The Dangers of Making Others Feel Invisible

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The New York City subway, 2019. An older man walks on along with a woman I assume to be his wife. He turns to her, asks where she’d like to sit. Awaiting her answer, he extends his arm, releases his finger, and levels it directly at my stomach, indicating that the space I occupy doesn’t contain a presence, but an absence. Seated and confused, I’d wondered if the man saw me, or if, by some strange, supernatural alchemy, I was literally see-through to his eyes. A feeling of invisibility clung to me, a second second skin of sweat, for that entire day.

This feeling, of being unseen, is not rare or special. It is one that many experience every second of every day. Foreign to none, including my family. It is a feeling that my grandmother and grandfather, Jamaican immigrants, experienced in their respective jobs of domestic and janitor. It is a feeling that my mother, a Jamaican immigrant, and my father, an Iranian immigrant, lived as they came to this country, took up the titles of “nurse” and “courier,” and, as the story of those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” goes, entered an endless river called striving.

Those who swim and doggy paddle in that river—never float or serenely backstroke—in an attempt to not drown, are legion. And they, to so many in this nation, especially those they serve, are unseen.

By this point, it’s widely understood that there’s race and gender-based discrimination in the workplace. But if you need a refresher, read this 2023 study conducted by the Pew Research Center. It’s also no surprise that, according to this same study, “middle-income workers are also significantly more likely than lower-income ones to say they are extremely or very satisfied [with benefits or pay].” Discrimination, based on gender, race, and stark differences in job satisfaction between classes, is born out of those in power not viewing an individual as human, but as a vehicle of production. That a living, breathing, and dreaming person is reduced to what they do, disregarding who they are, is a fact that those in service roles know all too well. It is as if when they don a uniform, they become invisible, and this invisibility leads to abuses large and small that add up all the same. But why does this happen?

In the 2007 study, “Why We Are Unable To Distinguish Faces Of Other Races (and Sometimes Our Own),” the Association for Psychological Science claims that the root of this lack of vision—how we, as a species, too readily ignore the humanity in others—is an actual psychological phenomenon that “arises from our tendency to categorize people into in-groups and out-groups based on social categories like social class, hobbies, and of course, race.” The researchers state that “People frequently split the world up into us and them…groups be they racial, national, occupational, or even along the lines of university affiliation.” The "cross-race effect”—in which people can more easily recognize faces from their own race—”is one of the most well replicated findings in psychological research and can lead to embarrassment, social castigation.” Us and them. Employer and employee. Black and white. Worker and customer.

It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure the dangers of this thinking, which we are, as I write, seeing play out everywhere from Palestine to Sudan to Ukraine to Ethiopia to Haiti to Azerbaijan to American cities large and small, classrooms, courthouses—virtually anywhere in a world that seems to be fueled more by chaos and calamity than peace and positivity, begging the question: what, then, are we to do other than crawl into a hole and pray that tomorrow will be a better day?

My proposal: We fight.

We fight against this proclivity for segmenting society into us and them. We force ourselves to adopt new habits, resisting that which has gone unchecked and uninterrogated for so long, quite literally affecting our ability to see people as people, rather than as avatars for all that makes us feel uneasy, afraid, and, worst of all, superior. We prioritize being intentional in our interactions with those whom we too often relegate to background actors in the dramas of our world, when they are, like all of us, beautiful beings full of their own desires, loves, and losses. We dash away with fear and dare to alter our perspectives. We thank the people—by name, when appropriate—handing us our coffee, the person driving us safely from one destination to another, the person bagging our groceries, the person, the person, the person, in the hopes that small, consistent actions lead to a genuine change in perception and vision altered for the better. We stop restricting the breadth of our sight to roles, statuses, various affiliations. We make a conscious effort to first see others, and ourselves, as that label which will never fade: people.

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My mother is not just a nurse, whose sole existence is to sustain lives at the cost of her own. My father was not, when he came to the States, just a courier, sweatily moving through New York City’s arteries, giving and receiving packages. My grandmother, the woman who taught me how to read, was more than a domestic, taking care of children whose milky skin flashed luminescent against her own. My grandfather, a man who once almost became a member of the Jamaican parliament, was not defined by the nights he would, mop in hand, shout “Man aboard!” on the woman’s floor of Caledonian Hospital––a hospital since shut down that is reported to be haunted. No, they are, and were, more than labels affixed to uniforms hugging flesh. They, like your own kin, are laughter and love embodied, hands that raised daughters and sons from girls to women and boys to men, minds that know no limits and hearts as expansive as the Earth’s vast oceans. They are my family, seen in their entirety, in the same way they see me: human, whole, deserving of both dignity and happiness.

Back in 2019, I lay in bed at night, after the experience on the subway. Question after question flung itself onto my imagination’s stage: “What if the invisibility I’d felt, sitting there as the man pointed at my stomach, was made manifest?” “How do millions, if not billions, of people walking the earth today, contend with these daily, heart-bruising experiences of being unseen?” “In a world that relegates so many to second-class citizens—their value quantified by the hours they work or the groups they are or aren’t a part of, instead of the years they love—what does it take to press on? To not, when it’s often the easier option, just give up?”

Soon, these questions prompted answers, and these answers led to trying to make sense of this all, to attempt to take control of a narrative as old as time, instead of allowing a narrative to take control of me. I began to write what would become an ode to sight, my new book This Great Hemisphere. Within it is a song, a song that so many of us, including our ancestors, have sung for centuries and will keep singing until our throats run dry: the possibility of seeing each other, not in the dim, diminishing way we have become accustomed to—but in truer, more humane, and radiant light.

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