Voices and choices: reflections on Ani DiFranco, feminism & racism

i’m no heroine
at least, not last time i checked

– Ani DiFranco in ‘I’m No Heroine’

A gargantuan mess has exploded over last the few weeks over a controversy surrounding American indie folk artist Ani DiFranco. Ani’s official apology Thursday set off another wave of public opinion and media response, and this circus may not yet be over. As a lifelong fan, I’ve spent a great deal of time reacting to the reactions, thinking about my own ideologies, and figuring out how I can turn this imbroglio into an opportunity to be a better feminist and human being.

Disclaimer: I am not in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Ani DiFranco or Righteous Babe Records. I ran an Ani DiFranco fan site called ani-difranco.net several years ago and eventually sold the domain and content to her record label for a modest sum when I was no longer able to maintain it. It is still being used as a redirect. I’ve seen Ani live about four times but have never met her.

Who is Ani DiFranco?

Ani DiFrancoAni DiFranco (pronounced AH-nee) grew up in Buffalo, New York to Italian American parents. Her first experience of social justice work was accompanying her mother on grassroots women’s rights campaigns. Ani took up songwriting and performing at an early age and after extensive touring, and despite multiple contract offers from record labels, she scrounged together all the money she could raise and founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of 19 (by most accounts). She gained a huge cult following for her overtly political songs that deal with issues including domestic abuse, sexism, poverty, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and religion. Many LGBT fans were drawn to her for her fierce pride in her own bisexuality and her commitment to shattering stereotypes. Ani’s career has now spanned over two decades and her repertoire includes over 20 albums. Ani is much-loved for her diverse musical talents and songwriting prowess, her incisive and articulate analysis, and her open, upbeat, and compassionate manner.

Righteous Retreat

Ani was approached to lend her name to and participate in a music workshop in Louisiana, dubbed Righteous Retreat. She asked for the event to be held near New Orleans, where she lives, so she could return home every night. She learned some time later that the event had been booked at Nottoway Plantation and Resort, a former slave plantation, which has been restored and is rented out for events such as conferences and weddings. While many people expressed enthusiasm regarding the event, many also quickly pointed out that it could have the effect of excluding black women or others who did not wish to spend time in a place with such horrific history, and that this could also amount to supporting a business that is exploiting that history. Furthermore, the oversight was interpreted as yet another example of white privilege steamrolling over the goals and concerns of people of colour, particularly in the mainstream feminist movement. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the concerns.

There can be no question that this was a serious and unfortunate miscalculation on Ani DiDranco’s part. Even though she didn’t create or organize the event, she knew where it was going to be held, and even after a great deal of uproar over the venue, a full apology and cancellation did not come nearly as quickly as many had hoped – myself included. It’s surprising that an individual who is so passionate about and well-versed in the language of social justice failed to anticipate that people might be offended by the idea of holding such an event in such a place. Though she explained that her hope was to encourage reconciliation and healing by incorporating discussions about the setting into the content of the workshop, that was not her torch to carry.

This is not one of those controversial decisions that a person can defend by explaining their intentions or their own interpretation of the issue. When people of colour tell a person of privilege that they have caused insult and hurt through their behaviour, the very existence of that hurt is reason enough to stop and apologize. Period. There should always be room for dialogue and self-expression, but at the very least, that needs to happen. And the apology needs to come from a place of respect, and not as an attempt to minimize the damage or because it’s what’s expected.

There’s a difference between identifying behaviour that is problematic, and undermining entire human beings and in turn exporting these judgements to entire groups of people. Progressives many not like to admit that many of us are privileged. Racism is one of the things that we want to eradicate, so naturally, none of us would want to believe that we too can contribute to racism. We need to challenge that reflexive denial. That tendency is ultimately a product of privilege as well as a dogmatic loyalty to ‘isms’. When we start to make this just about Ani DiFranco or just about feminism or liberalism, we fail to address the fundamental source of not only racism but prejudice in general. If in the course of identifying prejudice expressed within one group we repeat the rhetoric of prejudice against another, this perpetuates a divisiveness that insincere people are only too happy to exploit in order to fulfill their own partisan or ideological agendas.

may you never be the receptacle of blame
may you never be the scapegoat
for a whole
world full of shame

Ani DiFranco in ‘On Every Corner’

Obviously, when many people are faced with an opportunity to accept an inconvenient truth, they choose the alternative, which is to rationalize. One of the things that people need to stop doing is hiding behind straw man arguments. This topic is discussed brilliantly by Scott Woods in 5 Things No One Is Actually Saying About Ani DiFranco or Plantations.

Nottoway Plantation

Since numerous articles have called attention to the details surrounding the venue itself as a basis for criticism of Ani DiFranco, I think it’s worth delving into. It’s true, as some have pointed out, that it’s nearly impossible to find soil in the South – or most of North America, for that matter – upon which atrocities have not been committed against African Americans, Native Americans or other oppressed people. Many plantations have been restored, reimagined and used for entirely new purposes. If progressive artists were to visit only venues whose history, owners, and staff were squeaky clean, they wouldn’t have many venues to choose from. But anyone whose defence of Ani’s behaviour rests entirely on this analysis is completely missing the point.

The following except from Nottoway Plantation and Resort’s website has been cited as indication that they’re whitewashing history:

“Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production. It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.”

Sure, it would be counterproductive for them to emphasize their painful and dark history, but when an establishment misrepresents or manipulates its history for any reason, and especially for the sake of profit, that legacy of racism takes on a modern manifestation. If this account of a visit to Nottoway is at all accurate, whitewashing is exactly what they’re doing. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the 102 out of 137 individuals who rated the resort as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ on TripAdvisor that they were participating in something objectionable.

Questions have come up about whether it would have been fair to expect Ani to have done her own research on this particular venue or whether she should be held personally responsible for the scripting and practices of a venue with which she was unfamiliar. An establishment whose website describes itself as offering “luxury resort amenities” clearly caters exclusively to the needs and wants of the affluent, who we can safely assume are overwhelmingly white, at best. Does that clash with the image of person who defends the poor and otherwise underprivileged? Of course it does! While I think that expecting her to know that Nottoway is owned by a corporation/individual who funds bigoted political campaigns would be going a bit far, the issue here isn’t one of a celebrity accidentally being associated with something unsavoury; it’s the fact that she entertained the idea of patronizing this establishment knowing what she already knew.

It’s certainly difficult to form a consensus on when we should be involved with a place that has a dark past and when we should not. How far should or can we go in order to avoid contributing to systems of exploitation? While these questions might comprise a valid element of the debate and can stimulate further discussion regarding the politics of space, we should never use them as an excuse to disregard the idea that we might really want to think twice about visiting former slave plantations, or more specifically what we might do when we’re there.

That being said, I noticed something interesting in some of the language used in news reports and media commentary. The Huffington Post published this headline: Ani DiFranco Is ‘Remarkably Unapologetic’ About Slave Plantation Retreat. There word former is missing. Mother Jones did it too. Huffington Post actually published another article, which they introduced on Twitter with the following blurb: “What happens when a pop star realizes hosting a retreat on a slave plantation is a bad idea”. Ani DiFranco a pop star? And again, mysteriously absent that one word. Why the repeated omission? It’s predictable that the media will latch on to a scandal and that they may not get everything right. What bothers me about this is that there’s enough contention here that we don’t need to be disingenuous or resort to semantic laziness – whichever it is.

Reflection and perception

I’ve observed claims that a person who makes the kind of errors that Ani DiFranco did is racist. The problem is that not everyone is on the same page about how to define racism or what it means to be racist or a racist. For some, it’s an absolute concept; you’re either racist or you’re not, but the criteria that qualifies you as a racist is highly subjective. For others, it’s a tendency or capacity inherent in all people, and although it may manifest at times, it’s viewed as something to work through both individually and collectively. Rather than being a source of deep shame that can further perpetuate the problem, it’s a learning process that we should take seriously (but never personally) when we’re called out.

Within the backdrop of that debate, I think it’s important to consider how Ani has approached and given voice to these issues throughout her career. Because there are simply too many songs to list which involve poverty, class, and other social issues especially relevant to people of colour, listed below are excerpts that include only songs that mention racism specifically:

i love my country
by which i mean
i am indebted joyfully
to all the people throughout its history
who have fought the government to make right
where so many cunning sons and daughters
our foremothers and forefathers
came singing through slaughter
came through hell and high water
so that we could stand here
and behold breathlessly the sight
how a raging river of tears
cut a grand canyon of light
so i lean in
breathe deeper that brutal burning smell
that surrounds the smoldering wreckage
that i’ve come to love so well
yes, color me stunned and dazzled
by all the red white and blue flashing lights
in the american intersection
where black crashed head on with white
comes a melody
comes a rhythm
a particular resonance
that is us and only us
comes a screaming ambulance
a hand that you can trust
laid steady on your chest
working for the better good
(which is good at its best)
and too, bearing witness
like a woman bears a child:
with all her might
born of the greatest pain
into a grand canyon of light
Grand Canyon in Educated Guess

they caught the last poor man on a poor man’s vacation
they cuffed him and they confiscated his stuff
and they dragged his black ass down to the station
and said “ok the streets are safe now.
all your pretty white children can come out to see spot run
and they came out of their houses and they looked around
but they didn’t see no one
‘Tis of Thee in Up Up Up Up Up Up

i know so many white people
i mean, where do i start?
the trouble with white people
is you can’t tell them apart
i’m so bad with names and dates and times
but i’m big on faces
that is, except for mine
Names and Dates and Times in Puddle Dive

you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far
Crime for Crime in Not a Pretty Girl

they were digging a new foundation in manhattan
and they discovered a slave cemetery there
may their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon
and we’ve moved on to the electric chair
am i headed for the same brick wall
is there anything i can do
about anything at all
except go back to that corner in manhattan
and dig deeper
dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones
beneath the bedrock of the mystery
beneath the sewage system and the path train
beneath the cobblestones and the water main
beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
beneath everything i can think of to think about
beneath it all
beneath all get out
beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there’s a fire that’s just waiting for fuel
Fuel in Little Plastic Castle

so here’s a toast to all the folks who live in palestine
el salvador
here’s a toast to the folks living on the pine ridge reservation
under the stone cold gaze of mt. rushmore
Self Evident in Girls Singing Night (Disc 2 of So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter)

when i was four years old
they tried to test my i.q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
they said,
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong
My I.Q. in Puddle Dive

teach myself to see each of us
through the lens of forgiveness
like we’re stuck with each other (god forbid!)
teach myself to smile and stop and talk
to a whole other color kid
teach myself to be new in an instant
like the truth is accessible at any time
teach myself it’s never really one or the other
there’s a paradox in every paradigm
Paradigm in Knuckle Down

too many stories
written out in black and white
come on people of privilege
it’s time to join the fight
are we living in the shadow of slavery
or are we moving on?
tell me which side are you on now
which side are you on?
Which Side Are You On? (title track)

white people are so scared of black people
they bulldoze out to the country
and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets
and while america gets its heart cut right out of its chest
the berlin wall still runs down main street
separating east side from west
and nothing is stirring, not even a mouse
in the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses
so they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
just to prove they got no manners
no mercy and no sense
and i’m wondering what it will take
for my city to rise
first we admit our mistakes
then we open our eyes
the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots
in the city of good neighbors that history forgot
Subdivision in Reckoning

Lyrics to pretty much every Ani DiFranco song published can be found here.

In Render – Spanning Time With Ani DiFranco, Ani has this to say about her choice to establish her record label in Buffalo, her hometown:

“The building that Righteous Babe Records is in is on Main Street, which is just a dead street in Buffalo. It’s like the spine of the corpse. Scot [Scot Fisher, Ani’s manager] is walking to work and he sees these guys on the old building across the street just chipping away stonework off the front of it. ‘Cause that’s what happens to buildings in poor, evacuated cities like Buffalo, New York, where people just started moving out, white people – white flight – leave the whole urban centre… And then all these buildings get cannibalized ’cause there’s beautiful old turn of the century architecture. And they come and take out all the woodwork and all the stonework and they sell it off in New York and LA, and then they demolish buildings. It’s incredible what racism does to our society. It affects our lives in so many ways, all of us, right down to the architecture.” [repetitive words and phrases removed for readability]

There are a lot of white women such as myself whose exposure to Ani’s music was the first and/or only source of consciousness about racism and all of the issues with which it intersects. Many of us admired her and identified strongly with her. Having witnessed her passion and knowledge about these issues (whose limits we know in retrospect), we were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Now, fast forward to a world in which Ani DiFranco is being likened to Paula Deen and conservatives are defending her. I never thought I would live to see this day.

There are two key things I take away from this. First, caring about and being knowledgeable about racism does not prevent a person from engaging in behaviour that is racist. You are only as conscious as your actions. There’s no level you can pass in the game of life that places you beyond the risk of being that person you don’t want to be. Second, Ani DiFranco is not the singular voice of an entire movement. Her actions do not represent, nor do they implicate, all white feminists. The reason I reproduced some of her lyrics here is to acknowledge that a person can express all of these things and yet still get it very wrong. Many of Ani DiFranco’s white fans understood that well before she did. Why? I honestly have no idea. But I can’t speak for her and she doesn’t speak for me.

One of my initial reactions to the social media uproar was a fear that it could have the effect of discouraging white women from approaching and addressing these issues, which we obviously have to do if we’re ever going to overcome our blind spots. But when I read articles such as this one and this one, my thinking shifted from How can white feminists participate in these issues without offending others or getting flogged? to Maybe we should make sure we’re educated before we begin to proselytize on behalf of all women.

Voices and choices

Anyone questioning the validity of emotions fails to understand that they aren’t negotiable. We all have the right to feel how we feel, and feel we do, even when these feelings are in conflict with our own reason. Our reactions, however, are a matter of choice. And while anger and disappointment are justified, the way in which those emotions are expressed will determine whether the situation is made better or worse, and whether those reactions will promote the very ideals we’re seeking to uphold. Some of the responses aimed at Ani DiFranco – and anyone who dared do anything but wholesale condemn her – were vicious and hateful. Given what people of colour have had to go through, the ignorance that many people were displaying, and the fact that even white people were pissed off by Ani’s decisions and responses, however, I think this was understandable. Though we may not like the reactions of others, that’s not an excuse to ignore the message they’re trying to convey.

I have been told that I’m unqualified to comment on these types of issues because I’m white. It has been assumed that I couldn’t possibly know anything about anti-racism theory, couldn’t possibly be familiar with the work of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Dionne Brand, Audre Lorde or Macolm X. And though I recognize my privilege and acknowledge its relevance, I don’t think we can escape the paradox of shouting down people and squeezing them out of a discussion of prejudice and social exclusion by virtue of their membership to a particular category of person.

That’s how part of me looks at this. Not everything a white person does is a product of their whiteness, just like not everything a person of colour does is a product of their ethnicity or complexion. If a white person disagrees with what a person of colour says, or how they say it, that doesn’t make them a racist by default. Statements released by other artists such as Buddy Wakefield (a white male) and Toshi Reagon (a black lesbian) who were also scheduled to participate in the Righteous Retreat address the nature of the responses as well as the complexity of the issues. As this article further demonstrates, there is in fact a diversity of people, including people of colour, who feel that the issue is neither figuratively nor literally black and white.

I think there’s value in the logic that two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s a fundamental principle of nonviolent resistance. That being said, in situations like these there is a danger that white people who feel judged, indignant, and defensive will assume that some black women can’t see past their anger, while the more salient truth is that the injustice that white people perceive is precisely the sort that has been inflicted on people of colour for a very long time, and many times over. White women may know something about feminism, but we know even less about racism.

Sometimes in heated debates, it’s hard to know if someone is throwing rhetoric at you or making a point that you just don’t grasp. Just because someone tells you that your privilege makes you ignorant – even if it’s true – that doesn’t necessarily make them right about everything. And who’s to say that they aren’t exploiting that claim of ignorance in order to discredit you? As a woman, if I tell a man that he’s being sexist, he will most certainly challenge me. I can tell him that because I’m a woman and he’s not, only I can know what’s sexist. On a certain level, there’s truth in that. But what if I’m being irrational or manipulative? The act of calling out sexism, racism or any other form of discrimination does not guarantee truth and infallibility. However we spin this, though, one thing that can’t be denied is that if people of colour tell white people that we’re wrong, it’s probably true.

It comes down to this: if I don’t know the person I’m interacting with well enough to be able to rely on their reputation, then I really only have one choice. That choice is to trust them; to let them explain their point of view and try my best to understand. Because the greater evil is not me giving in and admitting fault where there is none; the greater evil is missing a rare opportunity to learn something profound and become a better person, and to give that person (who is not in a position of privilege like I am) the courtesy of being heard.

I’m not saying that people of colour need the permission or validation of white people to be heard. Or that white people need to be beneficent, as though they’re invoking some kind of saviour complex. What I’m saying is that during the debate, I witnessed quite a few people automatically dismiss black women as hypersensitive, bitter and generally angry at the world because they personally didn’t feel offended. And if they already have this bias, then one way that I can think of getting past it is to focus on having respect for the individual. Hopefully a more nuanced understanding will develop out of that. I recognize that people of colour have their own ideas about this and can speak for themselves.

Righteous Babe and Ani DiFranco have shared an article entitled 5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism on their Facebook pages in order to facilitate further dialogue. It’s an instructive article that should be read by all white feminists. It can have the effect of triggering defensiveness and embarrassment, but that’s not a bad thing; it’s exactly what we need to work through. I will be the first to admit that I interpreted it and reacted to it differently the third time I read it compared to the first.

This is the difficult work of decolonization. It’s supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. It’s supposed to change us. As a Buddhist, I also view this as an opportunity to practice equanimity, which is the state of experiencing or witnessing without reacting or taking things personally. However others may deal with that same challenge, whoever they are, it’s my individual responsibility to step back, take a deep breath (especially when I remind others to), and openheartedly accept that perhaps I’m right – but maybe not.

Most importantly, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s not about reinforcing my pride in my consciousness or benevolence. It’s about doing the right thing by others. That can only happen when I acknowledge the limitations I place on myself (and others, by virtue of my privilege) by playing to my own sense of ego. Hopefully this controversy, as painful and messy as it has been, can actually serve as a catalyst to bring more women of privilege to a better understanding of how we can be effective allies.

every tool is a weapon
if you hold it right

– Ani DiFranco in My I.Q.


Filed under Eastern & New Age Philosophy, Politics & Society

5 responses to “Voices and choices: reflections on Ani DiFranco, feminism & racism

  1. random citizen

    the irony with this discussion is that some are so offended that their champion of equal rights has let them down,their voices changed her behavior,though she had every right to be at said former plantation.

  2. Just read this undated post and enjoyed acquainting myself with Ani’s words. Heard her sing at Mariposa YEARS ago and was impressed then. Unforgettable. The few times I’ve heard/watched her perform since I’ve not listened carefully enough, as the musicality did not grab me. Thank you for putting up parts of her poetry. It is so clearly brilliant. Stands out (for me) when read quietly like I’ve just done.

  3. Pingback: On Beyoncé, Miley, and why objectification is not liberation | Lavender Blume

  4. Pingback: Ani DiFranco and Lessons to be Learned - The Radical Notion

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