“You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world…and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, Alas, it’s seldom successful.” The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I have so much I can say on this topic. Firstly, it always takes me back to the United States. I cannot hear the word ‘Invisible’ without thinking of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – a seminal book describing the ways in which a Black man in the U.S. moves through his life invisible – seen through, rather than seen. Notwithstanding our Black President, this narrative line is still relevant. In my coaching work, I have been reminded repeatedly these past few months of how the status of invisibility is widespread, e.g. women in the workplace.
I suspect that the vast majority of us have at one point or another in our lives felt invisible. We all have this in common. Of course, invisibility plays out it different ways, is context-dependent in terms of impact, and is invariably tied in with the politics of power. Clearly, some forms of invisibility have more serious life implications than others.
As said, I can say a lot on this subject. I believe it to be a very important one when it comes to social transformation. Where to focus? Today (I’m sure I’ll come back to this), I will focus on the ways in which we render each other invisible:
· Labels, boxes and roles – we are pushed or pulled into (e.g. through a desire for power) narrow labels, boxes, roles that others use to define us and we sometimes use to define ourselves and our relationships.
· Constraining beliefs –we consciously and unconsciously are guided by beliefs (including assumptions and attitudes) often rooted in fear, judgement and focusing on limits, lack, and disconnect.
· Silencing and lack of understanding – sometimes, due to lack of confidence, we keep quiet and other times we are silenced because others talk over us, bully and disparage us, tell us to keep silent, or effectively make us silent by making little effort to understand us.
· Lack of self-awareness – We allow ourselves to move about without questioning our beliefs, motives and behaviours. We fail to observe the impact our thoughts, words, deeds and decisions have on our own self-perceptions and on our relationships with others; we forget to ask ‘In what ways could what I’m thinking, saying and doing, contribute more to my own visibility? To the visibility of others?
The other day a friend described to me an incident at a UK Uncut protest in Hackney. Two young men from the neighborhood wanted to access the bank which was closed as a result of the protest. They shouted at the protestors – their language was decidedly vulgar and aggressive. At the heart of the conflict, according to one of these young men, was that he wanted to go into the bank to get money for food. He was questioning the protestors’ right to limit his access to the bank. In response, the protestors tried to explain why they were protesting and how, for example, his local NHS would be cut , e.g. maternity wards, while bankers were taking a fortune in bonuses and not paying their fair share of taxes. The young man’s response to this was – by the account I heard – vitriolic and to many ears shocking and offensive. In rather more vivid language, he suggested that in Hackney, people should value how good they have it – say, compared to a woman in an African country giving birth.
As I listened to this story, I could easily picture the situation. Two sets of people talking at cross purposes – neither demonstrating that they understand each other. Later, at the scene, my friend offered one of the young men five pounds he had found on his way to the protest. He saw, in doing so, that the young man’s demeanor changed. He wasn’t so bold and brave anymore; rather, he responded to my friend with his eyes looking down and a polite ‘No thank you. I don’t take money from nobody.’ My friend tried to insist by saying ‘It isn’t mine, I found it – take it and go get some food.’
The young man declined again. He waited around until the bank re-opened, and my friend observed when he came out that he was clutching five-pound note. Presumably all he had wanted was five pounds – which you can’t withdraw from a cash machine – and some dignity to go with it.
My friend and I agreed it was a shame the opportunity was not more effectively taken for communication and connection. I imagine, from what I heard, a condensed summary of the story goes something like this: The young men yelled and hurled invectives at the protestors. In response, finding it hard to be sympathetic to their verbal violence and vulgarity, the protestors did not engage with the issue raised by the young men. Instead, they focused on explaining the protest rationale. Because it gathered no sympathy from the young men, the protesters gave up trying to communicate. And the young men continued to be angry.
If someone is yelling and shouting at strangers, I immediately assume that there is a part of them wanting to be seen and heard – they are trying to give themselves visibility. Ironically, perhaps, everyone in this interaction was trying to do the same thing, albeit through different methods: be visible – protestors and local bank users alike. Unfortunately, what seems to have happened is that they were unable to see each other. They talked at cross purposes and they looked right through one another, so focused were they on their own respective need to be seen.
And I can’t help but think that a valuable ‘connective’ opportunity – for all involved – was lost.