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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.(more…)