White Privilege and the Problem with Ani DiFranco’s Apology

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by Pia Guerrero

anidifranco

 

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.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. I just found your website and I’m amazed at the wonderful writing you have here. Thank you for sharing this piece (and the one on public hair!) I heard about the Ani stuff, but didn’t know the details. Happy to be connected and am now following you on twitter.

  2. I immediately thought of this upon reading this article. What if someone had decided to hold a retreat for songwriting at Birkenau or Auschwitz. Imagine the outcry?

  3. This article was really unreadable – not because the topic isn’t worthy of us all considering and learning from – but because the writing was so over the top and sensationalized. Ani made a mistake and I’m sure she, as a crusader for all sorts of oppressed groups, was surprised to find herself in that position. She apologized and tried to explain herself (as I would do too). It’s easy to go back and craft the perfect apology that she should have made…and then attack her for not doing it how you saw best. I like the list at the end, but overall you truly destroy the lessons that could be learned in this situation with your incendiary tone. The message of waking up to white privilege is VITAL but this is TRASH writing and I won’t be sharing the article anywhere.

  4. I agree Pierre….well said. We don’t want to forget history in our country but we also should respect all the good that has come from it. Our nation is still so young and ignorance is still bliss for some folk. Let’s continue to educate our young and the educators them selves. We still have so far to go because racism is still so prevalent but we have to give the human race time to keep learning. Generations are changing, slowly but surely.

  5. There are lots places called plantations that as far as I know nobody is protesting. In South Carolina the word plantation seems to be synonomous with resort community. I can understand in this context how someone might not pick up on the offensive aspect of supporting something called a plantation.

    And WHAT exactly would be an acceptable use today of someplace that once was a slave-using plantation? Should every one become a massive non-profit museum? Should those sites that do make profits whitewash their slave past or continue to call attention to what went on there?

    I’m not defending. I’ve had some crappy times in the South, including hotel staff that thought I would like to hear a joke with the N word in it. I’m just trying to understand if there is a right way to deal with these plantation sites.

  6. Here’s a terrific recent piece that I believe covers the reaction we could choose to have when being called out. It is simple and honest and, as @Pia mentions above, any person who is committed to acts of allyship is going to step in it sometimes. I didn’t write the below link, I only read it. As such, I hope you don’t mind me posting it here (and I hope I write my code right!).

    On being an ally and being called out

  7. I am speechless as well!!
    What a travesty of Justice! Ani should be totally ashamed of her cancellation. I hope any of you reading this, reads it all to truly understand.

    And, like you, I wholeheartedly love this African proverb!!!!

    As usual, I have a different take on Ani succumbing to the squeaky wheel, instead of using this opportunity to teach and share. This cancellation and this article also perpetuates the over-exaggeration of zealous media writers.

    Let us face reality, Ani canceling the trip to Nottoway Plantation is actually just punishing the workers in a very rural area who depend on this historical site for their livelihood. Some of these people being known direct descendants of slaves from that very plantation.

    Even from a far-liberal view, is it not the very essence of their desires, to turn this horrific place to a location of peace, music and laughter..? Shouldn’t they be celebrating how this place is used for good, teaching about slavery and life during that era? Instead of using this venue to expound upon the transformation to good, they instead punish the very thing they want to promote? Will they only be happy if the place was burned to the ground and wiped off the face of the earth? Really, they’d rather make hundreds of people lose their jobs directly and indirectly due to their indignant self-righteousness?

    Not Ani herself, but her few misguided fans who spurred on this course of action is who make me want to vomit.

    Yet, I understand their misguided beliefs somewhat, because they are also the same people who believe the garbage/lies that was written in the article.

    For example,

    The article is outraged at Ani because “to be held at a former slave plantation where hundreds of slaves were tortured and murdered. ” Obviously they were so self-righteous they would boldly lie to the readers just to shore up their poorly conceived notions. Why don’t they care to look up facts?

    Most slave owners had very few slaves. How could the Randolph’s have brutally tortured and murdered hundreds of slaves when they could only afford 155 at the peak of their prosperity? Why would most slaveowners brutally torture and murder their valuable assets?

    Can them name any of the supposed hundreds of slaves who was murdered and tortured there? Probably not…
    I can name the daughter of one of their former slaves who ran off with one of the sons of this slaveowners! Her name was Eliza Thompson and they had two daughters! Now that’s torture! Yes, this was at the very same Nottoway Plantation!

    Granted, we all know many slaves were horribly mistreated, but more were actually not. And I definitely do not mean to belittle slavery at all. Yes, some slaves where treated like animals…. But actually more like prized thoroughbreds who earned their master’s a lot of money! These slaveowners may not have agreed that their Negroes were equal to Caucasians, but mistreat them, was not really the norm.

    Want to know another lie? How about this statement…
    ” 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.”

    While Millions of Slaves in Africa were sold to the White traders, people who actually read and want to get to the truth know that less than 500,000 actually made it to the US.

    Where are the MILLIONS of slaves who were raped, tortured and murdered in the US?

    Kinda reminds me of the quoted estimates of 25-35 million people were killed during the Inquisition, when that was the approximate total number of people in most of Europe….

    You see, I truly believe in that African Proverb.
    Yet when the lions willingly go back to the hunter because they were treated well, and the future generations of lions are being punished by the anti-hunting groups especially when hunting is no longer allowed…? This is now a travesty against historical truth yet many will believe this. Why? Because the want to believe it.

    Interesting how the pro-lion people are now really re-writing the history of the lion with embellishments just to make their case more heart wrenching?

    My point is that Slavery is horrific enough. We do not need to lie to make it sound even worse. We do not have to punish the innocents who live and work there now… Some people concentrate more on what was, than what is now. There are more slaves in the world now than at that time, but very few talk about that.

    As an analogy, and horribly, 20 Innocent school children were brutally shot by a deranged teen two years ago. Yet we go crazy about that, instead of the 3,000 babies slaughtered EVERY DAY through abortion?

    While I whole heartily agree that all these things are horrific tragedies… Let us learn to THINK more broadly and thoroughly! Be grateful to the Good Lord above that we have continued to grow and mature since 1866. And not believe lies and blatant contortion of truth just to prove a point..

  8. Hi Mandy,

    It looks like Ani, after some reflection, has issued a thoughtful response. It’s on our FB page. I think everyone should be allowed mistakes concerning their white privilege. Clearly Ani had a huge one. And it shows to how powerful the indoctrination of “white is right” lives in even the most aware white activists.

  9. It’s pretty hard for me to see why, at the first mention of holding a retreat on a plantation, somebody didn’t say, Uh, no thanks. I’ve never been interested in visiting one, as it seems a sort of tacit acceptance, and I can’t do that. I certainly wouldn’t attend a Paula Deen-style wedding at one. The passive “I’m sorry IF I offended you” kind of apology is hollow. I wish people would just TRY to understand, to sit quietly for a time with the idea that maybe they don’t know everything and don’t understand why somebody would be hurt or humiliated or just discounted by a particular thing. It’s okay to say, Shit, I’m sorry. I messed up. That doesn’t make you dumb. It makes you smart to realize you may not realize.

    Ani’s been held up as a hero for years, but as far as I’m concerned, she’s okay, but she’s not all that.

  10. Thank you for your compliment and for engaging with the piece. There is such fear of being seen as being imperfect. And we need to have the courage to act and have reverence in the face of that fear.

    If you are committed to anti-racism as a white person, you WILL put your foot in your mouth as no white person alone can understand the individual experience of millions of people of color.

  11. Thank you. You are an astute and sensitive woman. I appreciate you.

  12. Ashley-Michelle says:

    Thank you for this spot-on, awesome piece. As allies who are white, identify as white, or reap the benefits of white privilege because we can pass for white, we know racism is systemic. We know it is structural. We know it is present more often than it isn’t.

    Yet we all make mistakes. Ani DiFranco truly, truly, truly made a mistake. But what’s worse is, when faced with that mistake, she didn’t own it. She didn’t apologize and try to mold it into an opportunity to establish those dialogues which she helped create in the early days of Righteous Babes. We’re not talking about Katy Perry, who has gone out of her way to distance herself from Feminism. We’re talking about a woman who helped usher in new legions of critically-thinking fans.

    It’s really disappointing. It’s a serious letdown. As I bitterly posted on the XOJane article on the subject, Ani is now going to be permanently banned from my CD player. It’s sad that the original Angry Girl can’t figure out why the rest of us are so angry.