Who’s apologizing for race-related insensitivity now? Ani DiFranco and Questlove.

December 30, 2013

Roots frontman Questlove and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

Which celebrities were accused of being racist while you were spending time with your family this holiday season? That would be feminist icon Ani DiFranco and Roots drummer/”Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” bandleader Questlove, perhaps some of the last people you’d expect to make (and then walk back!) racially insensitive comments over the holidays.

DiFranco came under fire after announcing a four-day creative workshop called the “Righteous Retreat” which was to be held, rather unrighteously, at a former slave plantation outside of New Orleans. She later explained in a Facebook post cancelling the event that an organizer had approached her before the venue was set; she then veers into a long, touchy-feely discussion on the power of healing:

tragedies on a massive scale are not easily dealt with or recovered from. i certainly in no way expect or want to be immune from that pain or that process of recovery. i welcome (and in fact have always pursued) constructive dialogue about these and all political/social issues. my intention of going ahead with the conference at the nottoway plantation was not to be a part of a great forgetting but it’s 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 obviously underestimated the power of an evocatively symbolic place to trigger collective and individual pain.

Unfortunately, DiFranco’s insistence that she isn’t part of a “great forgetting” is perhaps undermined by the fact that Nottoway Plantation’s Web site goes to pretty great lengths to romanticize its slave-keeping past — at one point characterizing its slaves as a “willing workforce” who were “well treated for the time.” (The venue also hosts weddings, corporate meetings and other events; those presumably are not the subject of Change.org petitions.)

Meanwhile, while in Japan, Questlove enraged his “Asian brothers and sisters” after joking on Instagram that (1) a Japanese woman sounded like someone talking “in tongues” and (2) reversing his Ls and Rs, a common derogatory insult, in posts about Japanese people. (“You ruys clack me lup,” Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi commented.) The resulting outcry over stereotypes and xenophobia inspired him to apologize on Facebook the day after Christmas:

unfortunately, i’ve offended my asian brothers & sisters with an IG post which i made during my recent tour of japan. in that post, i likened a japanese department store employee’s vocal intonation to that of a (church) deacon speaking in tongues …

In hindsight, it’s easy to see how my post was yet another example of the ugly, american flipping yet another ugly/racially/culturally insensitive script. so, let me make this abundantly clear…. THE ISH THAT I SAID WAS DUMB (PERIOD).

The upshot of all this is that people in two corners of the Internet are having a (generally) constructive, provocative conversation about race — something that doesn’t happen in the comments’ sections too frequently. Questlove even went on to discourse about other-ness and stereotyping with an aggrieved fan. In an apparent Christmas miracle, they resolved things after a bit of back-and-forth.

Update: A reader informs us that Lakshmi also apologized for her comment on Instagram. Her post reads in part: “As a person who has experienced firsthand the effects of racism, as well as the sting of negative comments based on my skin or ethnicity, I should have known better. As an Asian, I have no right to add to stereotypes of other Asians. I am simply, sorry.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Dan Zak · December 30, 2013