Both Seen and Unseen

I recently posted this story on my Facebook page. I was responding to this article which triggered me.

This article really touched a nerve. Recently a neighbor in a building where I’ve lived almost 20 years told my mother to leave the stoop. My mother, an elderly woman in her 70s, had stopped to rest there while waiting for a family member to pick her up in the middle of the afternoon. My mother had been on the phone with her family, directing them where to go. Apparently my neighbor heard her through the window and felt it was appropriate to walk out of the building in order to ask my mother to leave the stoop. My mother was stunned. She knows this neighbor–knows her children. We’ve all been there forever. But somehow my neighbor did not know her. Didn’t recognize this elderly Black lady as belonging to the building or to this Brooklyn community. And she told her to leave.

Words can’t describe the anger I felt and still feel. When I walk down the street I feel a tightness in my chest. I no longer talk to my neighbor when I see her in the neighborhood. I am sure she doesn’t even notice. She never saw me anyway.

This feeling of Black invisibility/visibility is something I have been curious about my whole life. It’s no wonder that one of my favorite books as as adult is Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison which starts with the line

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

I wonder what this neighbor thought when she saw my mother. She didn’t see an elderly woman in need of a break. She saw an outsider. An interloper. She saw a figment of her imagination constructed from her own bias.

I asked the same question when I read this article. A group of Black women were joyfully celebrating a company merger when they were interrupted by a White man who asked why they were celebrating and then asked them if the news of the merger would appear in the crime section of the paper. What did he see? He didn’t see a group of happy women. Instead he saw Black women whose behavior he found questionable and whose experiences he could only associate with crime. He saw a figment of his imagination constructed from his own bias.

Why is Black individuality invisible?

There have been many times when White friends, neighbors, coworkers and colleagues didn’t see me. Didn’t notice me as I walked next to them down the street. Didn’t see me as I stood in front of them at the local bagel shop. Didn’t recognize me even though our hands almost touched as we stood next to each other on the train. I have been invisible sometimes only seen to be told to move, to leave, to stop, to explain myself. My neighbor that I mentioned above saw me when she wanted something, needed something or felt that I could in some way help her out. But daily I find that I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.


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