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Visible, Invisible

Ralph Ellison at literary symposium at University of Iowa University of Iowa Digital Library/Flickr

I want to consider some stories I have read recently — juxtapose them to one another. Let’s begin by looking at this story:

Last year I told a gay black male who wrote a story about a gay black male that I didn’t care about race or gender, and the class gasped. Even though I explained that I cared more about what happened to the character and about the elegance of the prose, my comment could have been a signal to erect a guillotine on the campus lawn. Nonetheless, the student thanked me after class. He said, “No one looks at my stories. They just look at me.”

And this post on “microinvalidations”:

Microinvalidations are characterized by communications or environmental cues that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of certain groups, such as people of color. Color blindness is one of the most frequently delivered microinvalidations toward people of color.

“People are just people; I don’t see color; we’re all just human.” Or “I don’t think of you as Chinese.” Or “We all bleed red when we’re cut.” Or “Character, not color, is what counts with me.”

And then this story:

Academics of color experience an enervating visibility, but it’s not simply that we’re part of a very small minority. We are also a desired minority, at least for appearance’s sake. University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity — in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic. There’s a wound in the rupture between the diversity manifested in the body of the professor of color and the realities affecting that person’s community or communities. I, for example, am a black professor in the era of mass incarceration of black people through the War on Drugs; I am a Somali American professor in the era of surveillance and drone strikes perpetuated through the War on Terror….

It’s not that we’re too few, nor is it that we suffer survivor guilt for having escaped the fate of so many in our communities. It’s that our visibility is consumed in a way that legitimizes the structures of exclusion.

Skin feeling: to be encountered as a surface.

And finally, Ralph Ellison from Invisible Man, where so much of this discourse begins:

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.

It’s easy — especially for anyone who discounts racism and the effects of racism as major shapers of the American cultural experience — to throw up one’s hands and say “It’s impossible to win with these people! It’s white people’s fault if they’re visible, it’s white people’s fault if they’re invisible! Heads they win, tails we lose!” Indeed, it’s not just easy, it’s inevitable.

But you know, it has to be hard to be either invisible or hyper-visible; and white America really does oscillate between casual clueless racism and genuine heartfelt desire to achieve colorblindness. (Though probably there has been a general drift towards the latter, which could be taken advantage of rather than resented.)

I would love to have a clear answer to this conundrum, but I don’t — except to note that it is a conundrum, an insoluble puzzle, a rhetorical circle — it’s the Mister Bones’ Wild Ride of political rhetoric. So maybe this is a good point at which to remind ourselves that, in this context, both “visibility” and “invisibility” are largely metaphorical. And then look through and beneath them for the more complex reality that they fail to capture — even if they may have been at times in their history conceptually useful and powerful. I think many critics of American racism have attached themselves to a vocabulary that just drops them in a ride that never ends.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.