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On Being Conspicuously Invisible

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s weird – being simultaneously conspicuous and invisible. Conspicuous because you stand out, ‘a fly in the buttermilk’. Any thing you do is magnified, arriving late to class, leaving early, checking your cell phone for messages, speaking, changing your hairstyle…And at the same time you’re invisible. When it is time to select lab partners or interject a criticism to a research project design, or you raise your hand to ask a much-needed question, suddenly you’re sporting Harry Potter’s cloak.     ~ from Confronting Marginalization: Internal Influences

About a year ago I was ranting writing about how challenging it is to promote diversity in the sciences when you’re often the sole embodiment of that diversity.  Being the diversity pioneer can be a very overwhelmingly lonely experience; but not just because you’re the only one. I think it has more to do with how other people – the majority – seem to never register that you are there among them in the first place.

Wait, let me back up and share a little about my experiences.  For college and graduate studies, I have only attended majority or predominately white institutions (PWI) of learning.  Being a science major only seemed to magnify my minority status.  Being the only one (or two) black persons in a lecture hall of 30, 75, or even 200 students became not a big deal by my sophomore year.

Graduate school was a little better. Classes are smaller and instruction is more one-on-one so it didn’t seem so extreme. Plus, my masters institution had a total of 6 (maybe a few more) African-American students in the combined Life Sciences Departments.  But in all of these places, I experienced something I have yet to comprehend.  Some of the same people I would meet and casually interact with in the department would see me out about town, look me in the face, and then walk by without so much as a hello. I’m not talking about friends with whom I studied or went to happy hour; I mean the guy down the hall or the lady whose mailbox was next to mine or the student who sat three seats down from me at weekly seminars.

Seriously, once you remove me from the context of our academic building, you can’t recognize me as someone familiar?  Heck, even a confused I-know-you-from-somewhere look seems more fitting than blankness. How can you miss me? Not only am I the only colored person around here but I’m loud and sporting a big effing afro. How can a person (ahem, ME!) be so completely invisible to a host of people that pass in the hallway every day!

I mean, there’s only one of me and dozens of y’all pale faces. I can tell all of y’all apart and recognize your face in a background of other white folks. You mean to tell me you can’t recognize me when you see me in public? For real, you know that many black folks that you can't recognize me in public?

Part of the problem is due to my cultural background. I’m southern.  You see there is a rule in The South. You speak to people every time you meet them in passing. Every time. Along the corridor, down the aisle or on the street, if you come within three arm lengths and/or your eyes meet, you greet that person. Period. That’s just good manners.  At the very least you offer the cordial nod that acknowledges them.  So, I find it rude when people don’t greet me when we may happen across each other in a new place.  For real? You’re just gonna walk past me like you haven’t seen me before or held the door open for me to the ladies room. Hmmmf!

I just don’t get it. Wait, yes, I do. Much like Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in the acclaimed novel, Invisible Man, minority students at majority institutions often feel invisible to their peers and instructors.  And maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but I think this invisibleness says a lot about the culture of inclusiveness of a place.  Promoting diversity is all fine and good, but it means nothing if there isn’t a genuine effort to include those ‘new’ people into the fold and make them feel welcomed and apart of the department.  The fact that one can’t be bothered to remember my face long enough to spot me in the parking lot or at the coffee house or  bookstore speaks volumes about how dedicated to diversity an organization is.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours?  Have you ever experienced the Invisibility Syndrome in your life? How did you handle it? How do we work to create more inclusive environments for minority students?

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. joef 12:08 pm 01/11/2012

    You may not be experiencing invisibility, just an inverse in cultural norms than what you, as a southerner, define as good manners. Want to knock people out of their ‘keep to myself’ norms? Make the first move and stop them to chat. You’ll probably find they already know exactly where they recognize you from and weren’t knowingly or intentionally trying to be rude.

    Also, I wondering if there is an increased instance of introversion in the scientific community which may explain away some extent of this.

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  2. 2. jenetics23 12:58 pm 01/11/2012

    Hey Danielle,

    I can only speak about my personal experience. I am white & I know that it should be easier for me to reach out because I am in the majority that you discuss. However, when I think about our racial differences I get mentally bogged by how much my race has done against yours. I think your experience as an American must be significantly different than mine, in ways that I can’t fully comprehend. And that is wrong, so over whelmingly wrong. But I don’t know how to fix things & then I get tangled up in the thinking of it & end up being antisocial – for that I apologize.

    I think the best advice I have ever received, not just about race relations but all human relations, came in your scio09 session from acmegirl. She said don’t concentrate on what you have different with a person, concentrate on what you have in common. How simple, true, wise, and seemingly hard to remember! Everyone, but especially scientists, have so much in common! It is such a small group of people who have gone through the challenges of grad school, writing a thesis, post-docs, trying to balance family and career, etc. Since that session, that is what I try to focus & act on.

    I look forward to seeing you, & saying hi, soon at scio12. Be well.

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  3. 3. Brin Bellway 11:15 pm 01/11/2012

    Seriously, once you remove me from the context of our academic building, you can’t recognize me as someone familiar?

    Probably not common enough to account for everyone who’s done this to you, but my first thought was “No, I couldn’t. Not with anyone.

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  4. 4. Maliky 1:41 pm 01/25/2012

    I don’t really think that fact that you feel invisible has anything to do with you. I think it has everything to do with how most people are raised and treated these days.I am white, and due to my personality I can easily be lost from sight. Due to the fact I don’t want to be found, but if someone makes the first move in a conversation I am more then happy to talk to them. I would hate think It has anything to due with the color of your skin. I think some people are rude, or oblivious. Or they are like me and like to be introverted.

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  5. 5. CogSciLibrarian 12:45 pm 01/27/2012

    I had the same reaction as jenetics23: I may want to say hello, but as a white person, I also feel so bogged down by “what my race has done to yours” that if I know you only casually, I am reluctant to say “hey” (or comment on your post, for that matter) for fear of … I don’t even know what.

    As a new southerner, I am learning to say “hey” to everyone, so maybe I wouldn’t ignore you if we were casual acquaintances.

    And as a #scio12 attendee, I am trying to say “hey” on more blog posts.

    so … “hey” :)

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  6. 6. jenetics23 5:03 pm 02/29/2012

    Chiming in again on this with just a tidbit/rant/opinion – People seem to be getting ruder. Yesterday my daughter & I (both white) went for a walk in our neighborhood (pretty safe place) on a beautiful day in North Carolina (the South). I called out friendly greetings to everyone that we passed fairly close to and only 2 of ~ 7 or 8 even acknowledged out existence & we knew one of the two. How can you justify passing within feet of a person, who says “Hi!” to you, and pretend you can see or hear them? If you want the world to be a nice place, shouldn’t you try and be nice to the world, or am I just TOO old fashioned?!? I’ll step off my soap box now…

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