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. 
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
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
possibly saying or doing something offensive to a marginalized group. 
Intent does not erase privilege or the harm to others that comes with
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
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.

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