Invisible Identities, Part 1: Invisible to Whom?

Before I begin, I’d like to make a note on policing and culture. I’m going to go ahead and assume many of you are American. Please keep in mind that American experiences of race don’t apply everywhere. (What I’m particularly concerned with for the purposes of this post is that I’ve encountered a lot of sentiment to the effect that it’s more okay to question and deny the identities of lighter coloured non-white people. This is inappropriate in the Australian context, not least because of Indigenous notions of race. (Well, it would be if there was more respect paid to Indigenous notions of race.)) I can’t get more specific than that, simply because I am unaware of all the differences and issues. What I am trying to say is that sometimes I bump up against American notions of race and find myself confused, and doubtless we all feel the same encountering different cultures. So please keep the following in mind when processing this post or commenting on it: Experiences differ. Questioning an individual’s racial identity is not okay, nor their ways of negotiating it. And, you know, the same regarding one’s gender identity, or disability status, or whatever. The comments on posts in this series will be moderated accordingly.

I am a non-white person with light colouring, and I am physically disabled, but people generally can’t tell either by looking at me. My race and my disability status therefore come under the umbrella of what are known as invisible identities. These are not the only parts of me that fit into the category, but they are the ones I’ll be using to explore some of the problems with the idea of the invisible identity.

So, first up, we’ve got to ask what the phrase means. Invisible to whom? Whether an identity is invisible or not depends on who is looking.

My identities are not invisible to me. So who is doing the perceiving here? Not me, clearly. It’s not my ideas about myself that matter here. And it’s far less likely to be members of my communities observing and not realising I am one of them. So to whom are these identities invisible? The people who don’t share them. The privileged people are the ones who don’t notice my identities, who assume I am one of them, who deny me who I am. They are the ones who are noticing, the only ones with agency here. It is their perspective that gives us the term “invisible identity” and is allowed to define my experience and being.

And, of course, the person who “sees” is inevitably sighted. The whole concept of whether identities are visible or not relies on visual cues (not that those are themselves reliable). Once again, disabled people are left out of the equation; once again, privileged people are in charge of identity. As such, with regards to disability in particular, the notion of invisibility to describe the dynamic here is a fair bit problematic.

As such, the issue we’re left with is that a) other people are allowed to police and define someone’s identity and b) those people are the most privileged ones. White people have enforced a racial hierarchy, and abled people have said that these sorts of people are normal and these ones are not. And whiteness and abledness still seek to control who fits and who does not. But not everyone fits into boxes quite so neatly, and not everyone is the figure these oppressive systems imagine. But those parts of us outside the boxes are still parts of us. I think the existence of people like me acts to destabilise these rigid binaries of the okay people and the not okay people, because, between perception and actual self-definition, we are everything at once.

If you’re assuming you’re going to find white, abled people as you go about your day, you’re going to think you’ve found one in me. Being able to assume you can be in company with people like yourself is a function of privilege. I don’t get to assume that, but I do get to deal with privileged people’s ideas of what a non-white, abled person should be like. I may appear white and abled to someone, but that’s not who I am and not how I experience the world. These parts of myself are routinely rendered invisible, and I’m left to either out myself and gain a whole new set of difficulties in interacting with that particular person or group, or to be awkward and pained by being read as something I am not. And the tension between those two possibilities leads to more issues. I so often feel alone or threatened when in entirely white company and I feel embarrassed to look after my needs around abled people in a way I don’t feel around disabled people.

Because I often attempt to avoid outing myself. Being able to often pass gives me a level of privilege, and also some problems. I hope to devote a future post to that very topic; for now I want to talk about what happens when the invisibility lifts (whether because I’ve made my identity explicit, or someone else has). Once people find out about my being disabled, they often do their best to enforce that. (You poor thing! When are you going to get better! My cousin had that and got better with exercise and determination!) But possibly worse is when they don’t believe my identity, because then I get ridicule and shame and more questioning and you don’t need accommodations, darling. I don’t fit someone’s idea about what disabled people should be like, so I’m a faker and deserve suffering and scorn, lazy hopeless whiner. (Not that more obviously disabled people don’t receive similar treatment!) But whether I’m invisible or not, or whichever of these ways my identity is treated, I don’t get to control it for myself.

It is not a reflection on my identity that other people read me in particular ways; that’s their problem. I have been used to saying that I look like a white person, but the truth is that I look like me, and I am not white. So this is what a non-white person looks like, regardless of other people’s perceptions. I don’t know why someone else’s perception should be allowed to erase how other people react to my identity and – far, far more to the point – how I go through the world and what has shaped me. I don’t understand why it’s so important to have control over someone else’s identity. You cannot tell someone’s background merely by looking, and that is where racism falls apart. You cannot tell someone’s disability status merely by looking, because we have our own ideas about what constitutes disability.

Negotiating invisible identities is a strange place to be in. You’re both limited and given choices that other people are not. And, of course, the extent of the invisibility shifts depending on context (not so invisible when I’m performing cultural activities or limping) and the observer. It’s a complex game of passing, being passed, cues, policing and a struggle to be perceived as one is. It has made me less likely to assume identities of other people, and has made me more careful while going about my life. I can’t know whether being visible would be harder or easier, but I wouldn’t change who I am. I live in liminal spaces, and I have my identities, visible or otherwise.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone and Feministe]

By 25 November, 2009.    identity, race, social attitudes  ,  



33 Comments

  1. So much to digest. I think you bring up a really good point here about labeling being a function of privilege. And, interestingly, people who are very attached to being able to label others often strongly resent being labeled themselves.

  2. This works with so much. Cis people expect to meet cis people so they don’t see trans people and non-binary people and intersex people and they police gender identity. Sexual people don’t expect asexual people to exist and casually erase their existences. Omnivores don’t consider the existence of vegans and vegetarians and get resentful when they dare to announce their existence. Theists perceive the existence of atheists as attacks on their faith or them personally. Parents hear a woman say she doesn’t want children as “I hate your children.” Serially monogamous people believe polyamorous are diseased and filthy and shouldn’t be around kids…

  3. Those are some really interesting points. I think what it comes down to is that invisibility is more a result of the perciever than it is an inherent characteristic of the way in which a person is disabled. Many of the characteristics of my disability are obvious to people who are close to me, but they would be unlikely to consider them a disability, or to see them as linked to each other, unless I tell them. I don’t blame them on an individual level (it took even me a while) and I don’t mind telling them, but I do mind the social construction that disabilities have to look like x and anything else comes as a surprise.
    .-= anthea´s last blog ..Finding my way back… =-.

  4. I have been used to saying that I look like a white person, but the truth is that I look like me, and I am not white.

    Yes! This.

    I am not an invisible disabled person. I am not tricking anyone by existing. I do not have a responsibility to wear a big flashing sign that say “I look normal, but my brain is not like yours” in order to be accepted.

    I’ve just outed myself to a wonderful group of people who don’t hte me for existing. Would that this were more common.

    Theists perceive the existence of atheists as attacks on their faith or them personally.

    Nope. But I do perceive that comment as a personal attack.

  5. i’ve had a bee in my bonnet over the ableism wrapped up in the concept of “in/visible” disabilities for years. When i type, it’s easier to express my disdain with “[sic]’s” and such, but ive not found a good way to talk about it in person yet.

  6. Fascinating analysis of the prejudiced gaze. It makes me think of the male gaze, and how even things that have nothing to do with that (e.g. a lesbian couple holding hands) are shaped to fit because of expectations and assumptions.

    Former ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark is from my area, and when he’s in the news, everyone here talks about how he’s “not really Aboriginal” and “faking it to get our money” because he’s light skinned and ginger haired. It’s an insidious narrative.

  7. All of this is so, so true. I recently had an experience in which a woman walked up to me and two (autistic) friends in a coffee shop because she heard us talking about autism politics. She assumed that we were neurotypical, because apparently the only people who talk about autism are well-meaning NTs who decide what’s best for other people. This assumption showed itself in a lot of really unpleasant ways during our initial meeting with her. She quickly labeled me and one of my friends as “rude” for the way in which se responded to her, but still wasn’t seeing the possibility that we might not be neurotypical. (Apparently, walking up to people you don’t know and trying to talk with them isn’t rude at all. This is why I will never understand normative social rules.) To her, most any adult out in public must be neurotypical until she is explicitly informed otherwise. That’s privilege.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Links =-.

  8. Sarah–She sounds like a self-involved person just beginning to grasp the concept of looking outside of her privilege. People get really enthusiastic about talking about a new passion (sounds like hers was autism) that they’ve just been exposed to, and then they make a lot of social blunders when they are still approaching the idea or the community they’re interested in from an outsider’s point of view. I think your interaction just have her a lesson in diversity 102.

    Anyway, that’s just my take on it. I just wanted to let you know that I think your understanding of normative social rules is correct in this case, and she was quite rude to walk up to you, disturb you conversation, and interact with you based on stereotypical assumptions. Maybe you were being sarcastic and you do “get it”–it’s sometimes hard for me to detect sarcasm. Well, there’s an asperger’s attempt at using her cobbled together observations on social normative interaction to try to decipher a post made by a person who probably has similar struggles. There’s got to be a better way of intra-autistic-spectrum communication!

  9. “i’ve had a bee in my bonnet over the ableism wrapped up in the concept of “in/visible” disabilities for years. “

    I’m not sure that it’s as simple as it being an ableist term. What is the history of the term? Who uses it? Is it wielded against us by privileged people?

    From my perspective and experience, I almost exclusively see this term used by people with disabilities themselves, so I see it as a term of resistance. Wrapped up in the use of the term is the attitude “Maybe you don’t see my disability, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there”. I see it mostly used – though nowhere near exclusively, and this could be just the circles I’ve tended to move in – by people with CFS and fibromyalgia and autoimmune conditions, who have struggled again and again and again not just with the “but you don’t LOOK sick” attitude in everyday life, but with healthcare providers who refuse to acknowledge their disability because it doesn’t fit into their neat little boxes.

    This isn’t meant as a refutation of Chally’s post, which I think is brilliant! Who holds the gaze is really important, and I think that issue is something that the term is actually trying to get at, not something it’s trying to deny. But there’s a lot of room in this discussion for nuance and for differing experiences with the term.

  10. lauredhel, yeah im not suggesting it’s simple by any means. im just seriously tired of having discussions about disability framed in ableist terms (this is not intended as any kind of picking on the OP at all, just an observation that came up again reading it). And i dont want to use this comment area for that discussion. But, my primary concern with it is the ableism inherent in the notion that *sighted* folks are who get to *see* disabilities. Sighted folks are centred in discussions about disability, yknow? There are definitely other, deeper, issues around the kinds of comparisons different disabled folks often make between visible[sic} and invisible[sic] disabilities, but thats a whole ‘nother post which i definitely wont go into here. i live with fibro among other things, and know from navigating the bullshit that it aint all simple. i just want to be conscious of the language im using and why yknow?

  11. Theists perceive the existence of atheists as attacks on their faith or them personally.

    Nope. But I do perceive that comment as a personal attack.

    Sanabituramina, do explain why, please, and be specific? How is that statement a personal attack against you?

  12. Just realised I hadn’t left a comment.

    Excellent post, Chally–I look forward to the rest of it, and I agree with meloukhia that there’s a lot to think over.

  13. I have been used to saying that I look like a white person, but the truth is that I look like me, and I am not white.

    I was a peer tutor for the freshman seminar at my college, when I was a sophmore. It was your standard liberal studies omnibus course, and there was a whole section about race. And I distinctly remember being in the smaller discussion section I was assigned to, every head in the room swiveling to look at me when I asked if I was the only person who identified as non-white.

    This was a beautifully written post. Thank you so much for it. Part 2 should be awesome.

  14. Thank you for your comments, everyone.

  15. I have been used to saying that I look like a white person, but the truth is that I look like me, and I am not white.

    Exactly. This is how a disabled American Indian (add extra labels as needed) looks, except when s/he doesn’t! You make some excellent points about perception and privilege here, and they apply to all sorts of Otherness. The ones with the (various faces of) privilege believe they have a right to cram everyone into little, easily comprehensible boxes–and dismiss/discredit anyone who just won’t fit.

    This is inappropriate in the Australian context, not least because of Indigenous notions of race. (Well, it would be if there was more respect paid to Indigenous notions of race.)

    This also applies in North America, but if anything there is extra (politically convenient) dismissal of any indigenous opinions on the matter. Some people are so very invested in the idea that indigenous people/adult autistics/etc. just don’t exist, and will try desperately to shut you up if you point out that this is false.

  16. The term “invisible” does privilege sight-as-the-best-way-to-understand. I’ve seen some writers use “unseen,” which has the big advantage of shifting the issue back where it belongs, on the shoulders of the perceiver, not the perceived.

  17. Ok, hoping I don’t cause a major derail, but I think this is a misunderstanding, which is my fault. I don’t lke being told when I have privilege. Who does? So I guess I subconsciously found a way to interpret it as mean so I cold ignore privilege.

    How I read it at the time:
    “The statement claims to tell me, as a theist, what I think. That itself might not be a personal attack, although it is certainly unjustified and out of line. However, it says that I see the existence of a different opinion as some kind of affront – that a different opinion can’t exist without it being an attack on me. This implies a certain weakness of character about me which is (repeating myself somewhat) unjustified, out of line, a personal attack and wrong.”

    How I read this now:
    The statement is about general prejudices which many but not all theists have against atheists.

  18. No, I completely understand. This is how privilege works. We see it in USian racial politics where white people claim their hurt feelings over being told that their internalized unconscious racism adversely affects people of color have precedence over the actual harm done by institutional racism. Discussions of racial privilege turn to how white people are affected. Men are hurt that women don’t trust them because we live in a rape culture and so discussions of rape turn to the needs of men: some men are raped, not all men are rapists, and the gigantic glaring truth that most people who are raped are women and most rapists are men has to be set aside.

    So it is with faith. As an atheist I made a very general statement in the context of general statements of how people with unexamined privilege tend to view the marginalized. A person of faith took that as a personal attack — I told them what they thought and that was wrong wrong wrong.

    As an atheist I’ve been told to my face by theists: I have no sense of morality and no way to discern right from wrong. That my lack of faith is itself religious in nature. I hate god. I hate theists. I can’t be trusted around children. My lack of faith is based in ignorance and if they just tell me the good word I’ll believe. I’ll believe if things get bad enough — there are no atheists in foxholes, right? (I’ve been very close to death and it hasn’t changed anything.) I have been told that I am evil.

    My wife told me once that if she’d understood the extent of my lack of faith we might not be together.

    Confronting one’s own privilege is not a comfortable process. I’ve had to do it a lot as a white person in the US, as someone with a good education, as a person whose family helps shield her from the worst of poverty. It’s still uncomfortable. I still make mistakes and I have to apologize and make amends as best I can and with my brain being what it is it’ll bring them up when it’s in the mood for some self-loathing. I’m committed to that discomfort as an activist. It’s my responsibility. If I’m going to work for social justice I have to work on myself. I don’t get to abuse my privilege and drop my discomfort on marginalized persons; that’s exactly what I’m struggling against.

  19. Thanks. I’ll try to be more sensible about stuff like this.

  20. This is a truly awesome post.

    Speaking of sight being privileged over other senses, “invisible” sets up this false dichotomy that either disabilities are *immediately visible* or not immediately apparent. I tend to classify my stutter as “semi-visible”, because you can’t see it by looking at me when I’m not talking but usually my disability becomes apparent whenever I say something (auditorily and, actually, visibly as well thanks to secondary symptoms) and I can’t really classify that as *invisible* either.

  21. hmmm…that is interesting….labelling things as audible disabilites, or inaudible ones.

    I wonder if it would take off?

  22. I’ve been taking to using “apparent” but that is still rooted in sight, as far as I know. But still, something akin to “notice”? Something to emphasize it is the noticer’s (un)familiarity rather than something about the noticee — and something to emphasize that it can be seen, heard, felt, or (in the case of mannerisms and behavior, interactions, and other social senses) just sensed *somehow* — something that isn’t essentialist for one physical sense or another, or even for one set of social senses or another (hello neurodiversity!).

    I can’t think of a word that fits those requirements snugly. But in general, I feel like our language is hugely inadequate for describing certain things. Which leads some people to give up on trying at all… but I’d rather keep searching, playing, trying. Language can change.

  23. “Imperceptible” is the closest I can come to a multisensory version – but that implies (more than “invisible” does to me*) that it is impossible to perceive, not that the person isn’t perceiving it for whatever reason. And “unperceived” just seems awkward.

    *I’m possibly not all that in touch with mainstream connotations, here. For me, the concept of “invisibility” hooks onto not complete magical disappearance a la Harry Potter, but a more SF concept, where plausible invisibility tech involves either bending light rays in funky ways, or tweaking the viewer’s mind so that they don’t look directly at the object; the image may fall on their retinas, but the brain doesn’t process it in the typical manner.

  24. Amandaw: My first reaction was ‘unnoticed disability, that sounds kind of interesting as a replacement’, but then I thought that maybe it might seem more like the PWD isn’t aware of the disability rather than someone else.

  25. Ignorable disabilities. Unacknowledged disabilites. Disregarded?

  26. disregarded disabilities….I like that one. On the other hand, it could be taken to mean that we disregard them, so perhaps Unacknowledged would be better.

  27. The White Lady: I think there’s the same problematic possibility with unacknowledged as with disregarded.

  28. Perhaps that’s a problem but do we need a single word that’s always exactly right in every context? Me I don’t mind being wordy and saying ‘My disabilities are often disregarded by the neuro/physiotypical’ but mileage does vary.

  29. Personally, I don’t think I’m ever going to find anything right for me. I’m just frustrated that not being impaired is held to be the default setting and we have to try find something! Grr.

  30. First, I want to say that this is a wonderful post. You really articulated how I have felt about living with learning disabilities. Having said that, I wanted to address some of the other comments.

    kaninchenzero- your theist remark could offend some theists (including me) becuase it marked a switch in your discussion of privliage from ignorance to agression. While I believe that your stories of verbal abuse from well meaning but misguided theists, I take issue with your statement because it is one thing to suggest unintended ignorance and another thing to suggest intentional malice.

  31. “Some of” means just me does it?

    Perhaps you mean well. What gives you the right to assume that the people who have said bigoted things to me meant well? Even if they did what does it matter? Meaning well is not doing well and I still get the lesson that I need to stay closeted reinforced. From them and from you.

    So you were offended by my very general and active statement in the context of other very general and active statements (they all are of the same form whether you choose to read them that way or not); I don’t care. If marginalized people are going to be able to speak of their experiences honestly it will not always be comfortable for privileged people. I get to experience this discomfort when I’m the person with privilege on a particular axis. My job is to cope with being uncomfortable. I don’t get to push my discomfort onto the marginalized people and make them deal with that before anything else can happen.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..I Wish I Could Like My Game Better Than I Do =-.

  32. I’m pretty frequently told by atheists that it’s stupid for me to be a theist, and have been expected to justify my theism. I’ve also been told that my theism might be why I don’t agree with overdramatic, essentialist statements about sex differences, and more or less asked if my theism is a result of my disability. I am in pretty liberal spaces at this point, so I know my situation is not the standard American situation and definitely not the standard Earth situation (depending on the country). But I feel confused by the idea that theists are the privileged group and atheists are not, because that isn’t my experience.

    Possibly the different people in this thread come from different environments/background in terms of theism vs. atheism, and therefore are having trouble understanding what the other people’s experience is? (including me)

  33. Whether and how faith and particular faiths are privileged or not certainly varies a lot across different contexts. Can everyone respect k0’s experiences please?

    That’s enough derail. I’ll not be letting any more off-topic comments through.