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“This is the first time in the history of the world where white men have to watch their tongue.” – Chris Rock – Kill The Messenger.
That quote was from Chris Rock’s most recent stand-up special in 2008. And it’s especially piquant – although he should really have said “white people” – when considering Jon Ronson’s New York Times Magazine piece about Justine Sacco, and how a tweet “ruined her life”.
A quick recap. Sacco received huge opprobrium in December 2013 for a racist tweet that read; “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white.” It led to her being upbraided online, and Sacco was summarily fired from her PR senior director position at IAC.
But this all happened in 2013. So, why has this story come back through the news cycle again? Why have other people, beside Ronson, recanted Sacco’s tale through a sympathetic prism, explaining how it was an unthinking tweet, and how Sacco’s was unfairly maligned by the public outrage machine, largely fuelled by Twitter?
As Patrick Blanchfield wrote in the Washington Post; “Why are we making this person our go-to cautionary tale of how social media can derail careers, a case study in unjust persecution, and an inspiring narrative of image rehabilitation and forgiveness?”
Why indeed? While a large aspect is to do with the nascent breaking of the fourth wall in our discourse between the chorus and the audience, and we shouldn’t overlook the factor of who in our society is entitled to redemption, there’s also a scintilla of something rather malignant at play.
While I expect it wasn’t intentional, these pieces have an alarming underpinning, which is to regulate the acceptable forfeit for racist conduct. These recent pieces are all worring not just because they place the focus on Sacco, but because they also place the focus on whiteness.
In this version of the story, the perspective of the white person is the only one that matters, and any harm that was caused to others may not be ideal, but remains a secondary concern.
For clarity’s sake, I don’t wish any ill on Sacco. I imagine she felt remorse for her actions, and assuming she makes a genuine effort to try and ameliorate past behaviour, I don’t mind that she’s been employed again in a new PR position.
But the anguish Sacco may have underwent is nowhere near equivalent to the pain felt by people of colour when racist acts rear their head. And attempts to launder her reputation, rather than allow those hurt by racism to have their say, is white privilege in action. Sacco may have “joked” that she was immune to AIDS because she was white. But an immunity to gainful employment is one thing she doesn’t have to worry about.
The power of whiteness is also illustrated in how over a year can pass before these attempts to alter the narrative arrived on the scene. Because whiteness isn’t just dominant. It isn’t just pernicious, it’s also patient.
This whole affair is bigger than Sacco or Ronson. This isn’t specific to either of them. This is about PoC needing a greater say in how they are depicted in this world, and how whiteness has to learn how to mediate with these shifts in our understanding of race, as testified by Rock’s quote at the top of the page.
Our common vocabulary plays a significant role in this respect. We see it today with the word “thug” being used as a surrogate for the n-word in America, or how some still feel that “coloured” is an acceptable term. As Josh Lee recently wrote; “Language and meaning are inextricably tied to who or what is being discussed, and the discussion’s audience.”
Racism is an edifice, made up of myriad building blocks. One of which is linguistics. While using the “right” words won’t undo racism on its own, we can’t forge any kind of anti-racist path without correct language. Not correct in a grammatical sense, but correct in a way that doesn’t ossify structures of bigotry.
That’s why it’s vital that our reaction to Sacco’s tweet isn’t just to brush it off as trivial, just because a substantive amount of time has passed. It’s why we can’t allow whiteness to dictate what counts as hurtful.
Talking about the febrile nature of social media is a significant topic, and one that should be part of our conversations. But Ronson misses the point when he laments the way that Sacco was excoriated. The point isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about the privileged having freedom to harm. That’s not a world I want to live in.
 – Although the fact that a slew of articles have been released speaking in her defence, all around the same time, leaves me sceptical. Let’s be honest, it’s a pretty good PR move.
 – I don’t have the capability to put such pain into words, so I’ll cede the floor to Richard Pryor.
 – I should mention that some of the abuse Sacco got after her racist tweet was equally abhorrent.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. “Pop culture to sport, and back again“
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).