Warning: This post may contain high velocity bitterness.
The Righteous Retreat, hosted by the legendary songwriter and feminist activist Ani DiFranco, was billed as a four-night workshop in which attendees would attend workshops to develop creativity and performance skills. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few days outside of New Orleans surrounded by so much talent?
But there was an issue with the retreat’s location: Righteous Retreat was being held at Nottaway Plantation. Many felt that, given the location’s history, Nottaway Plantation was not an appropriate venue to create a welcoming and creative environment for attendees of all races and backgrounds. The well-founded outrage began on Twitter, spread to several blogs, and culminated in a Change.org petition with over 2,500 signatures asking DiFranco to cancel the event.
Shortly after the petition began circulating, DiFranco decided to call off Righteous Retreat and made a statement:
my intention of going ahead with the conference at the nottoway plantation was not to be a part of a great forgetting but its opposite. i know that pain is stored in places where great social ills have occurred. i believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness. i believe that compassionate energy is transformative and necessary for healing the wounds of history. i believe that even though i am white, i can and must do this work too. if you disagree, i respectfully understand where you’re coming from and your right to disagree. i am not unaware of the mechanism of white privilege or the fact that i need to listen more than talk when it comes to issues of race. if nottoway is simply not an acceptable place for me to go and try to do my work in the eyes of many, then let me just concede before more divisive words are spilled. i obviously underestimated the power of an evocatively symbolic place to trigger collective and individual pain. 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.
While opting to not hold the retreat (or, at the very least, changing the venue) was the appropriate course of action, her statement feels underwhelming. Ani DiFranco is an icon, inspiring countless budding feminists in her time and ours. Her contributions to our culture are innumerable. Owning up to this mistake and using it as a teaching moment would have been an invaluable lesson for all who look up to her.
Unfortunately, a statement that should have been a mea culpa reads more like a chastising and defensive letter from a teacher to her students. DiFranco makes fair points, but she also seems to dismiss the opinions and feelings of the black feminists she angered. She acknowledges that initially she did not know the exact location of the venue, but once she found out she didn’t think the location “would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness.” High velocity bitterness? Is that what we’re calling well-deserved criticism these days? DiFranco is entitled to her beliefs, but dismissing the hurt feelings of people of color as nothing but bitterness only adds to the sentiment that the feminist movement isn’t inclusive. She continues the sentiment by saying that, although she understands that the pain of slavery runs deep and wide, she believes it is “unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain.” DiFranco’s tone policing of the opinions of the black feminists who condemned the venue seem more problematic than the location itself. The words “sorry” or “apologize” do not appear once in the statement. She seems to be more distressed by the outrage than the mistake of holding the event at the plantation.
DiFranco explained that she hoped the plantation would serve as the catalyst for constructive conversation during the retreat. Despite being a white woman, she believes it is her duty to engage in discussions of race and begin “healing the wounds of history.” I agree with her. In order for us to move forward in the fight for equality we must all be informed and dedicated to the cause. However, much like the n word, plantations are not up for white feminists to reclaim. In cases of race, it is much more important for people in positions of privilege, such as DiFranco, to listen to the oppressed rather than talk over and police the tone of their voices.
No one is denying that Ani DiFranco is an important figure in our feminist history, but this statement falls flat and misses an important opportunity to make amends for an inadvertent mistake.
Thanks to Twitchy, Righteous Babe, and Change.org