When I first saw Michelle Goldberg’s piece “Sympathy for Justine Sacco,” over at The Nation I was not surprised as much as I was disgusted. Cultural critic Mikki Kendall, the creator of one of the year’s most popular hashtags #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, tweeted it to her followers. The piece disturbingly exhibits exactly what feminist women of color, anti-racists, and social commentators lamented for so much of 2013. Yet again, a moment to display good allyship with people of color turned into lackluster defense of whiteness.
Justine Sacco made an apparent joke about what is arguably the most devastating pandemic in the history of the world: AIDS. A disease that has no known cure disproportionately affecting Black people not only in Africa, but in the United States as well. Her tweet left her employer, IAC, embarrassingly scrambling to respond and at the end of it all she was terminated. As a PR executive for a large internet company, it’s not hard to see why Sacco lost her job.
It’s unclear whether Goldberg’s piece is defending Sacco, defending her own right to be bigoted, or both. Goldberg describes the outrage behind Sacco’s tweet as “chilling,” and dismisses the tweet itself as a “minor transgression.” She then philosophizes about Sacco, her intentions, and why we should care what Breitbart.com thinks–the site that described those who are upset about Sacco’s racism as a “lynch mob,” a term Goldberg blitheringly echoes when she states: “Once we decide it’s OK to let a mob loose on anyone who’s offended us, the only people who are safe are those who never say anything at all.”
We see and hear people make racist comments and make a mockery of very distressing situations that are daily realities in our communities. And we see and hear that White supremacy will always provide them with a second chance. White people can always be welcomed back in ways that others cannot, and the examples are numerous. It’s the reason that Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson is being heavily defended by politicians, Christian fundamentalists, and others who cosign his blatant disregard for the Black experience. Racism apologists marinate in the United States’s melting pot over Sacco similarly to the way they welcomed a disgraced Paula Deen, who received a standing ovation some time after reminiscing about slavery. Take Michael Richards, familiarly known as Cosmo Kramer from the sitcom Seinfeld. After a having a monumentally racist meltdown on stage where he joked about lynching two Black hecklers, he’s now starring in a new show Kirstie that premiered this month. A recent sappy interview in Time magazine would have us think Richards is the victim and not the Black men he said would be “upside down with a fork up your ass” just 50 years ago. Not only are these temporarily disgraced individuals viewed as martyrs by like-minded bigots, they often have those like Goldberg who are bold enough to decry genuine public frustration and tell people of color how they should feel.
This is how White privilege works, and Goldberg is not alone in defending Sacco. There is a strong sentiment that derogatory statements such as Sacco’s should be reserved for the dinner table and not for Twitter. This is why those who rush to her defense are more focused on her problems with tweeting and less focused on the real problem of racism.
There is a clear sympathy for Sacco losing her job, despite the fact that Black people across the USA are much harder by unemployment than Whites. And HIV/AIDS continues to roam perilously through the Black community worldwide. Yet we can count on Sacco’s apologists like Michelle Goldberg to deliver the racial status quo over one woman’s deserved termination. Sacco’s own father even seems to realize the detriment of her words while others continue to miss the point. When a local reporter went to question Sacco at the airport, her father said he was “so ashamed,” and did not ask people to grant his daughter sympathy for her racism.
Instead of thinking of the people affected by HIV/AIDS that Sacco dismisses, Goldberg chooses to focus on her sympathy for the person who poked fun at their deaths. When I read a piece like this, I wonder whether Goldberg believes that someone like Marisa Alexander is worth defending with the same intensity. One woman, Sacco, holds the promise of bouncing back because of her skin color, despite the fact she sent a very racist tweet. The other, Alexander, has already been imprisoned because of her skin color, despite the fact she was saving her own life.
But the same unabashed postracial prejudice that would could inspire Sacco to send a “joke” tweet creeps along every sentence in Goldberg’s piece and out of the mouths of apologists everywhere. I expect that at this point, it’s as American as apple pie. And I might tweet that.