I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
A few days into my first-year writing seminars, I have begun to guide students toward reading like writers, navigating texts for the what and how of written expression.
As a way to interrogate their misconceptions about the essay (grounded mostly in inauthentic templates), we walk very carefully through the first six paragraphs of James Baldwin’s A Report from Occupied Territory, published 11 July 1966 in The Nation.
The essay exposes students to the historical realities of racial and racist police brutality—which we connect to Colin Kaepernick and NFL protests—as well as Baldwin’s powerful craft as a writer of non-fiction and a more rich and subtle awareness of the essay. This report helps, for example, students re-imagine how effective writer’s create essay openings—not functional single-paragraph introductions with unimaginative thesis sentences.
Each time I explore this essay with first-year students, however, I am reminded of how some of the best elements of the work—Baldwin’s use of “occupied territory” and “a foreign jungle but in the domestic one”—remain mostly invisible to those students.
Baldwin is referencing war, the Vietnam War that was pervasive at the time of the essay, in order to create a critical portrayal of the police as militaristic. Many students are inhibited from recognizing this analogy.
They have a sanitized view of war (contemporary war as drone attacks has been rendered invisible). I grew up in the 1960s watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news.
They are also blinded by their assumptions about authority figures, such as the police.
While not all of my students view the police positively (perspectives among races and social class vary among my students as we explore the NFL protests, for example), they have recently left K-12 education where the norm is that all authority must be respected, where the adults in authority appear mostly uniform in that deference to all authority.
Dominant ideologies, then, have the power to create invisibility in plain sight. Once anything becomes normal, many simply refuse to see what is right their before their eyes.
Consider the dilemma by a woman scholar, Nikki Usher, prompted to cite a scholar she had actively worked to avoid because of his sexism:
And for those men whose academic sexism hasn’t risen to the level of actionable correction, and very likely won’t — while they continue ignoring female scholars and belittling their work on a daily basis — their reputation overall will remain clean. A serial sexist is unlikely to cite the work of female scholars, but if he is a predominant voice in your field or subfield, there is no way for you to avoid having to continue to build his academic reputation through citations, even if you would like to avoid doing so.
In my first-round submission, instead of mentioning this male professor’s work, I found and cited a half-dozen other scholars who made the points I needed for my theoretical scaffolding, although not in the same foundational articles. But of course the journal reviewers went looking in my manuscript for a citation of the serial sexist’s name and work.
This is a bind that we have yet to account for — how the process of building on academic work itself burnishes the reputations of people whose scholarship is good and sometimes even foundational, but whose characters are awful. In the case of a sexist jerk, you are often left without recourse: Cite him, or look like you don’t know what you’re talking about to reviewers and readers.
Sexist men scholars not citing women often works invisibly and makes women scholars invisible, when the field refuses to see that, of course.
Scholars taking the faux pose of objectivity (citing the seminal work of men scholars, and claiming not to be endorsing the scholar as a person or his behavior) create another level of invisibility—both of which work to perpetuate disciplinary status simultaneously along with refusing to hold abusive scholars accountable.
Those who refuse to see white and male privilege are complicit in maintaining both as invisible in plain sight.
One problem with invisibility as refusal, however, can be seen in my students reading Baldwin and Usher struggling to manage her own scholarship and status.
That problem is grounded in how the marginalized are often positioned with the responsibility to bring that which has been rendered invisible into the light while also being poised to suffer the greatest consequences for that unmasking.
The student stepping back from idealized views of the police in order to acknowledge Baldwin’s criticism is taking a risk in a context that is mostly authoritarian.
A woman scholar taking ethical stances against the powerful current of her field is assuming risk in a context that maintains a false veneer of objectivity and high rigor.
To focus on Usher’s dilemma, this is a nuanced aspect of the #MeToo movement that itself has been rendered invisible, micro-aggressions of scholarship dominated and controlled by men. There is a pretense here that scholarship is somehow distinct from the personal, the person.
I imagine for those outside of academia, sexist men scholars systematically ignoring women scholars (not citing) seems a pale thing when compared to Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK.
For women, however, the cumulative and ultimate consequences of all types and degrees of sexism and gender-based aggression are similarly erasing, paradoxically creating women as invisible in plain sight.
I think about Margaret Atwood recalling that when she attended an all-male graduate course at Harvard, the professor sent her for coffee—Atwood the woman as scholar was rendered invisible behind her perceived status as servant to men.
Ultimately, those left invisible in plain sight remain trapped by the system that perpetuates itself, as Usher exposes.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man recognizes his invisibility and in the novel’s end has embraced it, reclaimed it, hibernating himself as a sort of resignation.
This too is a paradox, the incredible weight of invisibility, the burden of being erased through refusal.
If we are to experience a revolution of recognition, the leverage of those with privilege is essential, to pry away the cloaking in order to see what has been right their in front of our eyes all along.