The Affluenza Problem with Justine Sacco’s Apology

There are no words.

Last Friday, Justine Sacco killed her career as a public relations officer with just 75 characters. But 75 seconds’ worth of reflection could have saved it. Okay, I’m lying. The amount of wrongness in the tweet shown above could not be rectified by a minute’s pause; she truly needed the benefit of all her 30 years for that miracle.

Sacco was the Director of PR for IAC, a media giant that manages brands like Vimeo, OkCupid, and Urban Spoon. That tweet, sent early morning on Friday before her flight to South Africa, sparked a firestorm of retweets and made the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet go viral. It seemed the entire world was waiting for this chick to land. By Saturday morning, both Sacco’s Twitter account and her job were defunct.

It didn’t take long for the obligatory (faux?) apology from Sacco to surface (published by the South African newspaper The Star). Of course, it was nothing like the mea culpa I’d prefer to hear from people who publicly display their bigotry. It was worse than I expected, and the apology drew more ire from me than Sacco’s original offending message.

Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet.There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand.

For being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.

This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.

So, she’s sorry, and that’s lovely. Forgiveness, truth, reconciliation, all that. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Do we really expect sudden enlightenment over the course of an international plane ride? In some ways, by drumming up outrage to a fever pitch, we leave little time for Sacco to reflect beyond a sincere regret for going viral.

That small Boeing 747 window of time means I should not be surprised that her apology was so awful. Line for line, I want to explain why I believe her supposed apology underscored the privileged, racist sentiment exhibited in her tweet.

For one, I’d like to state the painfully obvious. Her initial offense in her tweet was twofold. Not only does she link the AIDS epidemic to Africa, ignoring modes of infection (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS.”) but she also identifies her privilege as an affluent, young, white female (“Just kidding. I’m white!”)  In short, this is a textbook example of affluenza.

The apology does nothing but repeat the affluenza Sacco sneezed onto Twitter. Bless her heart. She apologizes, “…to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet.” She jokingly insinuated that the entire continent of Africa is AIDS-ridden, but only finds it necessary to address South Africans? I wonder if she directed her apology to them because it is her land of origin, or because she doesn’t want to have an “accident” during her stay.

Also, I doubt that her tweet was as careless as advertised. Both of her points were barbed enough and girded with sufficient truth (that she is less likely to contract AIDS because of her status) that they wounded.

English: Estimated HIV prevalence among young ...
English: Estimated HIV prevalence among young adults (15-49) by country. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sacco further says, “There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country [South Africa], that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis.” Sub-Saharan Africans account for nearly 70% of the world’s AIDS cases. There is epidemic there, to be clear. But that line made me see red. NPR reports that as of last year, African-Americans comprised nearly half of the million AIDS patients in the United States. I am 10 more times likely to contract AIDS than Justine Sacco. The state of AIDS cases in the black community meets the CDC definition of an epidemic.

For Sacco to say that Americans do not live with or face the AIDS epidemic, as if it only lives in Africa, de facto reiterates her “joke” that AIDS is a black African disease. It shows how insulated in privilege she is. I would love for her to clarify that “we” means white people; more of us black folk live with and face AIDS than she knows. And she is right: it is easy to joke about a killer when the knife isn’t flush against your throat.

“For being insensitive to this crisis…which terrifies us all uniformly…I am ashamed.” But she is not nearly contrite enough to realize that it doesn’t terrify us all uniformly. Women in South Africa live in danger of being raped because of the myth that virgin sex can cure AIDS. Sacco is likely more terrified of the unemployment line than about possibly contracting the AIDS virus.

“This is my father’s country, and I was born here.” Sacco is in the unique position of having American sensibilities with a South African (white) heritage. And it appears that America has taught her like she teaches many of her fairer-skinned daughters. That Africa is to be mocked and pitied, to be dealt bruises from punchlines heaped upon dark-skinned people, all without the benefit of contextualizing colonization. South Africa is her father’s country, not hers–but she is heiress to its sins. With the backdrop of apartheid inked in the lines of her birth certificate, Justine Sacco is merely living out the racist script her forefathers intended.

In writing this, I am not clamoring for a second, more PR-directed impressively written apology. Sacco demonstrated well enough her regret over hurting South Africans with her language. No, I am more dismayed that she will return to my country, blind as ever. Her tweet and subsequent apology prove that black people the world over are invisible to her and always will be.

What did you think about the Sacco debacle? 

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17 thoughts on “The Affluenza Problem with Justine Sacco’s Apology

  1. I cannot count how many times I’ve been present when some witless wonder casually made a racist remark, confident that my whiteness meant I wouldn’t find it offensive. I always made sure to correct that misapprehension, but afterward had little more recourse than spreading the word at the equivalent of the water cooler. For one, I’m very glad to see the internet do some good: she may not change her mind, but this sort of public shaming is a vast improvement over the days when privilege could smugly, privately reinforce itself with hateful views and ignorant comments.

    1. Honestly, I’m beginning to think of racism less as an all-encompassing evil, but a dark spot of it. I don’t think that people are worthless and irredeemable if they prove to have traces of it. I think it’s a piecemeal education (Justine Sacco learning more about AIDS in the US, for example), addressing your erroneous ideas and changing them over time.

      1. I agree that Justine’s public faux pas was an idiotic expression of typical racist culture. But I would describe her kind of racism as an enduring cancer, more than a black spot. She was an executive – people used to report to her. Think of the poor African in the workplace that gets judged by her just for being black. And in her apology she retains her white privilege smugness. In South Africa, white people do get HIV. In fact, every white HIV infected person I’ve met in South Africa got it from another white person…

      2. Sacco made use of an unfortunate comedic/stereotypical trope in her tweet: Use a truth (that black Africans comprise the majority of AIDS cases) to provide a false support for an exaggerated lie (that ONLY black Africans contract AIDS). That disregards the myriad ways people become infected and how cultural interaction affects that. She undoubtedly had some reach as a PR exec, but it’s hard to say how far her prejudice and blinding privilege affected her interactions. I hold off on assumptions and work with only the fodder she’s given me. (which is plenty).

  2. I have no idea what’s going on with that Justine Sacco “authored” comment above, but um. The biggest problem here – for me – is the ever-present attempt toward the eugenics argument. It isn’t that a country has been disparaged, dehumanized, deconstructed, decimated or very thoroughly devalued – it’s that they are genetically predisposed to disease. Nothing to do with historical and present-day circumstances and the result of literal actions that would require responsibility be taken. They’re sick because they’re black. Way to go, world, for letting people get away with displaying this “scientific racism” and then “apologizing.”

    To be clear, I feel for her. There has to be room for grace – maligning the person forever won’t result in world change – but there also has to be a standard for repentance.

    1. She did all that was ‘required’ of her. She apologized. We can’t supervise any further enlightenment or ensure that her views will change. We’ll forget about this in a week, and she’ll go on with her privileged life.

      1. I reserve the right to extend grace (not thinking she can’t change) in case she does, but I’m also gonna call it what it is until such time. But please believe – that won’t change her privilege, you speak true.

  3. Hi Dara. I’m from South Africa and have honestly been infuriated by Justine Sacco and both her ignorant tweet and her insincere apology. I’ve been dying to encounter a response like yours because I genuinely just think people do not understand the hidden discredit in her apology and are being compromising because she did “apologize” in the first place. Your response is as accurate as ever to how I analysed her apology and I agree with everything you wrote here 110%.

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