Race, Apology, and Ani DiFranco

The time of social media events is short, so writing a few words on Ani DiFranco’s apology (or apologetically toned press release) is at this point probably already out of date. Still, the talk around her event – a now-canceled plan to host a retreat at a plantation house – raises the most American of questions: what does it mean to be here, to remember where we are, and how do we situate ourselves in relation to the pain of the past? And, of course, what does it mean to apologize?

I think I probably followed the story like most people. First, I read some Facebook and Twitter posts linking to the site announcing that DiFranco planned to host a songwriter’s retreat at a plantation house outside of New Orleans. Then I read Toshi Reagon’s thoughtful reflection on what it meant for her, as an African-American, to consider occupying, in any way or shape, the plantation house. And then DiFranco’s own announcement that the event had been cancelled, which included a kind of apology and a whole lot of hope for a better racial future.

For me, this is central to my own research. I am interested in how memory and ruins function in the Americas broadly, and how memorial sites summon pain to the present, which is then transformed in various ways by the very present and future in which pain is brought to the surface. Surfacing is an important spatial figure here; we have a hard time thinking about time (memory is temporal through and through) without making it spatial. But it is also true that our experience of memory is facilitated or even sustained by the embodiment of ruins and our embodiment as beings in the world. Our bodies, like the spaces around us, carry historical meaning. In carrying historical meaning, the specificity of our embodiment might, and at times must, shape the meaning of remembering the past.

DiFranco’s apology is about a ruin (a plantation house) and, despite her best efforts to work against it, about her own embodied being. She planned, canceled, and then apologized as a white person. My issue, and something I hope to explain a bit here, is not that she was so embodied; no getting around the skin we are in. The problem is that she acted as the wrong, if typical, kind of white person, and an important moment was left awash in condescension and troubling political values.

She apologized. That’s what is interesting to me. Now, apology is a complicated topic, so what I say here won’t cover everything. Of course not. Apology is caught up with so much: desires and programmes for forgiveness and reconciliation, fantasies of forgetting, and subtle moments of seizing back hegemony. Here are a few relevant features of apology.

1. Apology wants repair, whether that means being forgiven by or achieving some sort of reconciliation with the one who has suffered a harm because of my words and actions. This is a very human desire and reflects the intractable importance of the inter-human; we need the other to see us for who we want to be, as well as what we have become, especially when something ugly about us has been exposed. But the problem and risk in this mode of apology is the often obstinate narcissism of saying we are sorry. In our narcissism, we too often fail to see the other person’s pain as a full event, hurrying past it in order to “promote,” for lack of a better word, this new self that has (allegedly) emerged after the harm we’ve caused.

DiFranco’s apology, insofar as it is a saying-sorry (and not apologia), is fundamentally structured by this narcissism. SorryWatch (which is one of the best named websites out there) has an excellent (and very funny) translation manual for DiFranco’s remarks. For me the most telling remark from DiFranco is “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.” (No caps in original.) SorryWatch glosses this, with appropriate snark, as “sorry about yr slavery but why you gotta STEW? you should write a song.” Indeed! “Choosing” to do with pain is DiFranco’s key phrasing here, for it places her after harm, where she presumes to invite and instruct those struck by painful memory. It’s worth quoting Reagon here when she writes, about the very same issue: “Even though I never had to pick cotton – whenever I see places like that – I feel like I can see people picking cotton.  So I never would want to be at Nottoway.” I feel like I can see…if we take this vision seriously, this haunting of a present place, this being struck by something one doesn’t want to see but can’t help but see, then we can hardly talk about it as “choosing to do with pain.” Rather, Reagon’s whole point is there is not choice at all. Vision itself is transfixed and held by this ghostly presence.

2. If I’m right about this difference, then there is also a part of apology that wants to move on and not dwell not the wrong committed. What DiFranco sees as so betraying and beleaguering about “high velocity bitterness” is that it forestalls “common ground” and “healing.” Healing is moving on, by definition. Now, who could be against healing, right? Pain is almost by definition the imperative to heal. Not so fast. White people tend to want to move fast here, but why not pause. Pause because pain, especially when it is caught up in the materiality of ruins and bodies that remember, recall, and carry on complex legacies of suffering and struggle, is also and firstly the ground of uncommon ground and the refusal to heal if healing means forgetting.

Here, I think, is where there is an especially potent white privilege in DiFranco’s apology and in so much of thinking about racism, anti-racism, and (ugh, the word) post-racial. The privilege of whiteness in this case is about being the full beneficiary of forgetting, moving on, and “healing.” White people benefit because all wrong is erased, and so the pain of knowing there was pain and that that pain was irreducibly racialized (“guilt” or “shame” would be the shorthand) is soothed by a fantasy of a post-racial ground we now call “common.” We actually don’t need common ground for there to be something like a productive confrontation with racial history. In fact, I’d suggest, uncommon ground, mostly because it’s the real truth of the matter, is significantly more promising. Promising or not, we have to begin with honesty: our ground is actually not common. So, let’s figure out how to start there instead of wishing away the different ways in which history and memory come to us in places like Southern plantations. Hopefully we all see the plantation house as a terrifying place, but the meaning of terror isn’t the same. That’s okay. Not everything has to be the same. DiFranco’s apology would have been very different if she’d started from an uncommon ground, and if she’d let that uncommonness reorient her ideas of healing and processing painful things about the past.

3. One thing that comes out in DiFranco’s apology is her desire to wrest back control of the emotional and moral energy surrounding the issue. This is part of apology, for apology, in beginning with the recognition of wrongdoing, means beginning with a sense of loss of power over one’s world. The idea that you’ve caused pain is startling and unsettling. It should be. We are provoked to apologize because we say or do something that moves the pain of the other person to the center of the world, which de-centers me. This is an anxious moment. We all know it from everyday life. You fuck up, you say the wrong thing, you treat someone insensitively, and then you get called out. “Called out” is a helpful phrase. You’re drawn out of yourself and, in that drawing out, you come to see that someone has been looking at you the whole time. They see something you don’t like, and now what they see about you has become something you see about yourself. We call this transfer guilt and shame. This is an important moment. It is also a moment we too often flee from in search of that control over self we just lost.

Here, in wresting back control, DiFranco’s apology becomes an important example of the imagined invisibility of whiteness. Insofar as we white people circulate among mostly or exclusively other whites, invisibility becomes a believable fiction. Thus, being-white entails a kind of delusional state. But the plantation house is something very different. Suddenly, as DiFranco learned, your whiteness becomes visible for all to see and the question becomes, not how you are the universal and the general thing called “human,” but instead how racial identity conducts memory through you, certain privileges and distance from pain obtain, and therefore how there is difference in this space. And that’s okay. We all come from somewhere. Sure, it means you can’t control the discourse about what this place means, and especially about what this place ought to mean – which is exactly what DiFranco tries to when she imagines the plantation as a “dialogue” space (dialogue, I think, is largely something that happens in a common or same space). We should only worry about that control of discourse, however, if we actually believe that our register of memory, in this body, is memory’s sole and proper register. It isn’t. And we need to start with that.

The craft of what I’d call a decent apology – all apologies probably risk too much, so decency seems a reasonable goal – entails a balance between affirming the difference of experience between the wrongdoer and the one who has suffered wrong doing, and yet still seeks some form of reconciliation. But reconciliation doesn’t necessarily have to do with erasing the past or obliterating differences. Sometimes apologizing and working toward some sort of reconciliation means giving yourself over to that other who has been looking at you the whole time. Getting called out means, well, you have to be outside of yourself. Exposed. Vulnerable because of your own words. Begin there. Respond there. Find apology words in that strange space. Wow, I really fucked up.

Standing in that sort of space means that you have to forgo, or at least work against, the narcissism of saying you’re sorry. DiFranco’s apology makes that narcissism so clear in her condescension of the offended and aggrieved. Let’s be plain: DiFranco’s statement is a blueprint for how to not apologize, or, better, how to apologize like a condescending white person. We’ve got to do better.

As a last note, there is for me the question of why. Why would I care about this? I’m not even a fan. Well, part of my interest is no doubt that it will be a pop culture eruption for (max) a few days, so it drew my attention. I’m also interested in memory, race, and reconciliation. More than that, though, when I read through the back and forth and analysis and reflection, it struck me that this is a particularly stark and clear example of how difficult it is to encounter and sit with racial difference. Difference is unsettling. It postpones, perhaps for a very long time, any sense of common ground, and therefore postpones (perhaps even does away with) notions of healing and moving forward that would proceed from the common in multi-racial spaces.

Beginning with the common. Let’s not do that. Perhaps one of the lessons to be learned from DiFranco’s case is that we also have to learn to apologize without negating difference, without moving ourselves to the center of everything and expecting the aggrieved to meet us there, on our own terms. We have to learn to live with difference – or at least plan to sit with it for a very long time. That requires a different kind of apology when we fuck up. But I suspect any hope for a different future – because I do think we can do better than the past five hundred years – needs that kind of “I’m sorry.”