The first contact I had with the concept of “white privilege” — and that I had it — came when I was a white, male Southern teenager who loved singers like Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco. When I started to really listen to Ani’s lyrics, I was introduced to the fact that there was a hell of a lot I didn’t yet understand about the history of this country, about race and economics, immigration and the equality of women and LGBT people, and more. Here’s but one example from her prolific oeuvre, a song that’s being cited quite a bit in the aftermath of Ani’s cancellation of the Righteous Retreat, which was to be a conference for artists held at a former plantation outside New Orleans:
The criticisms of the event at Nottoway Plantation were and are one hundred percent valid. Even those of us who try our damnedest to be sensitive and good listeners when confronted with people’s experiences, with real pain that we don’t personally understand, screw up sometimes. Ani DiFranco, who has for years blazed a trail of unapologetic liberal, feminist, queer ideology in her songs and in her activism, screwed up. She is, in my view, in the process of trying to apologize for the firestorm created by this event. And in her apology, we see that she is not perfect. Many are calling it a “non-pology,” claiming that she needs to say more. That may be true.
when i agreed to do a retreat (with a promoter who has organized such things before with other artists and who approached me about being the next curator/host/teacher), i did not know the exact location it was to be held. i knew only that it would be “not too far outside of new orleans” so that i could potentially come home to my own bed each night. and i knew that one of the days of the retreat was slated as a field trip wherein everyone would come to new orleans together. 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.
for myself, i believe that one cannot draw a line around the nottoway plantation and say “racism reached it’s [sic] depths of wrongness here” and then point to the other side of that line and say “but not here”. i know that any building built before 1860 in the South and many after, were built on the backs of slaves. i know that in new orleans, the city i live in, most buildings have slave quarters out back, and to not use any buildings that speak to our country’s history of slavery would necessitate moving far far away. i know that indeed our whole country has had a history of invasion, oppression and exploitation as part of it’s very fabric of power and wealth. i know that each of us is sitting right now in a building located on stolen land. stolen from the original people of this continent who suffered genocide at the hands of european colonists. i know that many of us can look down right now and see shoes and clothes that were manufactured by modern day indentured servants in sweat shops. i know that micro profits from purchases that we make all day long are trickling down to monsanto, to nestle and to GE. i know that a sickeningly large percentage of the taxes we pay go to manufacturing weapons and to making war. and on and on and on. it is a very imperfect world we live in and i, like everyone else, am just trying to do my best to negotiate it.
We Southerners are weird, and Ani DiFranco has adopted the region as her own. There is a duality that Southern progressives live with each and every day — that we adore this area for the food, the music, the culture, the balmy heat, the architecture, and so many other things that make it our home, and at the same time we are appalled by the racial injustice, crime and outright genocide that in many ways created that very culture. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers wrote about this very duality recently:
In my song [“The Three Great Alabama Icons,” about George Wallace, Bear Bryant and Ronnie Van Zant], I discussed the dualities of being from a region that is known for great music and literature and art and something called “Southern hospitality,” but is also known for Jim Crow laws, slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan. I talked about being fiercely proud of the good parts of my heritage and mortified and ashamed of the bad parts, the ones that too often define how other people perceive us.
In movies and TV, there is one Southern accent that is used interchangeably in any setting, whether it’s by an ignorant asshole or a homespun sage whose fatherly wisdom keeps Mayberry peaceful. But in actuality, every region of the South has a distinct and different version. To my ears, the Georgia Drawl is a more pleasing sound than the Alabama Twang I grew up hearing (and possessing). In Athens, the drawl often delivers progressive thought and idealistic visions of how we could better ourselves (if Atlanta’s suburbs would just stop encroaching). We have great bars and a couple of award-winning, world-class restaurants where I would be proud to take any visitor.
But in the occasional event that I turn my TV on and actually watch the news, I remain mortified that the most idiotic people in Washington usually seem to have one of our Southern accents. In fact, thanks to Republican redistricting, my beloved Athens is represented in Congress by the worst of the worst. Rep. Paul Broun never met a stupid statement he didn’t embrace. He’s a “birther,” and even though he was once a practicing medical doctor, he calls evolution “lies from the pit of hell.” I hear he’s going to run for the Senate. He’ll probably win. Southerners love electing dumbasses, and then we complain when comedians take the “easy way” and make fun of us for being backwoods and stupid.
A big part of my viewpoint in “The Three Great Alabama Icons” stems from my father, a white southerner born during World War II who made his living backing up African-American R&B legends in my Bible Belt hometown during the height of the civil rights struggle and the horrific racist events of the ’60s. Church bombings, beatings of peaceful marchers and turning police dogs on children in places like Selma and Birmingham. George Wallace on TV all over the world for standing in the doorways of schools and blocking progress. All this was happening while my father played bass on the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and Etta James’ “Tell Mama.” Wallace died while I was writing “SRO,” and I wrote a song about him that was set in hell, where the Devil is welcoming him and telling him why he’s there. Wallace’s grandson, George Wallace III, is a huge DBT fan and thanked me for writing a fair assessment of his grandfather. Such is the duality of the Southern Thing.
Indeed, it is such. Everyone in the United States is sitting on stolen land, but down here there’s an added layer of gruesome history, and Southern people walk with it every day, an ever present character in the saga of this region. I used to live about a half mile from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down. The neighborhood around it is a bustling, gentrified district full of art galleries and restaurants and it wasn’t uncommon to walk right through the park in front of the site on the way to or from dinner. That’s jarring, when you take the time to notice it.
And notice it, we must. Many are rushing to Ani DiFranco’s defense and assuming that because she is Ani DiFranco, Feminist Queer Icon, that she couldn’t possibly screw up. Many are roundly condemning her, assuming the worst about her intentions and true personal beliefs. Reading the comments section on her statement, I see a hell of a lot of nobody really listening to anybody, and even more shouting past one another with an apparent end goal of hearing oneself speak. I’m not quite sure if anyone is learning anything.
And man, what great knowledge is being lost in the process. When I started to learn about “white privilege” all those years back, instead of becoming defensive, I decided to listen to people’s stories. I’m a singer/songwriter myself, so eavesdropping is an inherent part of the process. I believe that Ani DiFranco has made a life doing just that, but even yet, she’s not perfect, and I, a white Southern man who happens to be gay, am not perfect either.
I do know that all movements lose steam and authority when we choose to eat our own instead of focusing on the real enemies. During the Paula Deen controversy, I heard and read many black women saying things like, “I know a real racist when I see one, and I’m just not convinced that, at heart, Paula Deen is a real racist.” As a gay rights activist, I’ve experienced the same phenomenon with certain straight people who might not yet have wrapped their heads around why full LGBT equality is so important, but who I know, at heart, are not fire-breathing homophobes. This doesn’t mean you don’t address injustice directly, but perhaps you handle it differently when you’re dealing with someone who is otherwise friendly. In our LGBT rights world, Tony Perkins, Peter Sprigg, Linda Harvey, Scott Lively and others like them are truly, and wholly, committed to hurting families like mine. The random guy at the bar who has never met a gay person (that he knows of), who hasn’t wrapped his head around marriage equality yet, but who is generally friendly and wants to understand, is not my enemy. I don’t think Ani DiFranco is an enemy of any progressive cause.
But dammit, I guess she’s human. I think this situation is sad, and it’s exposed a lot of nerves and wounds. Perhaps the best we can do is to redouble our efforts to listen and understand why people are hurt, and commit to, in all our bumbling, imperfect humanity, trying to do better next time. Tim Wise’s words on the subject are a good place to start, as he explains that we, as a nation, still have not confronted our own history, not even remotely. Sometimes we’d rather ignore the shitty parts, while we stay in bed and breakfasts that used to be plantations or casually walk by the Lorraine Motel on a Friday night on the way to a delicious, gluttonous meal at the new place down the street. That’s no way to live, though. If we fail to listen, we fail to understand when we are blissfully unaware of the fact that we’re contributing to injustice. The beautiful thing, though, is that we, as gloriously imperfect humans, can learn and change course. Hopefully, as we listen to each other, we can also treat each other with a little bit of grace as we learn from each other. As my friend Alvin McEwen (insert joke about “I have a black friend” here) said to me about this controversy on instant message just now:
“She has a lot of apologizing to do but we need to let her do it. Some of us set a standard that not even those who set said standard can follow. It’s annoying. None of us have all of the answers and we all have learning to do. We have to be there for each other when mistakes are made rather than slicing each other up.”
Sounds like a plan to me. There are real enemies out there, and there are also friends who, here and there, screw things up royally. Ani DiFranco is currently experiencing just that, and she’ll learn from it. Keep telling your stories. People are listening.