On Invisibility

With an inauguration looming, I went back to an entry from eight years ago almost to the day, following the inauguration of Barack Obama. It sprang from the poem by Elizabeth Alexander.

“Each day we go about our business,” she read during the ceremony, “walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.”

Or, I’d like to add, not doing anything…at all…ever.

Not long before the inauguration, I had spoken with an African American mother who was in the process of applying to schools for her daughter. Having already spent two years at an all-white preschool, a well-known bastion of Waspiness, she wondered if she was up for more of the same going forward. Her daughter had thrived there, she told me, but “of course there are parents who won’t speak. That’s the way they are, and that’s fine.”

No, it’s not fine. I had to admit to her that as much as I love my daughter’s school, and most of people in it, there are parents who for years now have not said “Boo!” to me, no matter how many times I have said, “Hello.” For a while, with a couple of the biggest offenders it became a bit of a game to see if I could get them to even look at me, until one day I just gave up and decided not to acknowledge them either. That’s a shame!

Another mother once told me, shortly after her two children started at a private school in New York, “You’re in this weird zone. The parents don’t speak to you, because they think you’re a nanny; and the nannies don’t speak, because they know you’re not one of them.”

Okay, so we know that the Nanny Syndrome has a lot to do with it. But others are just rude, and yes, some people still have a hard time talking to black people. I also think that there’s something else going on in the subconscience of many otherwise decent souls: conditioned to believe that they couldn’t possibly know anyone one who doesn’t look like them, their brains simply filter us out.

I happen to know a lot of people, and as I “go about my business,” I am always on the lookout for one of them. It’s fun – well, most of the time – to run into old friends and colleagues, former classmates, fellow moms, and even people I’ve done jury duty with. Plus, I am terrified of dissing them – well, most of them – by not at least smiling in recognition.

Obama may be leaving the White House, but it’s not too late to speak. Whatever your color, you just never know when you might find a friend. Look up! Catch each other’s eyes!

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