By now most of the world has heard of Justine Sacco and her racist tweet. Whether she intended to slander an entire continent, people group, or those suffering from AIDS is still left to be decided. Her statement could have just been a horrible (and still racist) joke not thought through.
And that is entirely the point.
Justine, and countless others, don’t think things through when it comes to Africa (or the myriad countries situated on that continent). There is little reason to examine how or why the statement carried deeply hurtful connotations but the tweet itself shows some deeper issues. Starting with, “Going to Africa,” Sacco mentions her destination as if it just one homogenous place. The destination has no other signifier and I am sure to her world that is the case. Despite begin the second largest continent, containing 50+ nations, over 2,000 languages, many distinct cultures, and hugely divergent ecological zones, to Sacco it is just one place. A place to potentially die, of AIDS.
Africa as a singular destination is no new thing, featured in films and media for decades as “that place where those people live,” Africa is easily viewed as one dangerous place.
In junior high school our refrigerator broke and my mother called a repairman who had been referred. When he arrived his skin tone and accent stood out to me as a white kid in rural California. He was warm and kind and a whiz with the fridge and began to share stories of his home. “Where are you from?” my mother asked. “Ghana,” he said. We both acknowledged our awareness of it, mine probably from Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego? the popular kids TV gameshow and video game. He smiled and told his he was surprised we knew where it was. “A previous customer said he had heard of it,” he told us. “‘That is south of New York, isn’t it?’ he told me.”
Typical of an American to remove something completely and add it to our Americanness. However, we do a disservice to “Africans” of every country by lumping them into one mold. Not only do they more easily become carriers of our prejudices, we make them into carries of disease in the next step. Sacco’s first step in making up for her monumental mistake is to unpack the language she used and begin to see Ghana, Niger, Lesotho, South Africa, Tunisia, DRC, Djibouti, and all of the other places.
When our “others” are just one “other” is when they are most cemented in that form. When we can begin to see what makes then unique they start to take other forms, the true ones not easily mocked.
So as a white American, I apologize for doing this as well. I seek to see the pieces and the whole. Or to at least know Ghana is not south of New York. That’s the least I could do.