Empowerment Starts Here

This site is dedicated to the profesional and academic work of Dr. Angela Dye.

Hyper-Visibility and Its Context

Over the holidays, I went to a friend’s company’s corporate Christmas party. I always enjoy getting invited to events outside of the education industry as I am clearly reminded of where the money is… and where it isn’t.

While there, basking in the nice eatery and drinks, an odd thing kept reoccurring. Somehow, I had become some type of magnet, as I noticed that frequently my picture was being taken by strangers.

After one too many entitled acts of photography of my person, I decided that I was not going to indulge anymore. When the next person came up to our table to take a group picture (without asking for permission… assuming that it was ok), I, on the far right end of the group, casually turned in my seat to face the opposite direction.  And, just as I suspected, because I was starting to surmise that my black face was some sort of commodity (as explained here) in this almost all-white environment, the camera-woman was not put off.  After taking the group picture (minus one), she walked around, stood directly in front of me, and took my picture (as if clueless or dismissive of the fact that I did not want it taken).

I guess I could have politely questioned the ad hoc photographers about their insistent interest in my face. It is what I did a few weeks later when I was staying at a hotel in Nashville.  During the continental breakfast hour, another guest walked up as I was making my plate and asked, “Can you tell me where I can find the water?”  My gut reaction was to say, Sorry Ma’am but I don’t work here.  But curiosity won over and I instead asked, “I’m sorry ma’am, why do you think I have the answer to that question?” Her reaction was priceless causing another patron passing by, a stranger to me, to look in shock and send a look of disbelief my way.  Overwhelmed by my question, my new-friend (who had activated me as the help) gave me a slow once-over in frustration, desperately trying to locate a “uniform” that would have substantiated her presumption.

So yes, back to my picture dilemma at this Christmas party, I could have asked the camera-woman, or the others, Why am I being captured in so many of these pictures? But, I didn’t. I was an invited guest and I did not feel like being political.  I did not want my friend, a company employee, to receive flack about why I, one of five African Americans in a room of about 100 Euro-Americans, would question other party-goers about the repeated and insistent need to take my picture.  So, I abstained. Tried to play nice.  Bit the bullet of masked ignorance, and smiled for those who were making me hyper-visible.

It was in that moment, I became curious about the context.

I asked my friend about the lack of diversity amongst her co-workers. Maybe that night’s attendance of party-goers did not reflect her company’s hiring practice.  To my sadness (but not to my surprise), the other blacks in attendance encompassed the blacks of the company (all three of them), where the remaining two consisted of yours truly and one other guest.  So I could not help to question if my picture would be used in some medium to diversify the company’s image in a way that their hiring practice could not.

As a fairly regular blogger, I had a gnawing desire to discuss the context of my hyper-visibility and question digital images of diversity when it is not reflected by a company’s hiring practice. But, I abstained.  The burden placed on individuals of color (with little to no organizational power) to diversify predominately white spaces can be exhausting.  The energy it took to be accommodating and compliant at that Christmas party did not leave me with a remainder to offer a written analysis.

That is until I read an article circulated on Twitter.

****

The article was about a white teacher who was bothered that her picture had been taken and uploaded on social media to question the validity of white teachers teaching African American students. While I think culturally relevant instruction demands that we take a look at the instructional power of cultural synchronicity, my heart actually went out to her.  I could relate to her frustration.  As I had just experienced, it is eerie when someone decides to take your picture without permission and for no apparent reason.

But as I read the full text of the article, I moved away from the individual teacher and began to think again about context. In the reading, the teacher expressed frustration– not understanding why her being a white teacher serving black students was a matter of significance.  She felt that as long as she was doing her job, her race should not matter.

Her frustrations were void of context.

In an environment that is so willing to categorize students and analyze their performance according to demographic categories; in an environment that highlights black students in close-the-achievement-gap discussions and fails to highlight the white faces of those that predominately teach them; in an environment that plasters black faces in literature that is used to show diversity when upon closer inspection those spaces are not racially diverse at all… well, then, you have an environment that could stand to racialize the teachers as much as it racializes the learners.

But honestly, even in her lack of contextual awareness, I still felt her pain. Being hyper-visible is difficult in places of invisibility.  For me at my Christmas party, and maybe at the breakfast room at the hotel, it was difficult to be noticed because I was black and not because I am human and worthy of attention purely on this merit alone.  To be recognized because I, in my blackness, serve a function for the benefit of the institution (be it social or structural) that all but renders me invisible is painful.

And, I can understand and empathize with this teacher who had to face her own racial visibility… in the space where society all but treats whiteness as an invisible (yet universal) phenomenon. Yes, it is difficult for someone to see you not as the hard-working teacher that you are but instead, attach your face to some type of political agenda, minimizing your individual humanity.  There is no doubt that this is tough!

In the midst of empathizing with her, I admittedly found myself slightly envious. It was quite impressive to see the institutional protection that rallied around her pain… all without addressing the context of the problem.  I envied how her fragility garnished more action than what was embedded in the context of why the picture was taken and uploaded in the first place.

In context, this teacher (and her allies) would have to acknowledge that there is a perverted unemployment rate within the communities of her black students. In context, she would have to acknowledge that since de-segregation, the employment of black teachers have drastically dropped to crying lows. In context, she would have to acknowledge that a certain bias develops when you simply serve students who are political minorities while never having to intimately experience the impact that a life-time, minority-status has on the humanity of a person.

I will admit, however, that overall I walked away from the article steadfast in my empathy. Yet, even in that empathy, I was reinforcing an unspoken social truth. The truth is that it is ok for this teacher, in her whiteness, to be viewed as an individual while those of us of color, must be racialized, categorized, and (mis)understood through the political messages assigned to our bodies.

I hope in the future, that she does what I should have done to those who insisted on taking my picture even when I tried to avoid them. I hope that she asks why as in, “Why are you taking my picture?” And then I hope she sticks around and dissect the political context of the event, in that it is always there with lessons waiting to be learned.

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6 comments on “Hyper-Visibility and Its Context

  1. Peter Anderson
    January 18, 2016

    What a powerful piece. Thanks for writing this.

    “well, then, you have an environment that could stand to racialize the teachers as much as it racializes the learners.”

    Wow.

    • ejuc8or
      January 23, 2016

      This notion of racialization and some sort of promotion of it is kinda weird coming from me. I have been trying to move away from it (as discussed in http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/purple-wisconsin/282774961.html and in a piece that I am writing about the #OscarSoWhite Twitter conversation). But, I find that I somehow keep coming back to it! I think there is a reason, mainly in that race is a system (where I am an a product and a player) just as much as it is a category; however, I would love (I think) to be the one who could give absolutely no weight to it at all. But clearly I am not there yet!! 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment. I always appreciate your input and stimulation to think (see my response to @edifiedlistener below)!

  2. edifiedlistener
    January 18, 2016

    Identity, Education and Power – all here in these events, and as you so artfully unpack, in the *context* of these events. This is so compellingly written and the parallels interesting, I’ll need to re-read it to catch the multiple levels of meaning going. Thank you for reminding us all to not only think, but to think deeply.

    • ejuc8or
      January 23, 2016

      Thanks @Edifiedlistener for reading and “thinking” about my words!! While I believe “deep thinking” is relative and I honestly am not the world’s greatest thinker, I do think I routinely venture into imaginative and justice oriented spaces that would make it hard to classify me as a surface thinker. I don’t offer this to toot my own horn because becoming a public writer has revealed more opportunities for growth than I care to entertain at this time!! 🙂 But, I do offer it to share something personal and perplexing. A frequent critique that I get is that I think too much or that my writing is too compact. Yet, I read your work and the work of other “thinkers” and I wonder what actually is too much about what I am offering? I have some theories about what may be happening in “context” but at this time, I am going to continue to ponder the opportunities for growth embedded within. I thank you for the comment because it reminds me that there are people out here (while it may be only a few of us/smile) that want to think deeply.

  3. Nina
    January 24, 2016

    What you wrote was reminding me of an aspect of a job I had for many years. The job involved education in an institutional setting, but not a school, rather instead it was a museum. I planned and implemented workshops for children. One of the things I also needed to do when working at those events was take pictures, particular to take pictures of children who were minorities. These photos were meant to illustrate the diversity of children who attended the workshops. This tends to be a part of the way an institution can make appeals for/apply for funding to support future workshops. On the one hand, it is great to do things that support the mission of an institution and that bring a variety of educational opportunities to children. But, on the other, I found that I felt increasingly uncomfortable about photographing children who were minorities in order to provide visual documentation of serving diversity. I didn’t like taking those photos because I felt that it reduced children to utilitarian objects instead of human beings. And it made me uncomfortable. It felt intrusive. I felt as if I had to be more focused on the color of a child’s skin, disability, or gender than focused on what kind of a person was each child and how could I help facilitate and support their learning while in the class. I did have to have a signed statement of consent from parents in order to photograph children and some parents did decline, which I happily complied with. But increasingly I asked the children themselves if they minded for me to take their photos. Or I took pictures of the children so that I was behind them, thus obscuring their faces, or I focused on their hands. Or I just took pictures of the finished art work they made. Or sometimes I would take group photos, so that everyone was in the photo, rather than singling children out. It just felt wrong to me to use children as if they had no rights or as if they could be reduced to skin color.

  4. Pingback: The Oscars and the Economics of Worth – Huffington Post

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This entry was posted on January 18, 2016 by in Race, Class, and Gender and tagged , , , , .
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