Seeing What We Expect to See, Part II


After submitting my letter to the editor of the Daily Lobo, I received a reply, which I have copied here below for completeness.

Travis, I would very much like to have a dialogue with you about your remarks. They seem to mistake the role of the professor and the role of the student in tertiary education. Students aren’t passive receptacles for information. The very critique you are offering about students being taught to see themselves as victims imagines they have no agency and no ability to critically examine the merits of an argument. Do you see yourself this way? Or do you imagine your intellect is superior to your peers?

Also, your perspective seems to lack nuance. Mine has room for more than black and white, as there are truths in the idea that early immigrants to this land were pioneers, but also and truth in the savage (yes, I use that word pointedly!) realities of colonialism. It’s not about making victims out of anyone. It’s about reclaiming a more honest and respectful shared history to find a way forward that doesn’t marginalize.

I respect your right to your opinion, but you might reconsider that the definition of conquistador is one who explored and sought to conquer and colonize lands with indigenous populations for Spain and Portugal. So, if you want to say a conquistador is just a conquistador, it’s a little odd to take issue with the idea of colonialism.

Thank you for offering an opportunity for further discussion.

~Cece Shantzek

What’s interesting to me about Cece’s reply is the bit about trying “to find a way forward that doesn’t marginalize.” In my letter, I observed that people see racism in the seal. Similarly, I think people see racism in today’s world because they see the future through the lens of the past. To claim that we have to find a way forward which doesn’t marginalize presumes that today we are still marginalizing some groups of people. Otherwise, we’ve already found that way forward!

It is true those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. In that sense, I understand looking to the past as a way to guide our thoughts and hopes regarding the future. It’s always preferable to make new mistakes, as opposed to repeating old ones. However, taken too far, one may think that the only purpose of the future is to “pay for” the sins of the past.

However, the past is in the past. The only way forward is to make the kind of future we want to live in. If we’re attempting to make a future in which people are more respectful towards one another, then why do others keep dredging up past disrespectful attitudes? What is the point of such “evidence”? To “prove” bad things happened in the past? Of course they did! We may not like that they happened, but they did. But should what people did in the past affect how we judge a person or society today? No.

Why is it not sufficient that many people live in a manner more consistent with our current social norms and standards? I suspect most Americans believe racism is bad, try not to be racist, and set about working to make the future. Though it would appear some people do not:

Note the end of my tweet, “still actively oppressing ppl”. Apparently, our society is still racist, despite getting rid of Jim Crow laws, implementing affirmative action, and seeing a decrease in racially-oriented thinking among the American people!

Now, there certainly still are people in America who are racist. I am not going to dispute that. But to claim that our society is racist requires quite the leap of imagination. It presumes that nothing in our society has changed, even though a cursory glance would indicate otherwise.

An insistence on viewing individuals and our society through the lens of the past perpetuates false stereotypes and actually hinders progress in increasing personal freedom, liberty, and responsiblity for everyone. Instead of looking towards the future, and what we want it to be, there are people who would rather look backwards. They make it harder for us to admit past mistakes, make amends as best we are able, and set about on the work of making that future, because they have no interest dwelling there. They would rather dwell in the past.