I choose to see

Written by Katie Dennis-Gunnerson, 2nd year

Recently, I was scrolling through Facebook, as I’m prone to do while procrastinating, and I noticed former NFL player and coach Mike Ditka’s name was “trending.” I mostly ignore what’s going on in the sports world, so I must have really been procrastinating when I clicked on his name. It took me to an article in the L.A. Times, quoting Mike Ditka’s reaction to NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality.

Although I don’t follow the NFL, I’ve heard of Kaepernick and those who applaud or disagree with his actions, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I want to talk about the line from Ditka that struck me as an archivist. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.” By this, I assume he meant because he has not seen what Kaepernick and others in the African American community say is happening, it must not be happening. Ditka doesn’t perceive it to be true; therefore there’s no reason for Kaepernick to protest.

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the National Anthem before a San Francisco 49ers game on Sept. 1, 2016. Photo courtesty of USA Today.

As individuals, we see different things and have different truths, we have different worldviews and experiences. But as individuals in the archival profession, we are called to document and preserve the whole of society, even those aspects that we can’t see for ourselves. The idea that police brutality is part of our society doesn’t fit into Ditka’s worldview simply because he’s never witnessed it with his own eyes. As I read his statement, I couldn’t help but think about how dangerous this mindset could be in the archival profession; How much damage it could do if archivists chose not to acknowledge the experiences of others, chose not to collect, preserve or document aspects of our society they could not or did not want to see.

One could argue that there is a lot we don’t see with our own eyes, but we believe happened because it’s been documented and preserved in an archive; the legitimizing effect of the archive making it part of history. None of us were alive during the era of slavery in the U.S., but we believe it happened because it’s been documented and preserved. I don’t think the ability to see is what is keeping Ditka from acknowledging police brutality as a reality for African Americans. Abuse of power and fatal use of force by police is happening to the African American community and it has been documented. Ditka could see it if he wanted to, but he is choosing not to because it doesn’t fit his worldview. Despite our individual experiences and worldviews, archivists cannot allow ourselves to be limited by what we can see or fit into our individual worldviews. We must choose to see the truths and experiences of others, even if they’re uncomfortable or not our own, and strive to preserve them as part of our shared history.

Furthermore, we must actively collaborate with communities, encouraging the documentation and preservation of their experiences to create more complete and accurate record of our shared history. Archivists must proactively seek to document that which we don’t see, rather than just acting as “the passive recipient and custodian of records” for those in power; otherwise “the archives [will] remain the instrument of the powerful.”[1] As archivist Randall Jimerson reminds us, we have a “moral professional responsibility to balance the support given to the status quo [those in power] by giving equal voice to those groups that too often have been marginalized and silenced.”[2] The African American community has historically been marginalized and silenced by those in power and subsequently, in the archive. When we choose not to see their experiences, like Ditka, whether consciously or not, we are “reinforce[ing] prevailing relations of power.”[3]

The first step towards breaking free of our individual worldviews and “entering the power contest on behalf of democracy”[4] is to acknowledge our responsibility and take “active steps to counter the biases of previous archival practices.”[5] We must “contemplate the nature of archives, the political orientation and application of archival science in different national and community contexts.”[6]

The second step is to choose to see by including the “records created by communities that are often “the subject of records rather than the maker” and to encourage and facilitate the preservation of community created records. Because “All layers of society [should be] participants in the record-making process.”[7]

The third step is to expand our idea of what belongs in the archive. In the digital age, we risk failing our mission to document the whole of society if we don’t establish ways to ethically collect and preserve records created on the Internet and social media, where some of the most significant movements of the 21st century are taking place. We must adapt and create space in the archive for this type of output.

When we choose not to see, we are succumbing to “the structural pull in all our record making towards the replication of existing relations of power.” Because we will inevitably collect the records of the powerful, “we cannot avoid complicity,” but we can work against the pull. I choose to work against the pull, to see and to not turn away, because I believe, as Verne Harris says, it’s our “moral imperative to do so.”[8]

Fortunately, there are archivists leading the way in the fight against complicity. These archivist activists are redefining what it means to work against the pull. Check out Documenting the Now, Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, as they discuss what it looks like to document history through social media. Also, WITNESS.org as they teach communities to preserve their encounters with power through archiving video, and Jarrett M. Drake and A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland for inspiration.


[1]  Gilliland, Anne J. “Archival appraisal: practicing on shifting sands,” In Archives and Recordkeeping: Theory into practice , ed. Caroline Brown, 43. London: Facet Publishing, 2014. [2]  Jimerson, Randall C. “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.” The American Archivist (2007): 254. [3] Harris, “Archives, Politics, and Justice,” in Political Pressure, 181–82. [4] Harris, 181–82. [5] Jimerson, 254. [6] Gilliland, 44. [7] Jimerson quoting Bastian, 276. [8] Harris, 173

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