White Privilege and the Problem with Ani DiFranco’s Apology

by Pia Guerrero



If you haven’t heard by now, many folks—not just Black feminists —are outraged with Ani DiFranco, singer, songwriter, activist and feminist icon. DiFranco planned her “Righteous Retreat” songwriter camp to be held at a former slave plantation where hundreds of slaves were tortured and murdered. From Ani’s “Righteous Retreat” Invitation:

 “We will be shacked up at the historic Nottoway Plantation and Resort in White Castle, LA…exchanging ideas, making music, and otherwise getting suntans in the light of each other’s company.”

Despite her years of activism aimed at unifying people and attacking oppression, the event planned on behalf of DiFranco served as a blaring example of how white privilege is alive and well in white feminism. For starters in the sentence above there is a huge oversight to an important word that most white folks won’t catch. The word is historic. No, really. The word is actually “historic” and along with the words “plantation/resort,” it holds a very different meaning for Black folks than for whites. Feminists, like DiFranco, know that history is really his story. But as white women it’s harder for us to remember that US history was written by whites.

It is inherently human to be self-centered and to view the world from your experience and perspective. So when we think of the word “history” we tend to be reminded of our own history, and not that of another group or race. My prejudice reared its ugly head when I first read about the intended “Righteous Retreat” location. I imagined a big beautiful white building with rolling fields of grass, and old stables turned into individual massage rooms with rose petal facials and foot scrubs. I envisioned the building “Tara” from ‘Gone with the Wind’; a place painted so beautifully by the propaganda of plantation literature. For a second, my unconscious bias failed to remind me that THIS history is a lie and was created with the sole purpose of erasing the ugly truth of rape, torture and murder of millions of Black people. Black people who are the ancestors of a lot of people I care about.

The African proverb, “Until the lions have storytellers the hunters will always be the heroes,” says it all. We live in a white culture that continues to sell us propaganda around what it means to be powerful, intelligent, valuable, and even beautiful. So while Ani doesn’t wear a white hood at night and is not a racist, she did fuck up. She is privileged as a white woman to live in a culture where her race and position in society allow her to quickly associate places of mass death and suffering with journaling and foot massages.

Yesterday, DiFranco cancelled the retreat and stated she would not have it at a different location. This came after her white privilege was called out and angry critics, on Facebook and in a petition, demanded she cancel the venue. She also issued a dismissive apology; first claiming ignorance, saying she didn’t know where the event was going to be held. And then saying,

“… When I found out it was to be held at a resort on a former plantation, I thought to myself, ‘whoa’ but I did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness.”

Notice the words she’s chosen—whether intentional or subconscious. The venue, as she puts it, wasn’t going to be held at a plantation with a dark history. It was to be held at a resort that is no longer a plantation. And therein lies her racial blind spot, and the source of an affront many white feminists and activists engage in but don’t realize. The truth is, DiFranco has the privilege, as do I, to not be reminded that plantations were the hubs of thriving slavery systems that treated people inhumanely. In addition to facing racism daily, the word “plantation” is highly triggering for some Black folks due to transgenerational trauma carried down through generations. This needs to be known and recognized. White people’s naiveté should not be used as an excuse for causing extreme hurt and anger.

Don’t get me wrong, having white privilege doesn’t mean you are evil or you did anything on purpose. It does mean you are inconsiderate in the true sense of the word and act in a racist way. DiFranco did not consider the implications and pain the location of her workshop would cause on a number of Black folks, including some fans. Every day people of color, not just Blacks, have the experience and perspective of whites rammed down their throats, whether it be on TV, in movies, government, or in school. To add insult to injury, people of color must conform to the societal structures and practices set up by the dominant white culture as “normal”. All this while being constantly reminded that they’ve landed on the wrong side of history. And so goes the pattern that fuels the racial divide in today’s feminism.

DiFranco “didn’t imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage.” While this sounded like the beginning of an apology, it wasn’t; instead the musician went into defensive white privilege mode. She probably felt attacked or misunderstood and reacted from that place. Perhaps she thought, I’m not racist, why am I being painted this way? You don’t have that right! By being defensive, and oblivious to her unconscious bias, she ended up adding insult to injury and characterized reasonable hurt and anger as bitter, un-peaceful and disrespectful. Basically, she shut down the entire conversation because she didn’t want take responsibility for being highly insensitive and prejudiced. In a perfect world, the musician would have said something like this:

 “I’ve dedicated my life to creating music and projects that work to expose racism and sexism. Yet, as a white woman, I understand I have certain privileges and biases that made it so I “didn’t imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage.” I truly apologize for the hurt and anger I’ve caused. I appreciate being called out on my privilege as I’m always working to be a better ally and advocate.”

Thanks to #solidarityisforwhitewomen and other discussions emerging from social media we are finally having very difficult conversations about racism outside of the safety of our own racial group. We all have unconscious prejudices that favor one group, usually our own, over another. Research has shown that biases we swear we don’t have persist in most of us as a “mental residue.” And while many white people are committed to equality and anti-racism, we still have negative racial blind spots when it comes to how we see and engage with other groups. From the Southern Poverty Law Center:

“Unconscious beliefs and attitudes have been found to be associated with language and certain behaviors such…Studies have found, for example, that school teachers clearly telegraph prejudices, so much so that some researchers believe children of color and white children in the same classroom effectively receive different educations.“

Let’s take this teachable moment, move our defensiveness aside and learn how to be effective feminists that fight for all women.  There’s no better place or time to start.

Being a White Feminist Ally

1) Have the courage to enter into conversations about race in mixed company.

2) Listen for the real hurt behind the anger and outrage of those who have been offended. Sit with the discomfort.

3) Know that you are worthy of respect even if your words and bias are being criticized or if you’ve fucked up.

4) Without shame, question your assumptions. Explore your biases and where they come from. Look at ways you benefit from living in a society dominated by white culture and history.

5) Resist your urge to be defensive.

6) Own your privilege and blind spots with grace.

7) Use the conflict as an opportunity to learn about the hidden history of others and build compassion, not just for others, but also for yourself.

8) Grow racially competent and study the history of race and class in America so you can better understand the experience and issues of all women, not just ones you relate to.

9) Add the issues of women of color to your feminist agenda, not just when they intersect with your own.


UPDATE: DiFranco has issued a second, more thoughtful apology here.