Musician and activist Ani DiFranco was recently embroiled in controversy after she announced plans for a four-day feminist creativity camp, called the Righteous Retreat, to be held near her “adopted home city” of New Orleans, Louisiana, during the summer of 2014. The event was to be held at the Nottoway Plantation, and this was where many black feminists—and a number of DiFranco’s fans–took to Twitter and the event’s (now-deleted) Facebook page to explain why holding a “feminist” event at a former plantation was a bad idea. Additionally, as writer Kat Endgame uncovered at PQ Monthly, the Nottoway Plantation not only uses historical revisionism to portray its former owners/slave masters as benevolent white people (a tactic that many former plantations currently use), but its corporate arm is owned by Australian billionaire Paul Ramsey, who has donated millions to arch-conservative political candidates in his home country.
Given this information—and the many cogent critiques by both black feminist commenters on the event’s Facebook page, black activists on Twitter, and writers such as Mikki Kendall (who also created the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag)—it is fairly evident to some as to why hosting this event on the site of a former plantation is, and was, not exactly the most “feminist” idea. The history of American feminism, too, has been riddled with race issues—and white feminist racism towards women of color continues to be a contentious topic.
Ani DiFranco’s response and announcement that the event had been cancelled, posted to her Facebook page and to Righteous Babe’s website on December 29, was a master class in itself of not getting it:
later, 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. i imagined instead that the setting would become a participant in the event. this was doubtless to be a gathering of progressive and engaged people, so i imagined a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were. i have heard the feedback that it is not my place to go to former plantations and initiate such a dialogue.
Considering the high monetary cost of the event (from $2,000 to $4,000 for four days)—and the use of the phrase “high velocity bitterness” to describe a reaction that was facilitated by progressive and engaged people online—who has the economic power to be participating in this “dialogue?” The cost of travel and accommodations alone mark this as an event for wealthy progressives. Additionally, I’d guess that the vast majority of people who had legitimate critiques of where this event was being held would not be lining up to pay $2,000-$4,000 to go to this event only to point out its problems.
Elsewhere in her response, DiFranco writes:
i believe that your energy and your questioning are needed in this world. 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. i entreat you to refocus your concerns and comments on this matter with positive energy and allow us now to work together towards common ground and healing.
Framing the backlash as a lack of “respectful discourse” and as (black) commenters taking the “pain of slavery” out on her conveniently allows DiFranco to not address some of the disgusting and racist actions that some of her (white) supporters carried out as a means of defending her. Entreating people who have solid critiques of your project to “refocus” with “positive energy,” furthermore, elides that slavery and the continued racism that black Americans face is very negative—and that negative responses to oppression are valid. Would DiFranco be chastising “collective outrage” over an event that was openly sexist? My guess is that no, she would not, and her inability to see that she, too, can enact oppression as a white woman against women of color—especially black women and feminists, in this instance—is both disappointing and revealing.
This incident is not over, however—DiFranco posted a short note on the Righteous Babe blog yesterday, which read:
everyone, it has taken me a few days but i have been thinking and feeling very intensely and i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me. it was a great oversight on my part to not request a change of venue immediately from the promoter. you tried to tell me about that oversight and i wasn’t available to you. i’m sorry for that too. know that i am digging deeper.
If her previous response was defensive posturing wrapped up in vaguely New Age positive-thinking garb, this one seems entirely too vague. An apology is a start, but it’s not all there is to hearing—and learning from—a much-needed wakeup call. How is she “digging deeper” after this incident has alienated so many black women, and a not-inconsiderate number of her fans? Thinking and feeling “very intensely” may have value, but those steps need to be backed up by concrete actions. Anti-racism is not, and should not be, navel-gazing for progressive white people—especially for those with considerably large platforms. Many are understandably done with Ani DiFranco, but some may hope that this righteous babe’s digging deeper won’t be just an empty exercise in self-righteousness.
Photo of Nottoway plantation by laverrue, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license