The retroactive reaction

When will we stop missing the bigger issue?


The following is from Jon Ronson, writing an adaptation from his upcoming book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” for The New York Times Magazine. On Justine Sacco:

Sacco had been three hours or so into her flight when retweets of her joke began to overwhelm my Twitter feed. I could understand why some people found it offensive. Read literally, she said that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people. But after thinking about her tweet for a few seconds more, I began to suspect that it wasn’t racist but a reflexive critique of white privilege — on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors. Sacco, like Stone, had been yanked violently out of the context of her small social circle. Right?

Sam Biddle for Gawker in a mea culpa of sorts:

Justine Sacco has a PR job she enjoys now, but she deserves the best and biggest PR job, whatever that may be. Give it all to her.

These articles, while important for entirely different reasons, are missing the bigger issue. They’re looking at a woman against a mob, which is certainly one angle, but I believe a more pressing conversation could have come from this situation. This was a chance to begin a conversation about the mentality of white free-from-consequence privilge. Instead, we seem to be set to perpetuate that privilge.

A day after this happened, back on December 21, 2013, I wrote about this. Some of it will be quoted below. I still stand behind every word I wrote. 

Perpetuating her privilge is why comments coming from white guys like Ronson, Biddle, and Dave Pell claiming, “It was almost all about fun and entertainment,” really piss me off. I’m not going to rail on any of these writers for having blind spots, but I do have a problem with them putting everyone in buckets, and more or less apologizing for her after the fact. What she said was terrible. Yet, the overreaction following has absolutely nothing—nothing—to do with the real issue here: Why it was wrong for a person whose job title included the words senior public relations to ever say that in a public forum.

They may claim, “Of course it was awful! I would never condone anything like that,” and I would believe them. I don’t doubt that they’re good people. That still doesn’t change this attempt (by a PR professional, no less) to whitewash this incident after the fact. To make the top Google search result a positive Justine Sacco story, instead of a critical conversation about race. 

Job well done.

Job well done.

So, as for my question from 14 months ago:

Although she now finds herself without a job, that simply sweeps the issue under the rug. The internet feels like they won. And while someone who probably should not have been in a high ranking position at a huge company like IAC (,,, CollegeHumor, Vimeo, and many more websites you’ve heard of) lost her job, did she — or anyone, for that matter — actually learn anything? 

The answer is a resounding, “No.”

Now, there is absolutely a point to be made by those quoted before. The mob mentality of the internet is downright dangerous. One thing I made sure to be very clear about in my original post was the following:

[She doesn’t deserve] to be torn apart for the downright dumb things [she] said this week. Nothing should condone violence. Anyone threatening Ms. Sacco for her racist remark is just as wrong as she was when she hit “Tweet.”

But I’d argue there’s better causes right under their noses worth calling out than trying to clear the name of Justine Sacco.

No matter how innocent her intent, no matter her family history, no matter the inappropriate response of many (most?), some things have not changed.

Like this:

I have to interview with people like Ms. Sacco if I want a job in communication or marketing … And while it’d be just as wrong of me to generalize every white person in a managerial position at every company, hearing comments like this are harder and harder to digest when I get rejection letter after rejection letter.

This still hasn’t changed:

How am I supposed to feel when I see company websites featuring pictures of their employees and not a single one is black?

Or this:

It’s not about ignoring color, or gender, or sexuality. I know many gay people who are all extremely proud of their sexuality, as they should be, and pretending like their sexuality doesn’t exist is just as unfair.

But most of all:

It’s about understanding that when you surround yourself only with people who look, and talk, and act like you — you can’t pretend to know how someone else feels.

And finally:

Ms. Sacco can delete her Twitter account (and she has) and while she’s currently without a job, I doubt it will be a permanent situation. If over 1.7 million people support Phil Robertson, I’m sure she’ll find at least one who supports her.
But the rest of us can’t change our skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation. And that’s why comments like this are not ok.

We wonder why diversity in tech is almost nonexistent, but then we’re willing to so quickly move on from this. We’re willing to ignore the attitude that shapes the culture that influences the hiring decisions.

She wasn’t doing her best Stephen Colbert impression. She wasn’t writing headlines for The Onion. Instead, she posted a bad joke on her personal Twitter account to only a handful of friends and followers, mixed in between what were completely average, benign tweets.

Am I the only one that finds it dangerous to retroactively file that under “satire”?

Andy Newman