The Past is a Foreign Country

Every single post on my facebook feed right now is about Trudeau in blackface and brownface. I am appalled, it is disgusting.

I came across this passage, while reading something else, and want to discuss and challenge it:

Understanding people in the past by their own standards means that we need to contextualize the information and try to shift perspectives. 1Thomas Nygren, “Teaching and Learning the Mindset of the Digital Historian and More: Scaffolding Students’ Critical Skills in the Digital Humanities.” 2017. DHN 2017.


There is a challenge to understand the past as a “foreign country,” a place where language and concepts as well as context differ in fundamental ways from our contemporary world.2Nygren, citing Lowenthal.

I’ve heard folks use the phrase “it was 2001.” Meaning, the past is a foreign country. Meaning, you know, what happens in The Past, stays in The Past. Or, c’mon man, we had a different culture, we did some things then that wouldn’t fly now.

You’re only halfway there.

I’ve heard “woke” culture described as: it’s no longer silencing the voices of the less-powerful. It’s listening when people say “no, it’s not okay”. They’ve been saying this all along. These things have never been okay. We’ve just not been listening, and creating spaces where there are no consequences, so that we can continue to not listen.

But what happened in the past has lasting consequences. It can’t just “stay in the past.” If the consequences haven’t been apparent to you, that’s the problem. To say it “was okay at the time” is missing the point. It was not okay then, but you were able to ignore anyone who said it wasn’t.

If you really think “it was okay back then” and “I guess it’s not okay now,” can you see the shape formed by these two facets?

Did you really think it was okay at the time? Why? Whose opinions were you listening to? Whose views didn’t factor in? Why? What have you internalized? Whose admiration were you after? Why was that important to you? How were certain acts enabled by white supremacy? How did you enable white supremacy? What does complicity feel like?

FUN! (no, actually, it’s painful and fucking hurts, and explains to me why so many folks are conservative. It’s less painful to perpetuate a delusion.)

We Live In A Society!


Go follow Rachel Cargle‘s work, and do Layla Saad’s Workbook.

2 thoughts on “The Past is a Foreign Country”


  • Ton Zijlstra

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