“I am an invisible man. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination– indeed, everything and anything except me.” –
-Ralph Ellison, “The Invisible Man” (1947)
“Invisibility is an inner struggle with the feelings that one’s talents, abilities, personality, and worth are not valued or recognized because of prejudice and racism.”
-Dr. A.J. Franklin, Boston College
My Dear Readers,
The opposite of visibility is invisibility. Everyday, people live their lives openly and clearly in front of us, but we observe them without really seeing them. We will discuss this phenomena in a series called “The Visible Man.”
The Visible Man
The objective of this series is to provide a voice for the individual who finds themselves to be invisible based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, or religious affiliation. We aim to create a safe environment in which individuals can share their feelings when they encounter situations arising from their invisibility in society that makes them feel invalidated, under-valued, unwanted or underappreciated.
Dear Visible Man:
I am a 27-year-old African American male. Being an elder in the community, I wanted to get feedback from you regarding an incident that recently happened while I was riding the light rail system in Seattle.
While I was sitting there, I observed these five teenage boys acting up, talking loud, cursing, and repeatedly using the N word with each other. As I sat there shaking my head in disgust, I took a moment to remember the times when I was a similar age, remembering that my friends and I did the same type of ridiculous and immature behavior. I eventually figured it out, and I believe they will too.
Unlike me, however, these kids took it to a different level by talking loudly about “jacking and robbing” the passengers on the train, and now, these teenagers and myself are the only black males on a train filled with wide-eyed, tight lipped and frightened white people going home after a long day at work, being terrorized by a “wild bunch.”
I understood what the kids were doing. They thought it was cool to get a rise out of the white folks. It made me feel uncomfortable because at their age I had been there before.
I know that these kids saw themselves as being invisible to the white folks on the train, much like I did when I was their age. They were using their words, tones and nonverbal cues to be seen and to gain respect. Like I said, I get it. I have been there before.
However, now that I am older, I see a difference today that I didn’t truly understand when I was their age. These transit riders actually had quite a bit of power in redirecting my life, and they would on these kids as well. I saw fear in the eyes, and anger in the tightened jaws of these white people. I saw women clutching their purses/hand bags more tightly.
What I didn’t see was movement. Just silence. There were riders who stared at me with those fearful piercing eyes, pleading, as to say “You’re an adult, you should say something to them.” The elderly woman sitting next to me said, “Those boys need a talking to.” I knew she was talking to me.
I just sat there. The elderly woman shook her head in disgust. I knew that the disgust wasn’t just for the young kids; it was also being directed at me for not taking action.
It was weird and disturbing sitting on the light rail that evening going home to my wife and two girls. It was as if there were two worlds, the kids in one, and the white transit riders in the other, neither really being seen or understood by the other. Maybe I could have done something to resolve the situation, but I did nothing.
When we arrived at the station, the transit police appeared out of nowhere and removed the young males from the train. The train continued on its journey and we were all more relaxed, but the silence remained.
I don’t know what happened to the kids who were removed by the transit police. I was told by an officer that they could probably be charged with felonies for making threats, even though they did not take any action.
Should I have done something? Could I have passed on some wisdom, knowledge, or experience? Or will they just have to grow older and figure it out, like I did?
My wife tells me by staying out of it I did the right thing. I am walking around with a lot of guilt. I just don’t know.
Looking In The Mirror, Seattle
My Dear Young Man,
It appears that you are responding to the many external voices and non-verbal communication that was swirling around you not only during the incident but also now as you write your letter. I am referring to the following:
- The adolescents acting inappropriately
- The words and disgusted look of the elderly woman
- The piercing eyes of the transit riders
- The police officer who spoke about the possible felony charges
- Your spouse who feels you did the right by staying out of the fray.
However, I feel the real issue is the common experience you shared with the adolescents:
“I know that these kids saw themselves like myself as being invisible to the white folks on the train.”
This feeling of invisibility is a form of complex trauma that is called the Invisibility Syndrome. This is the psychological and emotional distress that African-Americans, in this case, males, endure as they attempt to establish an identity within the context of a larger society that utilizes racism to either exclude them from or force them to conform to societal rules and structure.
Having had this experience before, you were aware that the teenagers were simply attempting to be seen and to gain respect, but you also had the experience of being an adult and noticing the fear emanating from the other riders, and understanding that that fear came from the things you had done yourself not long ago. Now that they (you) are visible, it’s now your role to protect the adults from the ones you were once like. But, you did nothing, and now you are questioning yourself, having doubts, and feeling the shame and guilt.
Before you drown yourself in your own psychological destruction, consider this:
- You were the lone African-American male adult in the transit car.
- The adolescents could have been armed.
- There was no guarantee that the other transit riders would have assisted you if the teenagers had assaulted you.
- How much would the riders have appreciated the stand you took? Would they have visited you in the hospital, paid your medical bills, or taken care of your family while you recovered?
- If you died as a result of your intervention, would the transit riders console your wife, and raise your daughters?
My Dear Young Man,
It may be your belief that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but in the light rail car that evening, the village did not exist. It was just the group of teenagers, frightened transit riders, and you.
In your focus on the kids and the other transit riders, you have failed to focus on the responsibility you have to keep yourself safe and to return home to the loving arms of your family. The police did not just happen to show up and remove the kids from the transit car. Someone who felt threatened notified the police, who moved quickly to resolve the threat.
Your first responsibility is to yourself. Keep in the mind the following:
- Me-Although others may view you as invisible; you are made of flesh and bone. You are visible to you and to those who know, respect and care about you.
- Myself- Remain vigilant; remember that as a African-American male in a society that chooses to view you as invisible, you must want to accept that there will be times when, despite being in the company of others, you will still be alone. You must want to maintain awareness of your surroundings and be alert to potential dangers. You must want to accept the reality that others can abandon you during times of conflict or when you need their help the most.
- Mine– There are those who love you, depend upon and wait for your safe return every day. You can begin the process of caring for your loved ones by first taking care of yourself.
Kofi Annan, former Secretary General, United Nations (1997-2006) once said:
“Knowledge is power, information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”
You may wish to share your wisdom, knowledge or experience, but those you wish to share with must be open and willing to receive. And perhaps, like you, they too will figure it out.
Once burned, we learn. If we do not learn we only assure ourselves that we will be burned again and again and again until…we learn.
-Dr. Micheal Kane “Ten Flashes of Light”
For additional information regarding Dr. Kane, please visit http://www.lovingmemore.com