Unless you have been living in a different galaxy (and if you have, I would really like the address), you probably know who Justine Sacco is. Justine Sacco, now formerly the PR executive for media company IAC, sent out this now wonderfully notorious tweet last Friday before she boarded a plane to South Africa:
The tweet, which to my knowledge was picked up by a staff member of BuzzFeed, went viral. This led to trends on Twitter such as #hasJustinelandedyet, #Justinehaslanded, and #JustineSacco, taking over this past weekend’s world interest. The Internet went crazy and Ms. Sacco soon found herself apologizing for her words, and without a job. Our modern communications can be quite cruel, can’t they? One of my favorite quotes which is the bio of Piers Morgan’s Twitter, reads, “One day you’re the cock of the walk, the next a feather duster.” Ms. Sacco is currently the personification of this quote.
If I come across amused, it’s because I am, and for several reasons. I received a few messages about the incident as it happened from friends and colleagues and even readers, asking for my opinion! I assumed it’s because people know that I am actively resistant to negative African stereotypes. So I suppose writing about Ms. Sacco’s actions was inevitable for people who know me well. However, besides this amusement at the transparency with regard to my interests, I am also entertained by this tweet considering Ms. Sacco’s personal history, her position as a PR executive, but mostly by the reactions to her tweet.
In the first place, I’ll start with the obvious – Ms. Sacco, whose father is a South African, apparently raised her away from apartheid South Africa because it was too racist. Oy, irony number one. Although, as the song goes, “everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes,” so we’ll give her a pass on that. The greater irony is that this lady is the PR executive of a major corporation, and somehow doesn’t have the better sense to foresee the problematic consequences of such communication? Yikes. And if you’ve read any of her past tweets that have been brought to light, you get the sense that her personal communications is wrought with inappropriateness for someone in her position.
Yet to be perfectly honest, the media and people’s reactions to what she said is the real source of amusement, and the thing that is most worthy of discussion. Truthfully speaking, I think Justine Sacco is just another example of someone who clearly wasn’t disciplined enough as a child, especially as a child with African parents. Because till this day, there are some things that will never leave my mouth out of fear and respect for the people who gave birth to me. It’s that simple. So while I think Justine Sacco suffers from diarrhea of the mouth, a problem that is easily cured by thinking before one speaks, or in this case before one tweets; let’s not make Ms. Sacco a scapegoat for what is ultimately a story and stereotype often promoted by Western media of Africans.
I tell people that being an African is a full-time job, especially when you live in this part of the world. It often brings laughter, and indeed I laugh too. But not for the same reason as the audience to which the joke is directed towards. The audience laughs because they think that I am making light of being African in a world that knows little about Africa. But really, I laugh at the perpetual ignorance that the West, in its unceasing superiority-complex, upholds of Africa and Africans. The result being a never-ending battle for Africans in Africa, and in the African diaspora, always coming from a position of defense in order to speak for themselves and their continent in a manner that is dignified and situated within an African construction, rather than the West’s construction of Africa.
I have often written of the stupidity that I have faced as a result of being African in this country in terms of jest. Obvious jest, but jest nonetheless. I have found humor to be a very important tool in dealing with ignorance of my identity even by people I call friends. But rest assured that it is always a fight to have a conversation that is countercultural to the story that has been told by the West of Africans, for centuries. Even by people who have been to Africa for one reason or another, there is a patronizing sense that their mere visit, whether for a mission trip or a service trip or a holiday or for business reasons – that their short stay in one small corner of the continent – was and is a definitive picture of the African continent.
Sometimes I respond disagreeably to such claims, other times I remind people that they cannot get the sense of a whole continent and many times even one of the countries in that continent, by visiting one place in it. Yet still other times I am silent out of mere disgust that people who claim to be so educated and enlightened, can be filled with such a prejudiced and peculiar imagination of what an entire people can be characterized as; and most times it is caricature. But mostly, I make jokes in order to make a mockery of misguided assumptions, and to showcase how these are filled with inaccuracies, and littered with the West’s desire to always feel that they are so much better than us, us – the dying, warring, starving, diseased, AIDS-wrought, continent of people. Are you laughing yet?
If I sound bitter it’s because I am; call me bitterly amused. There are so many stories of Africans’ inferiority that it is tiresome to respond to all of them. And yet here I am, doing just that. Again. Because I’m not bitter at Justine Sacco – not one bit. I am bitter at the history and the present of the nations and cultures which make it possible for such an attitude towards Africa to foster among supposedly educated people. So to me it is quite entertaining to see how the mob that is the Internet (which like it or not I have participated in, when I have lacked better judgment) will go after Ms. Sacco and her bad joke. Not because it is littered with ironies, but because the same people who will go after Justine Sacco – who is not the first person to make a bad joke about Africa – will continue in their hypocrisy to perpetuate their ignorant views of Africa and Africans both online and offline. The only difference is they may not hold a prominent position professionally, and they haven’t been caught. Not yet anyway.
Yes, being an African is a full-time job not just because I have to endure constant assumptions by people who don’t know much about their own history in relation to Africa’s. Not just because I have to defend and continually promote the need for African voices in a global stage. Not even because of infamous, distasteful jokes that when it’s all said and done, will be forgotten by maybe everyone except the perpetrator within a week or so. But it is a full-time job because I constantly have to remind the institutions and structures of the West that allow for such a disparaged view of a continent. A continent that historically and presently has been robbed of many things, but especially its capability to be the primary author of its own identity and construction.
So to end my conclusion of this unfortunate fiasco, I’d remind everyone that while we’re so quick to point a finger at Justine Sacco, who certainly should have had better sense; we should also remember in this part of the world, that there are three fingers pointing back at you. After all, Ms. Sacco and her views are hardly the anomaly in this part of the word. In my personal experience, her and her viewpoint are not the exception but the rule. Perhaps it may be worth it to look at the culture and the society that allows for such a viewpoint to prevail. Indeed, as we say in Africa, “It takes a village to raise a child.”