One of my favorite photos is of my oldest daughter when she was a toddler. She is playing in her bedroom curtains. She is sitting with her back against the wall. Her face is covered by fistfuls of fabric. She is asking me to come find her. She is gurgling with joy that she is hidden. She does not understand that I can see her legs, her little feet with toes all the same size, peeking underneath what is not covered by the curtains. I was not visible to her, so she believed she was not visible to me. Amused, I had taken my time “looking” for her.
Now, as an elder, I am living with a retiring mind and a renegade body. Even without the magical cloak of Perseus, or of bedroom curtains, I am becoming invisible. In the dominant “youth-eyed,” white- and masculine-normed culture, I am disappearing. I fight daily monsters that bite, chew and claw at my sensibilities as a woman of African descent. My race/ethnicity, social class, age, ability, gender and size can make me prey at any given time or place.
Growing up black
The grownups during my nomadic childhood were consistent in one thing. They told me, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Adults talked. Men and women had conversations with loud opinions, big ideas and emotional responses to daily living.
I could sit with the adults, if I was quiet. I was not to interrupt. I had no opinions considered worth sharing. I was permitted to listen in order to, and for another reason: to understand how to survive.
A big-mouthed child could be seen as uppity, disrespectful to white people. The child’s words could get them lynched, or the community burned to the ground. In order to survive, black people had to learn to become invisible.
Enslaved Africans worked from dawn to dusk under the gaze of overseers and masters. A slave was punished for making any aspect of their humanity visible. A slave mother did what she could to protect her daughters from the lustful gaze of boys and men. To escape this institutional madness, slaves had to become invisible in woods, swamps, and water in the darkest of nights.
I am conscious about being visible and invisible.
I moved to Minneapolis in 1987. I found myself in educational arenas where I was the first and only black person. I had to create a volume button for my visibility. I was well aware that I was only window dressing in some positions. White women dominated the education field and were leaping into managerial positions in nonprofits. I was expected to agree with their ideas, only use my expertise to train them, or add flavor to the holiday gatherings. I was not to offer too many of my strong-minded opinions. I learned to keep my ideas to myself, to do social ventriloquism (feeding my ideas to a white male), or to execute my ideas under the radar.
The invisibility of rape culture
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly — all known to take advantage of teenage girls with the consent of family. We tend to make invisible how men behave. Men who feel powerless, and men engorged on power, often abuse women.
Rampant sexual abuse and harassment are indicators of a toxic society — one that pretends that what happens behind the curtain is not there. Now some men are toppling. Revelations continue. Regular men, who are not wealthy or famous, enact similar behaviors. Their victims are not always believed, or trusting enough of the structure to speak up. How much of predator and victim will continue to be invisible?
I want visibility. I want real language for knowing what happened. Rape is not just being sexually inappropriate. It is language, using euphemisms, that changes the crime committed. “Boys will be boys.” Toppling men like dominoes does not change the sexual behaviors of these men. The rape culture must be dismantled.
I can imagine that girls and women of all races and walks of life have participated in sexual acts, harassment and abuse because of the need to survive in the home, workplace, or streets. We have learned to not make men angry. We have learned how to become invisible by taking up less space, diverting our eyes, keeping our heads down, shutting our mouths.
Erasure of narratives also makes black women’s history invisible. The civil rights movement began as a response to the massive incidents of rape and other violence and harassment of black women by white men. #MeToo began more than 10 years ago by a black woman, Tarana Burke, talking about sexual harassment and violence against black women — then was co-opted by a white woman who forgot to give Burke credit.
There are white men and white women who are like my toddler daughter trapped in that Polaroid photo. What they can’t see does not exist for them.
Yet I do exist! I exist within that world of “I don’t see color,” “I don’t like identity politics,” “can’t we all get along,” the latest trending social media hashtag, and the continuous misappropriation of my black/African culture, and even trauma.
This re-centers whiteness.
Stop it. I see you. #invisibilitynotme.