Thirty years ago. . .
When I graduated from college, I had a wardrobe full of sweats and church clothes. Nothing for an office job. So, when I was hired in my first position, I went shopping. I had money in my pocket and excitement in my movement. My first stop was a store in the mall, where I knew I could find affordable slacks in different styles and colors.
When I walked into the store, everything was quiet. Two women were behind the register having a conversation and there were no other customers. I saw them, they saw me, I saw them seeing me and no words were exchanged. I had a moment of relief since I knew no one was going to follow me around the store, and yet, something felt off.
Going about my business, I was in the process of selecting some pants, five were already draped over my arm to be tried on, when a White woman walked into the store. The salespeople stopped their conversation. “Hello, welcome, can help you with anything.” The lady was not interested in their help so they responded, “let us know if you need help.”
The relief I’d felt earlier turned to anger and frustration. Here I’d been in the store for over fifteen minutes, and hadn’t heard a thing from these salespeople, who were also White, and as soon as a White woman walked in she was met with help she didn’t want. So, as I stood there in my pain, I contemplated two things: 1) I could buy all five pairs of pants (which was the plan) to show them that I do have money that is also green, maybe surprising them or “shaming” them or; 2) I could put all the pants back where I found them, and walk out of the store reinforcing their bias and feeling relieved, somewhat, of the slight that just happened. I opted to leave.
That store went out of business about a year later. I’d like to think it was because more people, like me, walked out when they saw how they were discounted.
The more things change. . .
It’s now about thirty years later and my daughter and I go into a local restaurant to help support my son’s senior class in their fundraising efforts. It’s senior night and a portion of the night’s proceeds will go to the senior class. My daughter and I arrive exactly at five, before the rush, because we’re hungry. We walk into the restaurant, and we see servers, they see us, we see them seeing us with the puzzled looks we have that say, “what do we do now?” and no one says a word.
So, we find a table and sit. Waiting for someone to acknowledge and let us know exactly what it is we’re supposed to do since this is our first time in this restaurant. After we’ve been sitting for about ten minutes my twelve year old daughter says, “I think we’re invisible.” to which I respond “I think you’re right.”
Now, this is the part where I would normally walk out. But there was a bigger purpose for our being there. So, we sat, we waited.
Finally, after about fifteen minutes, one of the servers from across the room says “is anyone helping you?” to which be both respond “no.” “okay, I’ll be with you in a second.” Then after a couple more minutes, the server comes and takes our order. Then, another server comes, and asks if we’ve been helped. We say “yes.” When the second server leaves, I say to my daughter, “we’re not invisible anymore.” and her response is “I turned off the Wi-Fi on my phone, it was probably blocking our signal.” We laugh an understanding laugh and make light of a very dehumanizing situation. Did I mention we live in a predominantly White area?
In the end it took us an hour to get our food and another half hour to pay, on top of the almost twenty minutes it took us to get helped. We spent the whole two-hour timeframe allotted for the fundraiser in that restaurant. That was not our intention.
Forward again and my daughter and I are in the mall. She decides she wants to go into a store we’ve never gone into before. We walk in, we see the salespeople see us, and we go about our business. We walk the whole store admiring a number of items without finding anything and leave. Once outside the store I say, “We walked through that whole store and . . . ” to which my daughter completes, “…no one said a word to us, I think we’re invisible again.”
Not far down the hall we go into another store, and this one really slaps. As we’re walking into the store, there are two salespeople standing at the front, one on either side of the entry that we’re walking through and neither of them says anything to us. So, my daughter and I look at each other and I say, “we really are invisible!” and we make lite again of a very dehumanizing situation with a few jokes. Then another salesperson coming toward us says “hi, let me know if you need anything.” My daughter and I look at each other and I say “she must be a manager.”
Cloak of invisibility
There have been times when I’ve shared these types of stories only to have a White woman say to me, “oh, people are rude to me too.” Please don’t do that. It’s not about rudeness, and it’s not about you. It’s about an ingrained bias that shows itself and that we (Black people) recognize as being a bias.
We often joke that Black people can get beaten, maimed and fully harmed in the movies, or in these streets and it’s as if no one sees, especially if it’s in the presence of White people. However, let a dog get beat and all hell breaks loose!
What you may perceive as individuals being rude, is not always the case. And since I’ve been Black all my life, I know the difference. I carry the pain of having to make lite of a situation with my children so they can bear the pain and still carry themselves with dignity. The inhumanity of not being seen or acknowledged because of the bias assumption that “you don’t have any money” or “you’re going to steal something” or “I’m not going to waste my time with them.” All those insinuations are heard loud and clear by those to whom they are hurled. Yet, These same situations get dismissed by White people as “you’re being to sensitive” or “I’m sure that’s not what they meant to do/say” or “That happens to me too.”
The cloak of invisibility seems to be one that Black people cannot remove even when talking to those who “mean well.” It’s the cloak that allows our collective Black voices to scream about police brutality, or about our boys being thrown in jail for hand-slapping offenses while White people vilify us for yelling too loudly or talking badly about the police. And when a snuff film involving a White police officer and a Black defenseless man goes viral they say “I didn’t know.” The cloak of invisibility is the one that allows people to hide behind narratives of “If they weren’t in poverty”, “they lack education, or the capacity for it”, “Black-on-Black violence”, etc. because seeing our humanity would mean seeing the suffering that has been thrust upon us by their everyday apathy.
That I’m experiencing the same “invisibility” along a thirty-year span means, this cloak of invisibility is a lifelong burden that I didn’t get to choose. And now, my children too wear the cloak. An inheritance of generations of people convinced that if they don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
One thing I learned growing up is to always bring a solution for anything you’re presenting.
There are a few ways to counter the bias that allows someone to be invisible:
- Intentionally greet people: Make it a point to greet people who are in your purview kindly no matter what they look like and no matter how your brain is reacting. Practicing intentional greeting is a small and powerful way to acknowledge a person’s humanity.
- Listen: You are not the focus when someone is telling you of their experience. Listen without wanting to equate something you’ve encountered to their experience. It’s invalidating and, at times, dehumanizing to always counter with something about your experience. It makes it seem as though their experience is not as important as yours.
- Stand up: When you see another person’s experience being ignored, or another person’s voice being silenced, say something. Bring attention back to the person being ignored and allow them to share their story, idea or perspective.
Practicing seeing people around you as humans with real human stories is a step in being able to catch yourself when your subconscious bias kicks in with its stereotypical stories.
I never wanted to have to teach my children about how they would be treated as Black humans in a country built on the enslavement, exploitation, and oppression of those who look like them. Thirty years have gone by, and I’d really love for the narrative to be different. Then I remember that four hundred years have gone by and although changes have come, they haven’t come easily or quickly.
I’m well aware, that until good White people take time to educate and become part of the solution, we will continue to have these problems.
My cloak is heavier than usual sometimes because, sadly, it’s always there.