You are probably familiar now with Justine Sacco, the U.S. public relations executive who sent a tweet before getting on a plane to Africa, and by the time the plane landed, found herself in an Internet hurricane.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
The tweet, considered by many to be racist, resulted in death threats, massive amounts of Internet noise, and her losing her job at IAC, the company headed by Barry Diller that operates sites like Match.com and Daily Beast.
The Slate discovered her Facebook profile, which shows the anguish she experienced as things blew up around her.
I’m touched and troubled by this story, which clearly reminds us that a few insensitive words can carry much more weight than the number of letters in the sentences.
First, is the challenge of racism, both overt and behind-the-scenes. I have rather strong alibis about racism, based on my young-adult overland Africa travels, concluding with 18 months as a journalist in Rhodesia turning Zimbabwe. However, some people close to me have made it clear they would never set foot in Africa under any conditions, despite my encouragement that they consider the tourist opportunities there. Second, despite my credentials, I don’t claim to be an angel regarding racist thoughts. The stereotypes and assumptions (even if unfair and false) certainly have influenced my behavior and decision-making. (There are also good business reasons for being very careful in, for example, hiring people from visible minority groups. The protections they have through the human rights codes in Canada and anti-discrimination litigation in the U.S. can cause havoc if you want to dismiss a bad or ineffective employee for cause — the departing employee plays the “racist” card, and you end up spending tens of thousands of dollars to avoid the Human Rights Commission clutches.)
Still, we are reminded by Sacco’s experience: Be careful with our words, especially if they are public, in writing, and can be transmitted widely. They can be far more destructive than any of us would ever intend.