By Dr. Heather Harwood, Classics Faculty
Unraveling White Supremacy: Reflections on Becoming Anti-racist
As Penelope, the heroine of the Odyssey, awaits her husband’s return from the Trojan war, she spends her time weaving and unweaving the same piece of fabric- a shroud intended for her father-in-law’s funeral.
“[E]very day she wove the mighty cloth and then at night, by torchlight, she unwove it.” (2.107-108) The poet tells us that she had been doing this for three years before the dozens of suitors – local men who have been visiting her palace to ask for her hand in marriage – discovered the trick. When they finally realize she has been deceiving them, these suitors become angry and tell her son Telemachus to force her to choose one of them right away – a crisis that begins the action of the rest of the poem’s long narrative.
Readers of the Odyssey often point to this passage as an example of Penelope’s “capacity for clever deceit and false storytelling,” evidence that she too, like her husband Odysseus, is polytrope, clever and versatile, or, as Emily Wilson newly translates this epithet, “complicated.” But as Wilson rightly points out, Penelope’s practice of doing and undoing is different from the kind of trickery for which her husband is known. While Odysseus’s lies are always designed to advance his way in the world or achieve some heroic feat, Penelope’s action is not a fabrication of the truth, but the opposite: a refabrication of her reality. With her nightly unfurling of the cloth, she is seeking to hold the sometimes violent threat of the suitors in check while simultaneously holding space for a different ending to her story, the ending she wants to come true and which will in fact be the end of the story, namely her husband’s homecoming. Penelope’s trick (if it can be considered one) both saves her life and makes it possible for the rest of the story to be sung. (Wilson, 45)
I want to offer this story about Penelope as a starting point for my reflections on how to begin the work of becoming anti-racist for two reasons. First, many of the words currently in use to describe our relationship to racism and white supremacy (implicit, explicit, complicit) derive from words that can also be used to describe the intricate work of ancient textile production. Second, I think this story of Penelope weaving, unweaving and reweaving provides an apt metaphor for the work of becoming an anti-racist. Unraveling and untangling all of the threads of white supremist culture in your life is difficult work — ongoing, messy and often very uncomfortable. The narrative of American history is only part of the tapestry of white supremacy, which has its origins in ancient and modern European history. In what follows, I will present one way to think about how to develop a capacity for identifying, explicating and finally unraveling the threads of white supremacy.
The first step in the process of becoming anti-racist is to see that you are implicated by racism and the white supremacist ideologies that created and continue to perpetuate it. This is not as easy as it sounds. Taking the implicit bias test is a great place to start, as it can help you realize that you hold biases and prejudices implicitly, i.e. without expressing them overtly or explicitly. But being implicated by white supremacy can feel like something bigger, something scarier, more sinister, even dangerous. It is one thing to recognize and admit you have bias against a certain group. It is quite another to recognize that the source of this bias has its roots in a racist ideology. My first reaction was to deny or to try to distance myself from this reality especially when I witnessed such hateful, violent outbursts like those in Charlottesville or more recently during the insurrection at the Capitol. But here’s the thing — if you have lived in this country your whole life, you are implicated by white supremacy whether you recognize it or not. This is not your fault, it is the result of living in a country that was founded on white supremacist ideologies. For some, being implicated is a lived experience, a trauma in the body and mind whose “shadow self” has been passed on through generations. For others it can lead to a new “learned” awareness-an acknowledgment of privilege or prejudice that opens a window on the experience of others. For too many Americans there is either no awareness of being implicated, or, worse, a strong resistance to seeing why white supremacist ideology is harmful.
It has been helpful, for me, to recognize that being implicated by white supremacy, or having implicit white supremacist bias, is not the same as being complicit in white supremacy. The verb implicare in Latin means to entangle, to wrap around, to enfold or envelope. The verb complicare means entwined with, or wrapped up in. To be implicated is to be thrust into a state of being. It means you are unknowingly or even unconsciously enfolded and entangled in something — it is fundamentally a passive state. To be complicit is to actively wrap yourself up in something, to be an accomplice in some action (often the commission of an ill deed). Here are two illustrative examples based on a recent incident in New York City that may help explain the difference.
- A white woman walking her dog in a park encounters a black man birdwatching, who then addresses her and asks her to leash her dog. Feeling guilty for breaking the leash law, she becomes afraid, quickly leashes her dog and walks by the man without speaking. This woman is implicated by white supremist culture.
- A white woman walking her dog in the park encounters a black man birdwatching, who then addresses her and asks her to leash her dog. Feeling annoyed by his request, she becomes enraged, yells at the man to stay away from her and calls the police to report an assault. This woman is complicit in white supremist culture.
Notice that both the women in these stories are to some degree entangled with white supremacy culture. The distinction is not between being part of white supremacy culture or opting out of it — the difference is in the degree of complicity, in how much each woman chooses to perpetuate white supremacy culture or not.
The next step in the process, then, once you have recognized that you are implicated by white supremacy, is to understand what its influence has been in your life. To do this you need to find the threads that implicate you and pull out individual parts of the narrative of white supremacy and look at them closely. The verb explicare in Latin means to unfold or disentangle and in this way to explain or put forth. You must try to explicate or pull out the parts of your culture you have lived or learned that are informed by white supremacist ideologies in order to make them explicit to yourself. This part of the work can take a long time and will be different for everyone. There are a lot of these threads at work in our past and present experiences of white supremacy. Here is a list (hardly exhaustive) of 10 things you should know about white supremacy. By way of example I offer three “threads” I have pulled out of my own lived and learned experiences that have implicated me and explained them here.
- White supremacy is a racial ideology that works to maintain class inequality. I realized that for many years I had falsely believed that the social problems of black and brown communities were caused by economic disparity and not by racism. My misunderstanding had made me blind to the extent to which my privilege was/is perpetuated by racist ideology.
- White supremacy is a sexist ideology that justified the subjugation and objectification of women which in turn produced and perpetuated rape culture in America. When I pulled this thread out and tried to see how it had been made explicit in my experience, I recognized that growing up as a woman in such a culture has at various times in my life, made me feel fundamentally ashamed of my body, distrustful of my sexuality and afraid of men.
- White supremacy is a racist and sexist ideology that rationalized the superiority of white men over all other humans. I pulled this thread out and recognized that my internalization of this patriarchal system has for many years made me doubt my autonomy, see myself as inferior and fueled my continuous efforts to be better. Engaging in a toxic kind of competition and striving for perfection forced me always to critique myself, comparing myself to someone better or worse than I was, whether I was trying to get into the better school, get the better job, have the better body, wear the better clothes, eat the better foods, etc.
In the end, if you pull enough of the threads out, you end up with a jumbled up ball of frayed fibres at your feet. This begins your deplication, an obsolete noun that means an unfolding, unraveling or unplaiting and comes from the Latin verb deplicare– to unravel. This part of the process is perhaps the most difficult because it necessitates an active intention to loosen the bonds of white supremacist ideologies from your thinking even as you are still implicated in white supremacist culture. This often creates a cognitive dissonance that is so uncomfortable it sometimes feels like the only way to be free of these threads is to remove them entirely. Faced with the messiness and complexity of this task, there is an impulse to want to wad all of these unraveled threads up and throw them away.
This is where the image of Penelope, unraveling and then raveling her cloth back up becomes a helpful metaphor. Because her task requires that she reuse the old threads she has been given and transform them into a new story, she is engaged in a process of re-creation rather than simply one of destruction. Living in the patriarchal culture she did, her weaving and reweaving represented a subversive act – a show of defiance, a deplication or unraveling of her present situation, intended to subvert her situation and rewrite her story. Like those unraveled threads, the vestiges of white supremist ideology are still everywhere and all around us and we are still very tangled up in them. If we are to free ourselves, we must do more than simply destroy them. In fact I would argue that the impulse to eradicate the past often indicates an internalized white suremacist perspective- an us/them/either/or dichotomy that prevents true liberation.
In the Classics department at St. Mark’s, the work of becoming antiracist has taken place on two levels. Not only have Ms. Cook and I reworked our curriculum and pedagogy to make this once classist, sexist and racist discipline more diverse and inclusive ( see Ms. Cook’s Article in this same issue about our new beginning Latin curriculum), we have also had to rethink the way we approach the texts we read. Rather than holding these authors up as exemplars of Western culture as generations of classics teachers have done, we intentionally challenge our students to scrutinize the bias in the history and literature of the ancients with a more critical, 21st century lens. As professors Cornel West and Jeremy Tate observed recently, reading the Classics in this way is central to the work of identity development:
Students must be challenged: Can they face texts from the greatest thinkers that force them to radically call into question their presuppositions? Can they come to terms with the antecedent conditions and circumstances they live in but didn’t create? Can they confront the fact that human existence is not easily divided into good and evil, but filled with complexity, nuance and ambiguity?
By reading and re-reading classical texts like the Odyssey or the Iliad in the original Greek, by explicating lines of poetry and pulling out not only what is beautiful, salvific and human, but also identifying what is ugly, violent and inhuman in these verses, it is possible to unravel truths about white supremacy that had been so tightly woven in as to be invisible. By then reweaving the untold stories of women, slaves and disenfranchised citizens back into long unquestioned values of patriarchy, imperialism and colonization, students can begin to see the way white supremasist ideology informs dominant narratives of western thought and how these in turn impact their own lived experiences in the present. The process also carves out imaginative spaces to create new stories and new ideologies — ones which challenge long-held assumptions about heroism, self worth, beauty, goodness, success and excellence and which allow us to construct new definitions for these values in our own lives.
Becoming anti-racist, to my understanding, is a process of engaging in the individual and interpersonal work of unraveling white supremacy where I find it, both in my own life and in the literature and culture it has produced. It is difficult, but liberating work that demands ongoing self-discovery and a willingness to reimagine the narratives we have inherited. Above all, I think becoming anti-racist is work that we must all share, together weaving the voices and stories and perspectives that have not been part of the narrative back into the fabric of our communities, institutions and governments; conjuring and creating and communicating a new story on the tapestry of our shared humanity, in patterns and colors we haven’t yet imagined-thread by thread.
Dr. Heather Harwood is a faculty member at St. Mark’s School. She is teaches in the Classics Department.
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson, W. W. Norton and Company, 2018
Image by Marian Maguire, 2017, acrylic on wood, painted fireplace.