Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 31 seconds

On Visibility

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 31 seconds

This is the horror of being socially invisible. If you can’t love me, then at least detest and despise me! To make people disappear by refusing to take notice of them, by demonstratively seeing through them, is a form of disrespect to be distinguished from outright disrespect in the form of being the object of stigmatizing and devaluating attitudes, gestures, or actions. (Mikael Carleheden, Carl-Göran Heidegren & Rasmus Willig, editors)

The quote above comes directly from an article (entitled The Costs of Being Invisible) I read today by Mark Murphy on Social Theory Applied

Lots in this article resonated on many levels… I am just gonna share snippets of thoughts on this…

Story #1
When I first joined Meals on Wheels (a program where we pack meals and drive around giving them to people who may need them on the streets – a riff off of a US idea and name, I believe) we used to target street sweepers. We would do this in the evening, so visibility was of course not great. I don’t drive, so I was always shotgun and realized pretty quickly that the street sweepers were invisible to me. As I did this regularly, I began to spot street sweepers from afar. It was basically a lesson for me – that beforehand, my vision totally missed them. I was ignoring them as people of no consequence…until they became people I sought…then, only then, did I start seeing them. They wear green uniforms, often with an orange vest so you can see them at night. They’re so… THERE. And yet I couldn’t see them at first! My parents taught me to be nice to streer beggars but not to give them money. The increased awareness of people you don’t see made me more likely to look a street beggar in the eye as I say “no” nicely (because we know most of them aren’t actually helpless and it’s an awful approach to life to encourage and enable). This, apparently, gives them hope, which I really don’t mean to do. But they exist and I want them to know that I know they exist.

Story #2
I walk into a hotel and ask about a conference I am attending. I get asked, “Are you an usher?”
Grrr because I am young and female, I suppose

I also still get confused as a student (no idea why. I really don’t look that young; students don’t confuse me as a student any more)

Story #3
I walk into our university clinic and am looking for the nurse to give me some meds (my mom used to be a physician at the clinic so I know most of the nurses by name, but new staff come and go). Someone points to a room and tells me the nurse will help me. I walk into the room and there’s a cute young man in scrubs. I had seen him around. My husband is a surgeon and usually wears a white coat on top of his scrubs when he’s outside the Operating Room, but some people prefer just the scrubs. Still. We don’t do surgeries on campus and I never understood why this dude was always in scrubs. Until I said I was looking for the nurse. And of course the guy responded “That’s me”

Yep. Stereotypes go both ways.

Story #4
I am an only child and a big time attention seeker. It’s difficult for me to be quiet and it’s difficult for me to allow others to ignore me. When I worked at Procter & Gamble I had a huge social circle and most people knew me. At some point I was working with the sales people. Manly men who rarely spent time in the head office. There were two other IT folks in my department who worked with the sales folks for different things. One of them was a colleague from college (same qualifications as me), the other not a computer scientist but self-taught in IT. What happened to me quite often was that the sales director or anyone else who didn’t know me personally would automatically ask either of the other two guys for anything related to IT. It didn’t matter if the question related to a Project I was leading or one of theirs. They were assumed to know better and what is worse, none of them ever said, “well actually that’s Maha’s project”. Which is why being visible for what I do is really important to me. Attribution for what I do matters. But I also care about NOT making other people invisible in my wake

Story #5
Being naturally visible online because of my loud behavior, being visible in some ways f2f (but not others) I am really sensitive about how someone working really closely with me could be less visible even if they’re right there, doing the same thing or doing more. Every time someone mentions Virtually Connecting and uses my name without Rebecca’s I get angry because it’s equally mine and hers as co-founders, and even now the hard work of a big bunch of volunteers. The big difference, do you know what it is? Rebecca did all of this while she was just recovering from cancer, dealing with all kinds of medication that modified how she felt mentally and physically. The onsite buddying she did for et4online last year involved a heck of a lot of physical effort, and mental and emotional labor and she did it with love. While I sat in my living room watching my child leave whoever was babysitting her to come meet her friend Rebecca on the screen.

Oh well. Just an example.

Story #6
The bibliography/table of contents story. When you look at a reference list and all the authors are Anglo/male. When you read a book that claims to be international and the main countries represented are US/UK, maybe Australia or Canada and one or two other countries (even worse, it’s someone with an Anglo name in an Eastern country). The invisibility of non-Anglo scholarship is stark. Most non-Anglo scholars publish in English to get heard.

As that article I quoted above says (citing Griffin):

it is never good enough just to be able to see (no matter how detached) – one must also be seen; one’s action must be witnessed. Without an audience of some kind, actions are rendered meaningless, lacking context for their significance

And that’s one of the things social media affords me. It makes me feel heard/seen when being a fresh new PhD usually makes you feel like a tiny fish in a huge pond.

2 thoughts on “On Visibility

  1. Maha, thank you for this. Being invisible in some ways also becomes a self fulfilling prophecy – in that when it happens often enough to me, I start to disengage – to step away from the thing in part because my contributions go largely ignored. I don’t know how others deal with it … but there is only so much jumping up and saying, don’t forget about me that one can do before you start to doubt your contributions. At some point you start to question, is what I did significant? And yet, you remind me regularly that is was significant, it was important. Vconnecing may not be today what it was back at et4online, but that stepping stone at et4online was a very important part of its evolution … perhaps sometime soon, I’ll write a story of the history of VConnecting but also a story of how it has evolved and what the value is in it … someday … not today though …

    1. I think that story would be lovely to write. I think it has a strong temporal and contextual component – the timing for each of us (u recovering; me parenting) which like, 5 years ago would have meant v little and had we met 5 years ago it would not have happened… And maybe it would mean nothing 5 years from now. That’s our motivation and state of mind behind it. But other people are doing it with us now and benefiting from it and they all have different stories…but the intersection of yours and mine and how we made something of it is special

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