If only moving could insulate us from racism: Thoughts on Justine Sacco

So, if you haven’t heard, Justine Sacco, (now formerly) public relations for an internet company that owns a number of websites including The Daily Beast, offered this tweet just before boarding a plane from London to Cape Town, South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Over the next several hours, the tweet went viral, spawning the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.

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Well, when she landed, she was greeted by her father, a horde of hungry reporters, and other on-lookers. She rapidly deleted her Twitter account. And she was fired: Not only did she make her company look bad by putting her racism out for the world to see, but her job is to do the exact opposite. Slate has a rundown. Read her apology here.

Her father, according to Twitter user @Zac_R, who went as a curious bystander to the airport, says that he raised Justine in the USA instead of South Africa (where he is from), because SA was too racist. What a shame that Justine’s father didn’t understand that the insidiousness of US racism can shape white people into racists just as easily and completely as South African apartheid.

Now, where we live and occupy space impacts our racial identity, but parents who explore social identities with their children and talk about privilege and power have a lot better chance of raising children who are likely to resist oppression. No matter where the children are raised.

That’s not to give an out to white families who think, “Let’s set up our house in this all-white, gated community, and just talk to our kids about privilege. That will be enough.” No, that’s not enough, that’s just lazy and entitled. You can’t expect to raise kids who resist racism, if you surround yourselves with privilege in a monoculture and only pay lip service to privilege awareness. At the same time, moving to the most diverse neighborhood and school in the world won’t automatically generate racism-resisting kids.

I don’t know how Mr. Sacco raised his children. He may have done everything right. As a parent and a son myself, I don’t find blaming parents to be very productive. Most parents do the best they can with the information and resources they have to raise their children to be decent people. Moving from South Africa to the United States in the 1980s (I’m just guessing how old Justine is) to avoid virulently racist society may have been a good idea. But moving is never enough.

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