I have come to realize that Black women are invisible. Because we are experts at multi-tasking, we have endured two types of invisibility. Despite the myth of the Black superwoman, we have not made ourselves invisible. Rather, this invisibility has been imposed upon us by others who cannot or simply refuse to see us. The first type of invisibility prevents others from discerning our differing physical characteristics and personalities, and would prevent them from differentiating us in a police line-up. The kind that, while annoying, is often unintentional and benign.
But, there is also an invisibility of a different kind. An invisibility that is more insidious, sinister, and intentional than that of the “all Black people look alike” persuasion. An invisibility that is more than a by-product of our culture’s habit of walking through life without actually seeing others. An invisibility that stems from others’ refusal to even acknowledge our presence or existence. An invisibility like the kind I recently experienced, albeit not for the first time.
A couple of days ago, I attended a fact-finding conference at one of the government agencies that enforces anti-discrimination laws. The irony here is simply divine. As I walked into the reception area, a middle-aged White man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and a manila folder full of papers followed me. During our elevator ride up, I had observed him and deduced that he was probably an attorney. Upon entering the reception area, I immediately introduced myself to one of the employees, informed her of my purpose for being there, and told her which investigator was assigned to my case. Afterwards, I sat down and waited for the investigator, my co-counsel, opposing counsel and the complainant to show up. The White man also sat down without ever saying a word to the receptionist, causing me to assume that he was there for the same case. Shortly thereafter, the investigator, also a White man, walked in, asked the White man whether he was here for the case in question, and then told him that we’d be starting soon. With my initial suspicions that he was one of the attorneys on the case confirmed, I realized that the White man who had walked in with me knew who I was, was there for the same case, and had never bothered to introduce himself.
Maybe he didn’t introduce himself to me because he’s shy or doesn’t like consorting with the enemy, I told myself. I stifled my impulse to turn to Mr. Quiet and tell him that he was wasting his time because his client had no case, and began reading a book as we waited. But, the investigator had also ignored me. I am sure he had been notified of my arrival, and yet he had not bothered to introduce himself or even acknowledge my presence.
After Mr. Quiet’s client and my co-counsel appeared, we all went into a conference room the size of two small closets. Once we entered the room, Mr. Quiet walked over to my side of the table, introduced himself to my co-counsel, who was also a White man, and shook his hand. And then he went back to his side of the table without as much as a glance in my direction. It was official. Mr. Quiet was intentionally ignoring me. So much for my “he doesn’t talk to his adversaries” theory, I thought. I was the only woman and the only non-White person in the room, except for the light-skinned, bi-racial looking stenographer (whose behavior during the conference deserves its own blog post). It was quite clear to me that Mr. Quiet and Mr. Investigator had ignored me because I was Black, a woman, and/or a Black woman, and by extension, couldn’t possibly have any relevance or purpose for being there other than to take up precious oxygen. Perhaps they thought I was a secretary or clerk, rather than an attorney representing one of the two Respondents in the case. But even so, such job titles would not have made me any less worthy of respect. In fact, Mr. Quiet had engaged in more conversation with the male stenographer. You cannot make this stuff up.
What was even more fascinating was that I was also ignored by the investigator’s Black female supervisor, who came in to discuss a possible settlement. When she entered the room, she walked over to and shook the hands of both White male attorneys. When I got up to shake her hand, she ignored me and walked away. I didn’t even register on her radar until she wanted me to call a witness on the telephone! Not only are Black women invisible to some White people, but we are also invisible to other Black people as well.
Their rudeness, disrespect and lack of professional civility were both unfathomable and infuriating, particularly because I believed that I was the most intelligent person sitting in the room. How dare these ignorant mortals ignore me! (Don’t judge me. Call me arrogant if you will, but I have been called worse.) It was as if my presence was totally irrelevant and that I wasn’t even there. Did I mention that they had more to say to the male stenographer!
Despite my anger and indignation, the more important matter at hand was convincing the “liberal” investigator that my employer had not discriminated against its former employee. I did not wait for them to tell me it was my turn to speak; nor did I wait for them to ask me whether I had any questions, because they had already shown that I did not exist to them. I allowed the three men to entertain me for a while, as they argued about what questions were appropriate for the complainant to answer and whether the eastern and western parts of India are separate countries (I know. I wasn’t joking when I said I was the most intelligent person in the room).
“The eastern and western parts of India are located in the same country. Therefore, complainant cannot establish discrimination on the basis of national origin simply because his supervisor was from another part of India,” I interjected with my eye brows raised and a “Did I just land in Alaska, where being able to see Russia from your window counts as expertise in international affairs” look on my face.
Oh my God, IT speaks, their wide eyes and lips parted in mid-sentence seemed to say.
I then informed them that I had questions for the complainant.
“Ok” the investigator answered.
I calmly and very sweetly turned to the complainant and proceeded to ask him questions, seeking to charm and disarm the enemy. You know what they say: “Never trust a big butt and a smile. That girl is dangerous.”
Wait a minute. We’ve got a smart nigra on our hands, their faces said.
Gentleman, I too am America and I came to play hardball, my face said in reply.
During a recess, I started some small-talk with the stenographer who had recently graduated from law school. As we compared bar exam war stories, talked about his hatred of Oprah, and his disappointment with men’s selection of fashionable snow boots, Mr. Quiet suddenly thought I was worthy of acknowledgment and joined in the conversation.
My experience is not unique. Countless Black women can recall times when they’ve been slighted, ignored, or belittled. How many Black women remember people assuming they were the secretary, stenographer, court clerk or gopher rather than one of the attorneys working on a case? How many Black women have been ignored in meetings, talked down to, or had their judgment questioned and decisions scrutinized in ways that our male or non-Black counterparts have not? How many of us know the feeling of having to justify or prove that we know what we know, while being called confrontational or aggressive when politely demonstrating our expertise or telling folks to stay in their lane?
During a moot court competition in law school, I walked up to the podium, laid my notes down and waited to start. Confused by the three judges who just sat there staring at me, I thought that perhaps they were waiting for me to begin. After a few more moments of silence, I introduced myself and began arguing my case. When I was done, an agitated competition judge (who was a White guy in his third year at my law school) told me that I “bordered between arrogance and confidence” because I had used words like “clearly” and did not wait for permission to speak before beginning my argument.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, particularly my fellow Black women, it is clear that life is not a moot court competition. Clearly, we cannot afford to wait. Clearly, we cannot afford such social niceties as politely waiting for our existence to be realized and our presence to be acknowledged. Clearly, we cannot wait for permission to speak or a jovial “Why don’t you tell us what you think” from colleagues and professional associates. You will shrivel up into a ball of anger, disintegrate into a bitter dust, or wait yourself right into insanity and oblivion playing the waiting game. Nor can we play the stereotypical “angry Black woman” routine, because that’s what folks expect. Instead, we must do the unimaginable. Be arrogant, be assertive, and be audacious. But, make your presence known and your voice heard in ways that matter.
To ignore someone’s existence is to underestimate their strength. To underestimate someone’s strength is unwise and never a good tactic when in battle. Black women, use your shroud of invisibility to knock ‘em dead. Folks may not shake your hand, they may not say hello, and they may not even ask your opinion. But, that’s OK. Speak up and be heard. Use their ignorance, racism, sexism, and even self-hatred as fire to fuel your own excellence. It’s easy to become flustered, angry, or frustrated. But, keep your eyes on the prize. Pick your battles wisely, and play your cards right. Remain cool, calm and collected. Take a deep breath, put your game face on, stand tall with your head held high, do what you came to do and do it well.
A friend asked me why I didn’t insist on shaking Mr. Quiet’s hand or introducing myself to him.
“Because I had something better than a handshake for him,” I replied. I intended to hand him his defeat on a platter, with a pretty smile and a fresh coat of Fashion Fair lipstick in the color Sultry.
When folks ignore you as if you are invisible, unimportant and irrelevant, put a pep in your step, grab enough confidence to reach the sky, pop your collar and say to yourself, Ladies and gentlemen, I too am America and I came to play hardball.