The Most Important Question Surrounding the Ani DiFranco Plantation Retreat "Controversy": Are White Women the Natural Allies of People of Color in the Struggle Against Racism?
Ani DiFranco cancelled her "Righteous Retreat" for artists which was to be held at a former New Orleans slavery plantation.
She is very upset and hurt by how the public through social media condemned her choice of venue. Tim Wise and Brittney Cooper have done a thorough and precise job of eviscerating Ani DiFranco's white privilege stained faux-apology for making such a choice.
Moreover, there is no need for hundreds or thousands of words to describe Ani DiFranco's white privilege fail.
It is much more efficient, and easier, to watch white anti-racism activist Sister Jane Elliot bring an entitled young white female college student to tears in the documentary The Angry Eye.
That young woman and Ani DiFranco are not too different in their responses to a critical engagement about their relationship to supporting and sustaining systems of white supremacy. Literal and virtual white women's tears have a ton of cultural power in the United States. White women's tears have gotten black men hung from trees. They command TV viewing time and shows. White women are a protected class in the United States. When white women's tears and pain are ignored, even more upsetness naturally ensues.
In her apology, Ani DiFranco is deflecting. Instead of offering up a simple "my bad", the default is a long-winded essay that is more defensive and deflective, with the emphasis being on how her critics are overly sensitive, than in owning her mistake. If she so chose, Ani DiFranco could have written two sincere sentences that would have done much more work in her favor than the many sentences and words she offered.
Excuse-making uses many more words than acts of contrition, transparency, and vulnerability.
Ultimately, and as is often common when well-intentioned liberal and progressive white folks are criticized for their racist behavior--intentional, passive, active, accidental, mistaken, or otherwise--Ani DiFranco's rebuttal to her critics is tone deaf. She knows the lyrics, chorus, and verse of the metaphorical songs that are in the anti-racist white folks' musical catalog. However, Ani DiFranco does not sing those songs with any soul or heart. She is a lounge singer, hitting the notes, but ultimately lacking the heart or the pipes.
The more important question about Ani DiFranco's plantation retreat controversy is a simple one: What is it an example of? How can we relate Ani DiFranco's faux-apology to larger and more important concerns about white supremacy and white racism?
Ani DiFranco is a white woman. I would suggest that much of the public's surprise at her plantation retreat and defensive apology is centered on how a "good" liberal and a woman can exhibit such acute white privilege and racist entitlement.
If we drill down to the essential essence of the surprise and shock by some at Ani DiFranco's faux-apology about her slavery plantation retreat, gender is revealed as a core and basic issue--how can a white woman, one who is a progressive and liberal, and one that should know something about marginalization through systems of sexism and gender discrimination, be so blind to racial privilege?
This surprise piggybacks on another assumption held by some folks in Left, post civil rights, activist communities: white women are assumed to be the "natural" "allies" of people of color in the latter's struggle against white racism and white supremacy. Of course, this is an ahistorical conclusion. White women were members of the KKK. White women owned black people as slaves. White women raped, tortured, and abused their African-American human property. White American women struggling for the right to vote in the early 20th century leveraged their status as "white" citizens, and the "offense" to the white racial order that was (ostensible) black male voting-citizenship, in order to win the franchise.
White women are not the absolute natural allies of people of color in the United States. Of course, there has been brilliant and great scholarly work examining the ways in which systems of racial domination and gender domination are complimentary, at times separate from one another, and can simultaneously inform each other.
But the fights against white supremacy and white privilege are not perfectly congruent with the struggles by white women against the sexism faced by their group. Here, Third World Feminism, Womanism, and "White Feminism" are not always the same struggles.
The nomenclature and broader language attempts to capture that reality. The language of "allies" and "natural" must also be deconstructed and challenged. Would white women see their struggle as more aligned with people of color than with white men? And would they make that choice--again emphasizing the word "natural"--as a given and a default against the collective and group self-interest of Whiteness as a political and social force?
Among anti-racists, progressives, liberals, as well as those who are invested in "social justice" in the United States and elsewhere, one of the standing rules is that we are not allowed to "rank oppressions." Sexism, racism, homophobia, able-ism, classism, and other types of inequalities and discrimination are all considered equal.
Such a rubric is a practical concession; in many ways it is also rooted in lazy thinking.
Based on empirical data, we can most certainly rank oppressions. Race and gender are social constructs that do not necessarily reveal with any precision or truth a great deal about how individual people fully locate themselves in society, approach politics, or go about their daily lives. Of course, race and gender remain real. Yet, this is true in relative, local, and absolute terms.
Ani DiFranco is a white woman who enjoys the benefits of both racial and class privilege in the United States. What does her plantation misstep tell us about sexism and racism? And as I signaled to above, are white women as a group any more (or less) committed to anti-racism, and fighting white privilege, than are white men?
The answer is no. There are exceptional white women who have fought, and continue to fight, white supremacy in the United States and the West. There are white men who have done the same. Whiteness remains a powerful social drug which promises unearned material, psychological, and economic privileges for its signatories and beneficiaries.
White women have signed that contract in much the same way as white men.
Ani DiFranco is not an aberration from that historical pattern; she is simply its latest example.
An allegiance to white privilege and white racism (more often than not) unites white men and white women together This is one of the ugly, dirty, little secrets that those on the anti-racist Left are afraid to confront.
White conservatives are deeply invested in white supremacy. They are honest about it. By comparison, there is an ugly strain of white Liberal Racism, that while in comparison to the Right, is very different in how it is expressed. But Liberal Racism shares many of the latter's racist assumptions about people of color...as well as an investment in maintaining and protecting white privilege.
Liberal and Conservative racism both do the work of white supremacy in the United States during the post civil rights era. Unfortunately, the public discourse in the United States has not matured enough to confront such a troubling and challenging social fact.