Visibility Revisited

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Visibility Revisited

By Guest Contributor

Four Fridays ago, for the first time since I’ve been a student here at Middlebury, I felt truly invisible. I don’t mean that my presence caused some trickery of the eye triggering an inability to see, but rather that something about me caused people not to acknowledge my presence. I wasn’t a student to be spoken to, an active member of a living and breathing community but something else. Something other.

Dozens of people looked past, or rather, looked through me. Whether it was my station, my skin tone or my mannerisms that caused such a reaction I can’t say I know for sure. My guess would be that it was some combination of the three.

My job was simple: I was to hand out programs for a reception, smile politely and say “welcome”, “enjoy”, “congratulations” and to those who said thank you, “you’re welcome.” I was to be friendly, receptive and respectful. My assumption was that the attendees’ responsibility was the same.

As I smiled and reached out a hand to all those who entered, I quickly realized a trend. Those who knew me responded with a smile, eye contact and occasionally even some small talk. Many of those who didn’t know me grabbed a program swiftly, avoided any eye contact or conversation and kept moving. Being that this was Fall Family Weekend, several of the attendees were not students, but family members. Their recurring reluctance to make eye contact or smile made me wonder if they knew I was working as a student-employee or simply the latter. It was an awkward scenario, one in which I wasn’t sure whether to take their reaction personally or merely to brush it off as people’s shyness when talking to strangers. It was altogether an unnerving experience.

The internal confusion and conflict over feeling disrespected while also assuming best intentions is one that takes place in the conscience of many students on our campus in multiple day-to-day situations. It is most certainly not something that is just unique to our school environment, but it sure as hell hurts just the same.

I say that this was my first time feeling truly invisible because most of the time, I feel quite the opposite. I am always aware of my physical presence: 6’3” with a cap, glasses, a hoodie or sweater, headphones in my ears and jeans often sagged just a tad. I’m a New Yorker. I’m used to being profiled. I’ve been told more often by police officers to open my bag and my arms than I’ve been told “good morning.” I somehow was naïve enough to believe that this kind of treatment was particular to areas in which crime was a concern.

It’s hard to write this. Professor Bill Hart put it best. While on the Middentity panel on intersectionality of identity last Friday, he tried his best to explain a recent incident in which a pharmacist gave him trouble over a simple prescription. His very educated guess was that he was assumed to have ulterior motives for the prescription he was getting filled. He poignantly stated that he couldn’t prove factually that this was the intent of the pharmacist but that he was pretty sure this was a very clear case of racism.

That statement rings true. There is rarely an incident that is cut and dry. When a stranger asks me on a drunken Halloween night if I am a basketball player though my “costume” would consist of a New York Yankees cap, a blue sweater, jeans and Adidas shell-tops, I brush it off as their attempt to make conversation. Then when he asks my girlfriend if she is a basketball wife, assuming automatically that she couldn’t possibly be dressed as an athlete, the internal mixture of emotions starts to bubble. It’s sadness, anger, confusion and hardest of all, self-doubt, all creating a horrible concoction. It’s the feeling that follows students every day, adding to the time it takes to do assignments, to get to class, to fall asleep at night.

Our response to the hyper visibility is to try our hardest to blend in. So many of my close friends have told me repeatedly to take off the hat at formal settings, to pull up my pants that extra bit so I don’t give us a bad name. I brush them off, sometimes I comply, but all the while I keep in mind that these are the same people who are against slut-shaming or any sort of action condemning individuals simply for how they dress. Wearing outfits more typical of New England institutions of higher learning to fit this culture of compliance is no different. We play with politics of respectability, hoping — praying in some cases — that if we change the way we dress, if we speak with less urban vernacular, if we just do what is expected of us now that we’re here, maybe, just maybe they’ll think better of us. Maybe we’ll stop being told that we need a semester or two to “catch up” because we went to a New York City public high school. Maybe we’ll stop being asked if we’re a basketball player for Halloween, or any other day of the year for that matter. Maybe they’ll make eye contact and smile when we hand out a program. Maybe, if we do as we ought to, we’ll be viewed as intellectual, artistic and beautiful.

Escaping the hyper visibility is scary. Politics of respectability get you nowhere because you can’t take off your skin. You can’t take off the fear in someone’s eyes when you’re the only two students walking towards each other late at night on campus. You try so hard to justify. You make more excuses for the small disappointing judgments and behaviors than you make study sheets for class. You have to. It doesn’t happen here. It only happens out there where Jonathon Ferrell is killed because he is perceived to be breaking in when in actuality he is knocking on doors for help because he’s just been in a car accident. It only happens out there where the same exact thing happens again a month or so later to Renisha McBride. Should they have changed their outfits, their mannerisms? God forbid they were wearing hoodies.

I know I’m supposed to offer solutions. I’m supposed to end on a positive note of constructive thought and notes for discussion. I’m not so sure I know how to do that right now. I’ve been to countless meetings, forums and panels. I’m not sure the preaching to the choir that occurs during these get-togethers is reaching the entire campus at large. I certainly have not seen President Liebowitz at the CCSRE or at cultural org. discussions during my almost three semesters on campus now. His attendance as well as the attendance of several faculty members who haven’t already attended a meeting and the ensuing exchange of insight might be a start.

I was in a button-down, khakis and black dress shoes four Fridays ago. No hat, no sag, New Yawk accent turned down. I was in Alexander Twilight Hall, so named for the first Black graduate from Middlebury College. We talk about him a lot. We take a lot of pride in the brother. Ironic considering it wasn’t known that he was Black until after he graduated. He was invisible his entire time here. Martin Henry Freeman on the other hand was the first known Black graduate of Middlebury College, was Salutatorian here and also went on to be the first Black president of a college. His narrative has been made all but invisible in our campus’ history. I can only hope that mine doesn’t.

DEBANJAN ROYCHOUDHURY ’16 is from New York, N.Y.

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