I was recently sitting at Whole Foods with my African American friend having a casual dinner and enjoying conversation. We sat in a two person booth. Directly behind us was another two person booth occupied by a sole patron. The white gentleman who surely dresses up as Santa Claus at Christmas sat facing me. My friend was between us with her back to him.
The older gentleman behind us suddenly tried to get my attention by holding up an iPad and asking if he could ask me a question. He looked solely at me and not my friend.
Um, ok, sure. The glare from the sunlight made the iPad screen hard to see, but I finally realized I was looking at a picture of the back of a woman’s head. Her hair was pulled back with a pretty hairpiece. The man wanted to know if I would wear that type of hairpiece. Um, no, I wouldn’t.
He wanted to know why. He had considered making them and wanted to see if there is a market for them. I really had no idea how to help this guy. I’m not into fancy hairpieces at all. However, my friend is familiar with various hairpieces so she made a suggestion where the man could test them out to see if there is a market.
At this point I distinctly realized with utmost clarity that this man was still solely engaging with me. It was as if he couldn’t see or hear my friend. I was confused because my friend also had long hair and had already tried to enter the conversation with an excellent suggestion. The man seemed quite friendly and socially adept. He was definitely not lacking basic social skills. For a fleeting moment I wondered if he was not including my friend because she was black. She and I have discussed racial matters a good bit, so I was familiar with some of her experiences. I’ve also read and heard a number of other African Americans share their experiences.
My stylish African American friend persisted in sharing her insight with the man. Good thing. I was clearly at a loss for anything helpful to say. Meanwhile, she taught us both the term chignon sticks. The man finally acknowledged her and seemed to then genuinely listen. Eventually the conversation concluded and the two of us returned to our own private conversation at our table.
Later on my friend and I went to another store. At some point as we walked and shopped, the conversation with the man came up. My friend asked me if I had noticed that the man had been speaking just to me. So I hadn’t imagined it! She had detected the laser focus on me as well. His demeanor toward her had made her feel invisible.
Was it because she was black? Why else would he completely ignore another female with long hair when asking a question about hairpieces? Maybe there is some other logical explanation, but that’s the best we could come up with. I don’t know his heart. I don’t know if he even realized what he did. But his lack of including my friend was obvious to both of us and made an impact.
If this was a one time occurrence, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time my friend has felt invisible around white people. Since she has repeatedly felt invisible and I witnessed it firsthand this time, I’m addressing it. Are black people invisible? Do whites subconsciously not even take blacks into account in certain situations?
Perhaps you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. However, my friend thought this was worth sharing with you. She’s actually the one that suggested maybe I could write something about what happened. That’s the weight of this type of encounter that those who are white, myself included, will never fully understand. I know for myself I’ve had to deal with the repeated comments random people in public say to me about having four kids. Strangers can say some really obnoxious things, and it can just grate on me if I’m not careful. For my friend, it’s the random people not saying anything that can create the negative impact.
These seemingly insignificant, small moments in everyday American life can reinforce in an African American person’s mind that he or she is of no value. Is less than. Is invisible.
I share to help raise awareness of what life can be like for those darker than me and to foster empathy in those with my skin tone.
Check yourself. Are you seeing everyone? Are you including everyone?
And to those who are feeling invisible at times, don’t give up. Your worth is not determined by others. We are all made in the image of God. He sees you every moment of every day of your life. You are NEVER invisible to Him. Remind yourself of those truths when you encounter the random stranger who seems to see right through you.
Is there a time when you felt invisible because of your skin tone? What happened? How did you respond?