Dancing between visible and invisible
It was a mix of loud booming male voices mixed with obnoxious female laughter and gesture. The shoulders of the women in the room moved wildly, something like a drunken version of a shoulder shimmy. The men were off in the corner but intermittent participants in the gesturing. The adult gumbo is what I like to call it but this was usual for my 8-year-old eyes on any given Saturday night. Often, my world would shift from being the outsider in school to now being the voiceless, sightless, and deaf visitor who'd been kidnapped into a world that included scenes like this without my consent. Every now in then, they, the adults a.k.a. my captors would see me and say, "Did you see that?" "No" was my quick and ready response. After this information was given, the adult posing the question would turn to my parents and say, "Wow, she is so good. So well-behaved." I would go back to putting my puzzle together while overhearing the praise and the continued S/HEnanigans that continued throughout the night. Hearing these compliments, similar to what one would say about a well-trained house pet, was common for me. You see, my mother always taught us that children were to be seen not heard. Throughout my childhood, I was seen and/or put on display in a lot of ways while deftly navigating the terrain of seen and unseen, visible, yet, invisible.
The subject and reality of my invisibility as a child looped in my head recently as I pulled into one of the parking lots in town. I was preparing for an event and needed to park the car and quickly run errands while timing everything so that I had time to get ready for a big event in town. I decided on one parking space but was startled to see what appeared to be homeless individuals laying on the lawn and sleeping directly in front of my car. I automatically felt intrusive, nervous, and many other thoughts ran through my head that most are afraid to admit. These thoughts alongside of judgmental questions against myself such as "What is wrong with you Shanta?" collided with my to-do lists as I backed out of that space and re-parked my car away from what I'd seen. As I secured my parking space and darted out of my car, I noticed that I did not look over in that direction. One of the individuals in that area said "hi," I looked in their direction and traded a quick hello. While many may judge me harshly for what I described, it is many miles away from what I was taught growing up.
As a child and teenager I was trained to ignore strangers especially the ones who were begging in the streets of Hartford. As an adult, I tried this method on for size and immediately felt guilty for disregarding another human being. During those moments where I hit the ignore button, I often wondered how I would feel if I became invisible while I was in need. Arguably, most of my childhood was spent in this state as an invisible, as one who was to be "seen and not heard," while being taught various ways to make others invisible as I grew into womanhood. In other words, as a child in my house, you were noticed when adults decided to notice you, otherwise it was a safe bet to remain invisible and unseen.
My trained invisibility once again plays in my head as I walk into the local co-op and there is a woman seemingly talking to herself about being covered in ants. I am automatically nervous as I begin to assume that she is just one of the many Brattleboro characters, so I ignore her. Similar to my childhood training, ignoring her makes us invisible to each other. As I attempted to make her invisible, it becomes apparent that she wanted to engage in a brief conversation with me about the ants in question. I smile with her while making a statement that I hoped she'd gotten rid of the ant problem. As I leave the restroom I think about the brief interaction and the moments during my life as an invisible when I ached to be seen. However, there were also moments in which being seen meant trouble and danger.
My trained invisibility is very much connected to gender, race, and so many other things. As a woman, I was taught to not appear too friendly and approachable while traveling about in the world. As a person of color, it was key not to bring any unnecessary attention to myself. In our society, we receive unspoken messages that are reinforced about who to ignore and who to see -- the handicapped, the homeless, individuals who appear "crazy." We are encouraged to engage with those who appear like they are following the social rules and/or who outwardly appear to blend in with the rest of the homogenous society. Through our actions, we reinforce these human contradictions while providing our youth with a direct bridge to this very paradox. Be compassionate, have empathy, and be socially vigilant, but continue to ignore certain individuals.
As I write this, I continue to think about that day I re-parked my car or my attempt to ignore the woman in the restroom. There are many other incidents similar to these and as they all replay, I am neither disturbed nor haunted but simply revisiting my continued dance between the seen and unseen. While I realize that I am going to be judged for some of what I shared in this article, I know I am not the only one. I am perhaps just one of the few openly admitting what most think in regards to my intimate relationship with invisibility.
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