The Politics of Black Female Invisibility

It was a beautiful Sunday— a dichotomous backdrop to the tension that accompanies my weekly trips to acquire the fruits and vegetables on my grocery list. No longer dwelling in the predominately black, middle-class environment that nurtured my childhood (and a number of years in my adulthood), the grocery store functions as a hyper-site for racial violence. As a member of the black collective, I am expected to be happy to be in any establishment. In America, I am not a customer; I am a consumer who exists solely for monetary gain. The African-adjacent customers who frequent this establishment illustrate these sentiments in the cavalier disregard for black personhood they exude without thought or apology.

While selecting some vegetables, a child ran his cart into mine, and his white mother, without as much of a glance or mouthed apology, moved the cart to continue her stride down the aisle with her chin and chest poked out. In this instance, this white woman taught her black child not to respect black women. Now, I know this stems from the reality that white women must impose invisibility onto black women to imbue their visibility. This visibility, often compromised by the very standards that exist to uphold it, incites what often proves a lifetime journey for the African-adjacent woman to create her desirability. What I mean here, to put it bluntly, is that through western standards exist to uphold white female beauty and virtue, few white women actualize these standards. Thus, the African-adjacent woman must denigrate her African counterpart to comepensate for her own deficiences.

The “link” below illustrates an identical scenario. The featured example depicts a white defendant with a chip on her shoulder when addressing both the plaintiff and the judge. The defendant must ignore the romantic relationship the black female plaintiff had with her son in order to construct a reality where the black woman lacks chastity and parental certainty. Similarly, she must continually challenge the black female Judge’s authority and expertise to compensate for her non-existent accomplishments in a setting to which everything is in her favor. The defendant’s actions illustrate the gallant strides taken to make the black woman disappear; the defendant engenders and imposed invisibility that the African-adjacent woman employs as a means to survive. It is the African-adjacent’s desire to survive by any means necessary that makes lumping females together under the “woman” umbrella a violent praxis that demands black women cosign their invisibility.
This invisibility praxis is even performed by those within the black collective who are espoused to the ideology that blackness must subscribe to specific inaquedacies that if defied must be ignored. A few years back, I boarded a bus and a black woman around my age told her 8-9-year-old son to walk in front of me to board the bus. My reaction was to step aside and allow her and the child she wore in a carrier to board before me. Then it was, of course, no interest to be in front of me. This experience personfied something said to me years earlier during a freelance interview I conducted. In the interview, a black female entrepreneaur articulated the praxis among black women where black women pretend not to see one another. In this instance, the same experience that made me and this young lady sisters of the same struggle, proved a catalyst for an invisibility that she internalized as a necessary component to the black female experience. As a young black woman, with multiple children subject to the perils and unkindness that too often burden commuters, she attains hyper-visibility in terms of stereotypes but a diminished or abused personhood due to her blackness.

I use these personal anecdotes to sketch and shade an experience shared by those of the African diaspora. Mainly, I divulge these experiences to illustrate what I call “the politics of black female invisibility.” Though invisibility is a core component to the black female experience, the politics of black female invisibility do not actualize conventional invisibility. The invisibility politic proceeds with the ambition to make the black women see herself as invisible, to engender an internalized black female denigration that becomes merely a way of life. Instead, this politic functions as a reaction to a hyper-visible state that must be fantastically altered by an foisted invisibility. This post examines some the many forms of the black female invisibility politic.

Racist Against White People

I suppose you do not have to be a black woman to experience this phrasing, but I do think black women in closer proximity to African-adjacent women are more likely to experience this phrasing than black men. Personally, I’ve heard this phrasing countless times from white, or non-black people of color, a phrase that obscures racism with a racist narcissism that refuses to acknowledge that racism is not a two-way street. By this, I mean that you cannot claim to be a victim of that in which you benefit. This phrasing, “racist against white people” casts blacks as assailants in a social, economic, and cognitive assault cast against them. Thus, the phrase “racist against white people” imposes a collective invisibility manifested in an individualized encounter.

Gender Imposition

The word “woman” has become one of the most common and socially accepted ways to ignore the being of black female form. Films, or even policies that appear rooted in female exclusion, overlook that gender challenges remain a unique conflict for those who share origins with the Harriet Tubmans and Sojourner Truths. For example, the diversity initiatives that we see in movies and other industries, remain anchored in the white female ideal whether hiring the African-adjacent or a person of African descent.

Women of Color

Though this term functions with more specificity than “woman,” it performs a similar assault. This term, in its contemporary implementation, replaces black and joins blackness with other non-white factions. “Woman of color” seeks to universalize the non-white female struggle. This violent universalizing makes it so that that the black woman functions as a non-white, not a black person, which ultimately compromises her personhood.

Oh, Didn’t See You There

It was a hot summer’s day in July, and I was excited to enjoy a movie night with my family in the city (what New Yorkers call Manhattan). The theatre was packed with city dwellers and tourists, so we were apparently not the only ones with this idea. As I stood at the kiosk and attempted to purchase tickets, I was startled to see a pair of pale hands begin to navigate the screen as if I were not standing there. Shocked, my aunt came to my defense. The damage, however, had already been done, a damage sealed by the equally shocked look on her face. “I’m sorry” she said, but she was not sorry. We were not invisible, but insignificant to a white woman in a world where acknowledging black people remains optional. In a world painted white, to show any respect for our person or body was just too inconvenient .

The Reach Around

This kind of black female invisibility is a unique kind, because it reflects the highest form of visibility countered by coerced invisibility. Here, the invisibility functions as a shield from feeling lesser to someone who is to function as subserviant. The reach around is not only performed by the African adjacent but by the African who, circumscribed to a collective inferiority, strives to reduce their kinfolk to an inferiority expected of their people. The reach around occurs when a black woman demands visual or intellectual acknowledgement seen as incompatible with her blackness. Not only is blackness supposed to occupy a space of invisibility, but blacks are to command said invisibility as well. Black women are not to occupy spaces of beauty, intelligence, or confidence and if they do, they often encounter the reach around— a praxis that functions to erase their attributes to salvage the fictive superiority of whiteness. The reach around occurs when an agent enthusiastically acknowledges those around a black woman deemed hyper-visible to attack the self and esteem of a black person perceived as having too much in their favor to warrant overt recognition by those who need her to be invisible in order to maintain relevancy.

The wallflower

Where you are spoken to as if you are not there.

The wallflower functions similarly to the Mascot syndrome the late Malcolm X delineated in his Autobiography. The wallflower literally casts the black person on the margins in order to centralize the African adjacent person. For example, if you’ve been in a predominately white environment, or even watched a reality or scripted series that features this dynamic, you can attest to the African-adjacent discussing the person of African descent, or something they said, as if they were not there. This behavior attains a new height in that the assailants are often serial offenders who view their actions as an innocuous acknowledgement that, of course, is not an acknowledgment at all.

The Isolated stare

Staring as a part of your body to dismember your totality

This typically occurs when a speaker stares at a black woman’s body, hair, etc, as she speaks or performs a task. This behavior is always done in a conspicuous manner seeking to make the black woman feel self-conscious about an envy-inducing attribute.

Material Gaze

Focusing on an exterior form.

The material gaze imposes the invisibility politic by imposing a superficial gaze onto the black body. Two consistent examples of this would be Michelle Obama and Serena Williams, both of whom are black woman of notable achievement yet are often violently circumscribed to berated physical attributes.

Consistent Comparison

No recognition; just comparison.

This black female invisibility politic occurs when a black woman is constantly compared to another person or to other people. This praxis functions to ignore a black woman’s individuality and accomplishments and to convince the black female subject that they are “common.”

Individual Scenario: “So and so does (insert positive attribute or accomplishment associated with the subject)
Collective Scenario: She’s the black (insert African-adjacent person)

Closing Thoughts

In writing this post, I hope to form a sister circle that validates what can function as confusing in isolation. However, while I can not ensure what, if any, effect my words may yield, it is most significant that the being of black female* form remains central. In examining the black female invisibility politic, it becomes imperative to underscore that black female invisibility is not a fact but a function; a function the being of black female form can overcome and divert in a collective awareness.

  • Note: I use the phrase “being of the black female form” as a means to detach from the western phrasing “black woman,” as the contents of this post illustrates the term as an oxymoron.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s