About a month ago, just before Christmas, Justine Sacco, a New York-based PR executive tweeted the following before departing for South Africa. Her not very articulate Tweet went viral, got her fired, and agitated quite a few folks. Her remarks were certainly insensitive and reflect an unhealthy race-based appraisal of HIV/AIDS, yet I can’t help but feel the reaction was way overblown in light of previous racial discourse that I’ve frequently heard from whites on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
On this blog, I often make hard-hitting offensive remarks (such as these) and though I like to think that I’d avoid doing something so inflammatory in a tweet, (particularly in a way that favors my own race at the expense of another), who really knows?
While I don’t believe there is any scientific evidence indicating that it is possible for white people to avoid HIV, I understand there is much statistical evidence regarding high rates of HIV in many African countries, where most people are not white – although ironically, Justine is well-positioned to know the nuances of that statement as she was born in South Africa.
While Justine’s short tweet certainly did not get into the social and economic factors that lead to the spread of HIV, It does seem that she is promulgating a racial stereotype that statistically at least, has some validity. Sarcasm, a trait that seems to be embraced in American more than anywhere else I’ve been to, bites less when it is not grounded in any semblance of reality. Perhaps those who were hurt most by her tweet are HIV+ white South Africans.
I studied abroad in Namibia. For me and almost all of my fellow study abroad students, it was our first time on the continent. I was shocked by some of the glib, sarcastic references that my classmates made to HIV/AIDS when commenting on people who were sick, dirty, or just looked different from those that midwestern middle class liberal arts students are used to interacting with. I never heard such comments directed toward white Namibians. There is certainly a problem in the West with a proliferation of irrationally negative views of Africa, a sentiment Justine succinctly captured in her tweet. I am confident that large numbers of Westerners who visit Africa, experiencing little more than safaris and dance troupes, have made comments similar to those of Justine’s. When I returned to the US, many people asked me if I was afraid of contracting HIV as a result of visiting Africa.
Those I studied with in Namibia were occasionally prone to similarly offensive comments, at times expressing fears that they were susceptible to HIV by just hanging around people they thought had a positive status.
Someone recently remarked to me that the public is generally more critical of public comments about race from whites than non-whites. I had not seen this incident in that light, but perhaps that sentiment is applicable here. Justine Sacco’s sarcasm is mirrored in the many condescending comments I’ve heard in southern and west Africa from both idealistic Peace Corps volunteers and study abroad students (both groups being overwhelmingly white). They often employ conceited sarcasm to discuss their African experiences and the truth is that such comments are encouraged by the fact that these groups do get away with a lot by virtue of being white foreigners.
While criticisms of Justine come from all corners, all things considered, I see the uproar over Justine’s tweet as little more than a self-serving hypocritical campaign that makes the aforementioned individuals feel more secure about what they see as their superior racial views.
A more sophisticated consideration of the Sacco affair can be found here.