I once had a too long conversation with someone before he realized that I was not the person he thought I was.
When he finally looked into my eyes, something mimicking recognition, but definitely not embarrassment, flashed across his face before he headed for the mailroom door. I told my coworker, the woman he'd mistaken me for, about it at lunch and we both laughed robotically. Not because the situation was ridiculous, but because it was a familiar rerun.
Just the other day, one of my closest friends called to announce that he'd lost his glasses and was forced to switch to contacts. Um, OK. I hate touching my own eyes, too. But there was more. In doing so, he'd suddenly lost the one foolproof method of distinguishing him from "the other black guy" in the office. Stuck on the elevator with the other guy's boss, he was questioned about a case of which he knew absolutely nothing. "It was so confusing," he told me. "So I guess I'm going to have to buy some more glasses."
There are countless examples of corporate colorblindness, the inability to distinguish among co-workers of color. For a while I figured that we — black men and black women — were all in the same boat. But according to a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, black women are more "socially invisible" than black men. Examining the results in a recent blog posting, "Are Black Women Invisible?" in Psychology Today, psychologist Melissa Burkley writes, "these results suggest that Black women are more likely than Black men or White men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation."
In their research for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat found that it was more difficult for white participants to pick out a black female face they'd seen previously in a crowd. The participants remembered a black male face more easily.
In the second study, participants listened to a conversation involving eight people (two white women, two white men, two black women, two black men). Later, the study's participants were given a list of comments spoken during the conversation and were asked to match them to their speaker. Participants either mixed up the comments made by black women (suggesting that black women are interchangeable) or attributed the comments to another race or gender entirely.
"Taken together," Burkley writes, "these results indicate that compared to Black men, White men and White women, comments made by Black women are more likely to go unheard when made to a largely White audience."
In another classic literary summation of the black woman's life, The Bluest Eye, one of Toni Morrison's main characters, a little girl named Claudia, says, "We had become headstrong, devious, and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us — then."
That story, set in the 1940s, could tell every black girl's story since slavery. Generations of black women have grown up outside of the spotlight, becoming "headstrong, devious, and arrogant" because nobody "paid them any attention." Again, the research examined in Psychology Today reiterates what black women have already known for generations.
Problem is, articles like Burkley's continue to pile up and pile on the increasingly bleak mainstream outlook on black women. What exactly are the women who aren't Oprah or Mrs. Obama supposed to do about their lack of visibility? Lurking on the fringes of society or quietly toiling away as its mules are obviously not long-term options.
But I prefer to look at our invisibility with optimism. I'm reminded of another quote by Morrison, who was featured in HBO's documentary series The Black List. During her interview, Morrison explained how she works:
Almost all of the African-American writers that I know were very much uninterested in one particular area of the world, which is white men. That frees up a lot. It frees up the imagination, because you don't have that gaze. And when I say white men, I don't mean just the character, I mean the establishment, the reviewers, the publishers, the people who are in control. So once you erase that from your canvas, you can really play.