The Great Ani DiFranco Plantation Kerfuffle of 2013 has been something of a boon to people who debate and study race in America. In DiFranco, anyone who’s ever cared about race or Birkenstocks has had a light cast on the perception of just how far race matters have really progressed, which is to say, not as far as we thought. DiFranco is progressive and hip and down for the cause…and, as it turns out, completely full of white privilege. She rolled with booking a plantation for a retreat, then faux-apologized (poorly) for that decision, then a couple of other notable friends defended her abysmally, and finally she issued what most people consider a more genuine – if late – apology with all the appropriate feels (and 80% less foot in mouth). So while she isn’t Michael Fassbender from 12 Years a Slave, it turns out she might be kicking Benedict Cumberbatch all in the ass.
The discussions this has generated have cropped up in much the way you discover which of your neighbors owns guns on New Year’s Eve: rounds popping off all around you from people you wouldn’t have suspected even owned a gun. The debates (like all internet debates) have ranged from erudite to downright libelous (seriously, some of y’all should talk to your lawyers), and has probably resulted in more whites un-friending blacks on Facebook since Obama took office once white people realized black folks were not going to be humble about that shit.
I encourage people to look at the opportunity we’ve all been afforded here. The great Race Debate gods have offered unto us someone that most of the people who knew her would have assumed was really up on cultural issues. Upon finding out that she’s got some blind spots, her pedestal pretty much fell over, rolled down a hill and smashed up against the front porch of a plantation. She’s down, but not so down that she’s not flawed. She’s a perfect catalyst for a step up in race discussions.
If we could only learn how to HAVE them.
Below is a list of things that cropped up in almost all the discussions about this situation, some of which pop up in race discussions all of the time. They are things people say out of misunderstanding, or worse, to derail arguments. If we all agree to work on weeding just some of these bon mots out of our collective forty acres, I promise we’ll be on our way to better discussions (though I make no promises about the resolutions).
1) That it’s about the land.
None of this is really about land.
We’ve been repurposing land for 150 years since slavery…it’s called farming. It’s really about what people did on the land (slavery, which, for the record, is always bad), how what they did is still present in the lives of some people (oppression, racism, inequality, et. al.), and what people now are trying to suggest otherwise about it when they are not disregarding history wholesale (the scrubbing of how bad slaves had it on plantations, or the general call to get over slavery). It’s the same argument Native Americans made about burial mounds (but NOT land in general, mind you), the same argument Jews had over whether or not Auschwitz should be a tour stop, and the same argument you’d be having with George Takei if anybody thought it was okay to turn the history of U.S. internment camps into a Hogan’s Heroes reboot. It’s not about the land. It’s about what the land represents, and how little you care about others if you don’t see it that way.
2) That since no land is untainted by oppression that all land should be off limits.
Really, white people should stop saying this, not because it isn’t true, but because it makes them look really, really bad. Anybody who says something like, “Well, where CAN you have your righteous writing retreat that hasn’t been touched by oppression?” is just trying to deflate a debate, not have one. We all know that as a society we prioritize things culturally. Ain’t nobody got time to be arguing with you over every piece of land, and you already know that. This is an “Ah well, fuck it” defense mechanism pretending to be logic, and we know that no good can come from being defensive.
3) That anyone’s rights are being taken away.
No one is saying you can’t own a slave plantation, or that you can’t turn it into whatever you want. No one is saying you can’t book a slave plantation for your next New Year’s Eve party. No one is saying the land can only be used as museums. What we are saying is that if you book one, we know where you stand. Don’t try to make it something other than where you’re standing. We’ll let you know when we care less about what they represent. For now? I’d advise against it. Advise, not demand. See? Your rights are fully intact.
4) That plantations are way worse than Auschwitz.
It is perfectly acceptable to compare slave plantations to Jewish concentration camps without getting bogged down in which was worse. Both are places where race-based atrocities occurred. While the numbers may be different, there is no magic number that makes one more valuable than the other in a discussion like this. While they may have less in common on a point-by-point scale, they have the most important thing in common: millions of people died because of them.
However, comparing one atrocity to another is to suggest that they are equal in atrociousness, and there are a lot of people who don’t want that to be the case. There are a lot of reasons why people resist this comparison but one of the reasons actually worth discussing is the inherent devaluation of black history in general. Here is the math (it’s simple):
I mean, that’s so obvious that I almost don’t even have to say anything about it, right? Is anybody laboring under the impression that this isn’t true as a systemic value? In 2014?
Slavery is serious business. It’s so serious that its effects are still being felt, and not just in the “where did all the Indians go?” kind of way. Its effects are so deep and long-reaching that most people with experience in race debates have had to come up with a name for just the effects…or rather, we repurposed one (See #5).
5) That DiFranco is a stone cold racist
Well, a LOT of people were saying THAT, but they were wrong in the general sense of what most people mean by a dyed-in-the-moonshine racist, yet right in another sense.
A lot of white people right now are like, “Didn’t we all just go through the Duck Dynasty thing? Weren’t we all on the same page then? Wasn’t that just a couple of weeks ago? Why are we fighting now?”
The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. When we see Phil Robertson talking about how happy black people were in the South during a period of time that we all KNOW was politically ratchet for black people, we can all go, “Yeah, black people weren’t really happy about that, and it’s racist of you to suggest that discrimination wasn’t bad.”
Yet when we hear about big picture stuff like the disproportionate ratio of blacks in prisons, something short circuits in white folks. Suddenly there are plenty of other reasons why these things might “play out that way.” Folks, that’s racism too, both the statistic as well as your denial that there might be anything racial about it.
Here’s the deal with racism:
Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.
What we should all be doing is differentiating between someone who makes a mistake (which, yes, is due to some ingrained, systemic racism) that might be redeemable, and someone who thinks blacks are inferior monkey people. I’m more concerned with what DiFranco has done (that which I can see and judge). That I can do something about. I have seen no evidence that booking slave plantations for hippie drum circles is her standard operating procedure. That said, she certainly committed an act even she obliquely lays at the feet of inherent racism. So the question might sound like “Is DiFranco a racist?” but what it should probably be is, “Is DiFranco prone to racist behavior?” not because she’s ever going to be incapable of racism (if it’s not clear by now, no white person is), but because we need to know what line to put her in.