Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ani DiFranco and the Problem with Hero Worship

More often than not, feminists who came of age in the 90’s are fans of Ani DiFranco.  It’s easy to see why from the lyrics to her mega-hit anthem, Not A Pretty Girl: "I ain't no damsel in distress, and I don't need to be rescued/ so put me down, punk; wouldn't you prefer a maiden fair? Isn't there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?"   Anti-capitalist songs such as Your Next Bold Move and the anti-racist song Fuel give added social justice cred to her catalogue.  DiFranco is a passionate promoter for women’s rights and reproductive freedom, as well as an out bisexual woman who advocates for LGBT rights. She has leant her talents to various causes, including anti-death penalty advocacy, children in need, and Gulf Aid after the BP spill.  She is also a poet and author of Verses, a collection of poetry and sketches.  With a career that spans more than two decades, her outreach has led many folks within her fanbase to cite Ani DiFranco as their path to feminist thought and activism.

In early December 2013, DiFranco announced plans to host a feminist "Righteous Retreat," a four-day songwriting and creativity workshop at Nottoway Plantation – one of the largest private estates in New Orleans to use slave labor.  As a result, Black women took to Twitter and Facebook to voice their concerns regarding the retreat’s problematic location.  The initial response from DiFranco’s label, Righteous Babe Records, was to delete the comments of the event’s detractors on Facebook, as if by silencing dissent, the protests would go away.  But it was clear that the protestors would not back down and DiFranco likely realized that in the age of social media, people control the message -- and ignoring the voices of those who demand justice and recognition of historical oppression will only cause their anger to intensify.

No matter what DiFranco’s intentions may have been, as a white woman, she cannot reclaim a space in which she did not experience racial oppression.  With her history of political and feminist activism, it should have been easy for her to realize that by virtue of white supremacy, White women have always been complicit not only in slavery, but Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, and every other race-based degradation suffered by women of color.  Even when White men were sneaking down to slave cabins to rape Black women, the "licentious slave woman" was given the blame.  There was no solidarity between White woman and women of color then -- and it is all too clear that even today, there is no solidarity now. There is, however, a history which cannot be denied or twisted and, as painful as it may be for White women to acknowledge, denying this history stymies progress. 

It’s been no secret that there is a rift between women of color and so-called White feminist leaders.  As a Womanist blogger, I witnessed the backlash against women of color in ongoing support from White feminists for the self-proclaimed male feminist Hugo Schwyzer, which gave rise to Mikki Kendall’s viral Twitter hash tag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. Feminism is supposed to be about intersectionality because depending on the woman in question, various marginalizations (race, class, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, etc.) will affect her life and yet when The New York Times sought to put a face to feminism, journalist Ginia Bellafante only featured White women of class privilege.  On the supposedly “women without airbrushing” feminist website Jezebel, any article which is even remotely related to race will quickly turn into a disaster in the comments section. Each time these blowouts happen, the same pain is laid bare and the denial and obfuscation begins.  Instead of actually inspiring a conversation which leads to progress and change, each exchange only widens the divide, pouring salt into long-festering wounds.  The healing of these wounds is not the responsibility of women of color; if we are angry, it is because we have a right to be after so many decades of heartache. 

Ani’s fauxpology refers to the people bold enough to speak out in the name of justice as having “a high velocity of bitterness.”  Women of color are clearly in the right when protesting that it would be triggering to host the Righteous Retreat retreat at a former slave plantation, yet our pain continues to be dismissed as mere bitterness toward a White woman icon.  DiFranco’s non-apology made it clear that while she has spent her career producing and performing pro-woman and anti-racist music, there is still a flawed and critical lack of true engagement with the issues for which she seeks to advocate.  This incident has been yet another stunning example of how allies can and do fail because of a refusal to acknowledge their privilege.  

Nottoway is one of Louisiana’s largest plantations at which over 400 African-Americans were subjected to the brutality of slavery. Others may be content to spin the lie that John Hampden Randolph was a benign master because he provided a place to shower, fruit and ham at Christmas, and some medical care to the human chattel he owned, but the descendants of Rudolph’s chattel now have a voice and the power to be heard. DiFranco may well know that “the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide,” but she can never fully appreciate this sentiment because the degradation, pain and horror does not now, nor will it ever, belong to her biological history as a White woman.  

Being critical of the retreat’s location does not negate any of DiFranco’s previous activism, but it does highlight a critical problem in feminism – the cult of personality.  Leadership is important in creating successful visions of what a movement can achieve.  Yet even as leadership helps to provide unification, it wrongly deifies those who have been chosen to be the presiding representative of a movement.  DiFranco is a human being and by virtue of her humanity, regardless of intent, it was always impossible for Ani -- or any so-called leader of any group -- to exist in the public eye without possibly saying or doing something offensive to a marginalized group.  Intent does not erase privilege or the harm to others that comes with stumbling in one’s actions or words.  

 It is the very inability to be all things to all people that makes any deification of heroes problematic. Whether it is the failure to see the problems with Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or Obama’s continued outright murder of Brown people through the deployment of drones, or Dan Savage’s sexism, or feminist scholar Mary Daly coining the term “Frankensteinian” as a descriptor for trans-women in Gyn/Ecology, or feminist icon Betty Friedan calling lesbians the “Lavender Menace” because she thought they were a threat to the National Organization for Women (NOW), or Ani’s defensive response to the Internet’s anger regarding the Righteous Retreat being held at a location which could easily be defined as the American Dachau, leadership will always fail the people who hold the least power.  In this case, a White feminist leader in the mainstream U.S. feminist movement failed women of color. 

When Ani’s fans defended their great leader on Facebook comment threads, which included cyber blackface, they weren’t doing their beloved idol a real service.  Accountability, criticism and even outright rage can be the best way to show respect to those who fail to be true to their stated principles -- because it allows them the opportunity to be humble, grow and change for the better. We don’t learn through worship and praise but when we reach a point of critical pain; mistakes are what shape our character, not triumphs. Sycophants don’t acknowledge the humanity of their so-called leaders because to do so would be to acknowledge fallibility – the very basis of what it is to be human.  

What we need is a deeper commitment to the movements themselves and the principles they are supposed to stand for.  Buying into the idea that deifying leaders gives purpose and direction is Quixote journey which will at best lead to a Pyrrhic victory.  Intersectional feminism denotes that all facets of a person’s identity are important in understanding social marginalization and privilege.  A feminism which is intersectional will not minimize the concerns of women of color; instead, their needs and feelings should be acknowledged, respected, and then taken into action by those with power.  Instead of rushing forward to claim and defend leaders who have specifically ignored their privilege and been offensive, perhaps the lesson we should draw from this incident is that truly embracing the organizing principles of feminism, and not the people who have been chosen to speak for it, is the best path forward.