like he’s been populating his top team with people of color. It’s not like IAC is a shining example of diversity at work.
Many are quick to slam Sacco as born-again bigot on an anti-black rampage – yet few will admit that we’ve allowed our social media habitualisms to mask the dirty secrets of a very cruel and very impolitic society lacking empathy. Sacco cuts up on black South Africans with HIV/AIDS not because she’s on a mission to oppress them. It’s because we’re getting away with saying (with increasing frequency) really cruddy things about each other in public. Sacco, and the millions who vilify her, believe life is one endless line of unlucky front row ticket holders to a standup comedy show.
Of course, the Sacco fiasco sheds light on some significant cautionary tales on race – but not racism so much. The problem is the I-really-need-to-piss urgency with which folks of certain persuasions want to express their views on race and others who don’t look like them. Feeling boxed in and reversed on, despite the shaky foundation of the reasoning, many are lashing out – and dehumanizing people of color in the process. Much like when The Onion creepily tweeted that a 9 year old black girl was something only perverts call 9 year old kids (which is why I stopped reading The Onion altogether).
But, to a greater and more important point: racially awkward tweets are not necessarily “racist.” Perhaps they are just brutally honest. Why not use this as a moment to further inform ourselves on the fact that only 0.3 percent of white South Africans are infected by HIV/AIDS compared to 14 percent of black South Africans? In this case, Sacco – through a badly placed joke – was actually right.
Obviously, a socio-economic disparity exists that requires greater attention than a bad tweet. So, where’s the outrage on that?
We must be extremely careful in our newly acquired tendency to throw the term “racist” around as if it doesn’t carry the power that it really has. Racism is not a matter of colorful comments or the crazy things people say and tweet – it’s a systemic, institutionalized form of oppression that’s still very much alive and well through a number of alarming demographic divides. Some more destructive and intentional than others. We should care more about the disproportionate number of black children, for example, who live in poverty than what a clueless white celebrity from Utah posts about them.
The Sacco episode reveals nothing more than the convenience with which we make “racism” the new funny conversation piece on the coffee table. It’s easier to rant about it, but don’t get your hands dirty actually doing something about it.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a veteran political strategist and Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. He is also Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and a frequent contributor to The Root. Rest assured he won’t be crafting “racist” tweets @charlesdellison.