Invisibilized Me

September 20, 2018

Morningside Center staff developer and blogger Dionne Grayman reflects on the experience of being "invisibilized" as a student - or adult - of color. 

 

Much of my work as an educator has centered around creating safe spaces for young people to discover who they are, uncover who they might like to be, and recover from being in the small, narrow, limiting boxes they have been placed in by others—both  unintentionally and with malice aforethought.  From this side, I can clearly see that I’ve been giving to students, over and over, what was not always readily available to me: The power to be seen.

Located just one block from our apartment building was the neighborhood school that my sister and I, along with friends, attended. We knew every single adult in the building and most of them knew us by first name. That included Mrs. Schwartz, who sat at a desk by the front door. She was a petite woman who gave big hugs and always smelled like flowers. There was also Mrs. Gibbons and Mrs. Hodges, who kept the main office filled with plants and cookies but ran it like it was the West Wing and they were the nuclear codes. And with a few exceptions, the teachers I’d had when I started Pre-K were still there when I graduated from the sixth grade. They often taught siblings or cousins of former students. All of the office staff, the school aides, and some of the teachers lived in the neighborhood.

It was impossible to be in that school and not feel part of a larger family of people who knew you, your parents, and the ways to best support your unique challenges or celebrate your special achievements. They cheered you when you did well and directly challenged you to do better when you didn’t.

That was a feeling that I didn’t experience with regularity once I left my community. Being Black and Smart and Nerd Girl meant that I had to travel farther away from home to be in spaces that would feed one of those identities; maybe two if I was lucky. In the prologue to his classic novel The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison writes, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” 

This experience of being “invisibilized” was something that I gradually came to expect. First as a participant in a Saturday morning enrichment class at Hunter College where I was the only African-American in the room, then as a middle schooler in a gifted program where students of color comprised exactly one-quarter of the allotted 100 seats (by 9th grade there were just 12 of us left; 9 girls and 3 boys). 

In the progressive high school I attended, I mastered the art of using my invisibility to hide from being Black and Smart and Nerd Girl. It took too much deft code-switching to square that identity with teachers’ expectations of who they thought I was. In college, my invisibility served me well. Professors outside of my major classes required little more than adherence to syllabi and those within my major that demonstrated little interest in me received the same. 

But a few teachers – Ms. DiStefano; Mr. Graziani; Ms. Fong; Ms. Silva; Mr. Sunshine; Ms. Parker; Dr. Kay; Professors Buncombe and Harris; and journalism adjuncts Porter and Mancini – had the same persistence (and sometimes insistence) in seeing me that my earliest teachers had. Considering that I spent nearly 20 years in one education setting or another being in front of about 12 teachers a year, naming 12 over a lifetime who saw me is comparatively low. And for students of color, especially black and brown boys, this is an all too familiar reality. 

It’s troubling that this is not a phenomenon exclusive to young people. Nor was it one that ended when I threw my cap into the air on that hot day in June.

As a very active parent in my children’s school, my invisibility was not even remotely possible. I had to be seen and heard so my children could be seen and heard—especially  my sons. Being visible served my advocacy, allowed me to play “translator” for teachers who needed help in better supporting my children and gladiator to a thankfully small group of teachers who seemed unable to grasp the subtle nuances of Roosevelt’s approach to diplomacy that I usually employed (speak softly…). 

But being rendered invisible by teachers as a professional was not something I expected. I’ve walked into school buildings and been met with blank stares as a response to proffered greetings. I’ve waited (and waited) in designated areas in main offices. I’ve been elbow-to-elbow with staff who spoke loudly about “crazy” or “ghetto” or “thug” parents. 

And just last year, I had to have a conversation with a principal about the fact that his staff doesn’t speak to me. At all. A staff that I had spent the better part of the previous year training. Well, not all of the staff. The four teachers of color;  the two deans, also people of color; and the seven members of the school’s equity team, which includes the principal and two of the staff of color previously mentioned, do acknowledge my existence. The overwhelming majority of teachers do not, however. Their willingness to render me invisible as a professional who visits the building on occasion is troubling. That they do the same to colleagues daily is problematic. When done to their students and their families, the majority of whom are black and brown people, many of whom are not seen or heard in a way that is respectful, demonstrates caring, nor cultivates communal belonging, it is an epidemic that drives the school-to-prison pipeline. 

When you are an invisible person simply because people refuse to see you, you are rendered unworthy. As a student, when that happens, academic performance is sub-par and participation in healthy social options is unlikely. When I was an invisibilized student, I was never filmed performing a sexual act in a school staircase, didn’t spit on a baby, never brought a weapon to school. But I did cut classes and had to scramble to pull falling grades up to passing levels. I did participate in underage drinking on school grounds. 

As an adult, when you’re made invisible, how do you advocate for your child in way that elicits respect, acknowledges your expertise as a parent, and provides space for you to exercise your power as a person? I am better at navigating through my invisibility than I used to be. I now have tools that allow me to decide if and how I’ll don the cloak. I have the ability to activate a personal and professional network –I spend my social capital like a Black Amex card when needed. And I can bring the heft and weight of the Morningside Center organization into any building necessary—and have. 

Schools need restorative practices to build strong, caring communities where young people and their families are seen, are heard, are acknowledged, are respected, are worthy, are visible and visibly human.