Black and Visible in a Colorblind Society

“When you say to a person of color, ‘When I see you, I don’t see you Black. I just see everybody the same,’ think about that. You don’t have the right to say to a person, ‘I do not see you as you are. I want to see you as I would be more comfortable seeing you.'”

Jane Elliott

Everybody wants to be seen. The word “seen” refers to being acknowledged, affirmed, validated, respected, valued, accepted, included, and supported. Feeling seen is a fundamental human need. Most of us can recall a time when we felt seen by someone. Whether it was a listening ear, a compliment from a peer or partner, someone giving you undivided attention, or someone simply giving you space to express yourself without judgment, you had a sense of being seen. However, this is not always true for historically marginalized populations.

Black people are often viewed through a different lens―a prejudicial lens. They are often subjected to feelings of invisibility in a “clear” world that sees their skin color as a threat and a reminder of the DNA of their past. Colorblindness has tried to make Black people invisible in the modern world, but that is changing.

From a racial and cultural perspective, where did this notion of colorblindness come from? Let’s take a look at America’s history. During the period of enslavement, Black people were treated as expendable commodities. Their labor was visible, but their humanity was ignored. After Emancipation, the legacy of slavery and its oppressive tactics continued under different names, such as the Black Codes, sharecropping, segregation, convict leasing, and others. Today, people of color are still experiencing the same restrictive practices through redlining, voter suppression, racial disparities in healthcare, mortgage discrimination, high-interest rate student loans, book banning, prohibiting teachers from teaching about African American history, and other tactics. For people of color, these practices have economic, cultural, medical, academic, and political consequences.

Invisibility and marginalization have been ongoing experiences for people of African descent throughout history. Author Ralph Ellison described this experience in his novel, Invisible Man. In the story, the main character remains nameless, reflecting the culture of invisibility surrounding him.

“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.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Our understanding of the past is shaped by history, providing a framework for understanding how things have changed. For example, imagine living as a person of color in Africa before enslavement. You are free to live, raise a family, cultivate food on rich fertile land, learn about your culture, surrounded by kings and queens, and suddenly you’re bound and shackled and packed into a ship on a transatlantic journey in which there would be no return. The autonomy you once had is gone. Your voice has been silenced. You are no longer seen as human; even your name has changed. The freedom you once enjoyed is now gone. You are now voiceless, helpless, and invisible in the eyes of the world.

I have had my share of “invisible” moments where people ignored my presence, voice, culture, and opinions. I experienced these moments in the doctor’s office, on the job, and in a few public places.

Several years ago, I toured the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. After passing through the halls, I entered the Rotunda. As soon as I entered the room, I noticed the beautiful dome ceiling. The combination of artistry, sandstone, marble, and history created a stunning masterpiece. Then, I walked around, admiring the statues of history’s most influential figures. Visitors from all walks of life marveled at the paintings and sculptures during the tour. After I left the Rotunda, I continued the tour.

I took the elevator up to another floor. On the elevator was a White woman with a young girl, who I assumed was her daughter. I noticed the young girl staring at my hair as the door closed. As more people got on the elevator, I had to move closer to the back. The next thing I remember is feeling someone touch my hair. It startled me, so I turned around. The young girl began laughing. Although her mother was fully aware of what happened, she did not correct her. Her mother didn’t even look my way. Her gaze was fixed on the elevator doors as if this was acceptable behavior from her daughter. I was invisible to her, and my feelings were irrelevant. She felt my gaze because I looked at her, but she said nothing. Being touched by a total stranger made me feel like a specimen. As a Black woman, my hair is my crown, and I treat it as such.

At that moment, I didn’t know what to say or think. There was an inner turmoil going on within me. I thought about what I should do. Should I say something? Should I “go there” with the mother? If the tables were turned and I had touched this little girl’s hair, would her mother consider it business as usual? I don’t think so. If she had seen me correct her child, she would’ve clutched her pearls in horror. But, for my correction to be effective in that child’s life, it would have to override generations of conditioned behavior ingrained in her DNA.

This experience made me realize that changing a person’s perception of who you are may never happen. Some people may never appreciate other cultures. We are not obligated to get anyone to “see” us. We need to see the greatness within ourselves. We are not bound to the gaze of others. We are only responsible for how we see ourselves.

We are living in a colorblind multiracial society. It is unfortunate because I am certain that if those who operate from a stance of colorblindness were to trace their ancestral DNA, they would find a little color in their family tree.

And who are we? We are:

People of culture.

People of rhythm.

People of cuisine.

People of ingenuity.

People of brilliance.

People of cultural pride.

People of academic excellence.

People of political power.

People of royalty.

We are people of color who built this nation!

We must never forget that this country was built by the bloodied and calloused hands of Black people. Our very presence tells the story of our nation’s history.

It is only through Black people, my people, that you can understand the history of America. There are no detours. We are unashamedly Black and unapologetically visible!

By Carliss, Maddox

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