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Ani DiFranco's Faux-pology: White Privilege and the Year in Race

How can we achieve an honest dialogue about race when most people don't have to confront the history of plantations?

Photo Credit: Rachell Coe/


We ended 2013, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation — a year in which one of the most popular movies, “12 Years a Slave” chronicled the horrors of slavery in Louisiana — with Ani DiFranco huffily  canceling her plan to host a “Righteous Retreat” for artists at Nottaway Plantation in New Orleans. That, ladies and gentlemen, sums up your year in race. I understand that most white people never have to think beyond notions of the idyllic and pastoral when it comes to plantations. That these places continue to represent sites of untold horror, violence, and humiliation for Black people is the very kind of knowledge against which white privilege inoculates.

The whole point of being white is that you are never supposed to feel uncomfortable in space. To the moon and back, the world is yours. This past year, “pure” white space has been procured and subsequently sanctified through the precious spilled blood of black bodies – Trayvon Martin, who got no justice, Jonathan Ferrell, who asked for help in the wrong neighborhood, Renisha McBride, who did the same.

In her faux-pology, which doubled as a notice of cancellation, DiFranco claimed to “get it.” But from her passive aggressive chastisement and her choice to accuse her naysayers on social media of engaging in “high velocity bitterness,” she obviously doesn’t really get it. She acknowledged that “the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and very wide,” but saw as “very unfortunate” “what many have chosen to do with that pain.”

No doubt, Ani discovered this week, that social media is no country for white women’s foolishness on race. Unfortunately for her, she chose to launch this retreat at the same time that another unfortunate white feminist soul launched a twitter campaign called #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity. And after a year of looking at Miley Cyrus’ non-twerking ass, everyone has had enough.

But also here’s the thing: sometimes I, too, cringe at the level of hatred and hateration that gets spewed at folks in social media. As the actress Rashida Jones said of Twitter  recently, it often feels like a bad neighborhood where everybody is spoiling for a fight.

Indeed it does. But I also know that “bad neighborhood” is not a race neutral term, anymore than “plantation” is. They both conjure up images of utterly abject brown bodies.

While reading DiFranco’s defensive response, I was forced to work through my own feelings of aversion to the warp speed attacks that happen on Twitter. I realized that social media shows us how unwell we are as country; it shows particularly as it relates to battles over race that wounds run deep. And in a post-racial moment that has been most wily in its particular ability to strip us of adequate language to talk about the persistence of racism, people of color have taken to social media – Twitter, Tumblr, blogs – as a swift corrective to this farcical American foray into politeness.

We are wounded. Shit. And anger feels like a safer emotion than pain. So we are letting our pain, which shows up most readily as righteous rage, hang out boldly alongside our incisive, eloquent critique.

How could we not be in pain?

We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, just a few short weeks after the Supreme Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. We watched helplessly as a nearly all-white jury convicted Trayvon Martin’s killer of no crimes. We saw Black people’s long struggle to freely patronize retail outlets of their choice gutted by several high profile instances of “shop-and-frisk.” We lost Hadiya Pendleton and Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell this year. And Marissa Alexander spent most of this year in jail.

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