For the last ten years, Ani DiFranco has been my own personal Goddess. She was my favorite artist since the day I became a teenager, giving me music about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Most importantly, she had a myriad of songs about feminism, workers rights, politics, white privilege, being queer, and environmentalism, all topics that have been of great interest to me over the years.
In the last few days, there has been an internet explosion over a songwriting workshop she had planned called Righteous Retreat in the Big Easy. The problem? The retreat is to take place at the Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.
According to the Nottoway website, it was one of the largest plantations in the South, with 155 enslaved people to its name. The history section of the website whitewashes the issue to the point of offensiveness and waxes poetic about how “various records indicate that [the slaves] were probably well treated for the time.”
Needless to say, holding a self touted feminist/progressive event at an old plantation is a move that ranges from racially insensitive to incredibly offensive.
When I first saw blog posts calling Ani out, I immediately felt defensive of my hero. Surely she didn’t mean any harm! She must not have realized that hosting an event at a plantation without the slightest mention of the venue’s history was a terrible idea! She can’t be racially insensitive because she wrote a song about white privilege that one time!
Then I remembered Sarah Milstien’s article, 5 Ways White Feminsits Can Address Our Own Racism where she tells us to “use your defensiveness as a Bat Signal, alerting you to your own biases.”
I started reading posts by women of color, often Ani fans themselves, who were responding to the issue. I began with Toshi Reagon, a singer-songwriter who has been a long time collaborator and friend of Ani DiFranco, and who was teaching at the retreat herself. In her statement on the issue, she writes that plantations really trigger her. After all, Toshi was the “first generation that did not pick cotton in family on [her] mom’s side.” But Toshi says that as a black woman, “I have to find my way into and negotiate most of the places I go to do work. It is not always easy. I am used to being a ‘one’ – but I think of it as part of my work.” But she added that there is no “Toshi line” about going, no justification that because one woman of color was planning on teaching there, it makes the venue itself okay.
A ForHarriet.com article, who’s title says it all, (Dear White Feminists: You Cannot Reclaim an Oppression you Have Never Experienced) blasted a number of white Ani defenders for the way they were engaging in the online dialogue. One notably disgusting example was cited in the article, where a white woman on facebook wrote:
“Slavery is over. Those days are gone. Why don’t you join the venue and reclaim the meaning of what the venue could mean. Make it a place that serves a BRAND NEW purpose. Show your fearlessness by showing up and knowing you are allowed to be there to give it new meaning. Don’t let the history of a place push people away. DO YOU and know we can all come together.”
The woman then created a fake facebook account of a black woman and used the “black authority” it gave her to defend her original statments against the ensuing shit storm. Supposedly attempting to “sound black,” she wrote in an urban vernacular and included typos for extra racism points.
The grossness in this stunt aside, I want to respond to her original words. In my humble opinion: When an issue like this comes up and you are a person of privilege, you don’t tell an oppressed group that the bad times are over. You don’t tell them how to deal with triggering issues or how to create a better future. You listen, and listen hard. Once you do, maybe even ask how can I support you?
Being called out doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you were never an intersectional feminist to begin with. It doesn’t even mean that you are now the Uber Racist. But it does mean you should stop, check your reactions, check your privilege. It might mean you have apologize and change your actions.
Women (and men) of all colors certainly spoke out against the retreat, demanding a change in behavior from Ani. Blog posts were written, facebook comment sections were swamped, a Twitter battle opened up under #righteousretreat, and a Change.org petition to cancel the retreat gained 2,0000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
Last night, Ani came out with a statement announcing she was canceling the event. She explained her rational behind the venue, owned up to the privilege in her perspective, and admitted she misjudged. I was pretty happy with the first 30% of her statement. But then she started including a personal defense, and contended that the issue was oversimplified by some. I have huge issues with part of her statement, where she told us “I know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. However, in this incident I think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain. I cancel the retreat now because I wish to restore peace and respectful discourse between people as quickly as possible.”
This part sounds like a total derailment, tone policing, and implies she is more concerned about PR than the dialogue at hand. In my ideal fairy-land where dreams come true, she would have just stuck with an explanation and actually included a direct apology. But perhaps, as she mentions, “it is a very imperfect world we live in and I, like everyone else, am just trying to do my best to negotiate it.”
Ani’s facebook comments are divided and so is my opinion about her response, though I’m leaning towards disappointment. What do you think? Read her statement and tell me your feels in the comments below!