Hartwick College's Student Newspaper

The View From Oyaron Hill

Editor's Letters

Invisibility vs Visibility

Posted on March 2, 2017 at 11:15 PM

Joanne Georges Hilltops Editor-in-Chief

I live my life both seen and unseen.

On Sunday evening, an article about an incident between two groups of Hartwick students surfaced on Facebook. The article explains that an alleged attack occurred against a group black female students by a group of white male athletes, as well as the reaction the Hartwick administration had to the event. It explored at length the disenfranchisement black women face in educational settings, especially racial and sexual discrimination, and the often symbolic but empty change their communities profess to make.

The article suggested the girls received charges because of the audacity of their speaking out against the white perpetrators. They strayed from the conception that the white men’s drunken and disorderly conduct could be easily forgiven with an informal apology and they should accept the harassment, exclusion, and brush off by the college. They should be satisfied that the incident wasn’t worse, and gratified that the administration was handling the situation at all. While more information about this particular incident and Hartwick College will be brought to light, the article does raise accurate descriptions and circumstances that many black women experience in any form of academia, but are especially insulting in college.

At a time when these women are meant to be working on furthering their understanding of the world and themselves, they must realize the world they are learning about inherently hates and ignores them. Additionally, like many students trying to remove themselves from the limited expectations of their home lives, black women attend college hoping to find a place that works beyond the misconceptions and stereotypes they were forced to contend or contest with at home. Yet they arrive to find out that sort of college experience doesn’t apply to them.

In reality, the women involved in the incident here at Hartwick, other black female students at Hartwick, and black female students almost everywhere learn to master one image that appeases others and another that essentially hides or limits large portions of their experiences and their voices for the sake of obtaining a degree. They are both visible and invisible to masses of people. At a college like Hartwick, with predominately white students, staff, and faculty, it’s an issue that could destroy the experience, peace of mind, and success of an entire demographic of students.

We’ve all heard of the back and forth expectations of women in general: be pure but not prude, be competent but not intelligent, be prideful but not confident, etc., etc., etc. We’ve all heard of black people stereotypes: nothing but unintelligent, lazy, irrational, rash, dirty, thuggish, uncommitted, poor, and unskilled. So forth and so on. So, imagine combining them both. Imagine having to traverse through check mark after check mark and confined box after box. Black women leave their homes, all they know, and come to college having to face a new reality: the safety of home is gone. They now deal with the stereotypes they’ve probably avoided for most of their lives. They have to start over and consciously try to tell people who they are, even as they’re finding out themselves. And that dictates nearly every action they make.

A dissertation by Khalilah Annette Shabazz, PhD candidate in Philosophy at Indiana University, titled “Black Women, White Campus: Students Living Through Invisibility” revolved around the study of 11 black women who attended a predominately white institution (PWI). Shabazz’s findings revealed that these women felt invisibility in multiple forms: while being ignored in the classroom or other academic settings, while being called to speak on behalf of their race and/or their gender, and in the lack of representation in the college publications, artwork, and marketing.

Just yesterday I spoke with a black female student about the topic of this article, and some examples of feeling invisible. She agreed that it certainly happens here at Hartwick, and her own feeling of invisibility was more physical: she feels she has to make room for white students before her own comfort. Whether it was moving off the sidewalk to let a group pass, or moving seats to let students to sit together, we both agreed there was a time we felt the need to adjust our physical comfort for others’ perceived sense of privilege.

Shabazz further explains that even though their invisibility felt like a hindrance, the women learned to use it as a tool. It gave many of the women the ability to watch and listen and weed out the sort of people they knew would cause them trouble. Or to even use people’s curiosity against them. It’s the difference between tripping by accident and tripping on purpose. I know I have.

For example, I’m the sort of person who refuses to remain silent, especially in a class for my major or a field in which I’m genuinely interested. Like everyone, I have the right to get the most out of my education. So when I’m faced with being potentially isolated for the sake of being “the voice of the black community”, I try to flip it. I don’t wait for the class to turn around and stare at me anymore. I now bring the attention on myself.

In my Shakespeare class, we discussed the common tropes of comedy and the professor wrote of racial stereotypes, in relation to the anti-semantic tones in The Merchant of Venice and the sexist tones in The Taming of the Shrew. The word racial gave me the cue to just start talking, because it was going to come around to me at some point. I was the only minority in the class. I didn’t even wait to be called on, I just started speaking and adding to the discussion. In another class, we talked about hair and standards of beauty and – whether it was conscious or not – the professor just barely got the phrase ‘different textures’ out before turning and gesturing toward me. I immediately began talking to control the attention coming my way. I was going to control the conversation on hair because I was only one who had different texture hair in that class. I joked about how braiding hair takes time, how it hurts, how it was a light-hearted experience, etc. because if I made them laugh I could distract them from how uncomfortable I was. It was how the inevitable visibility thrown on me became mine to control.

It is critically important that our community acknowledges the climate black women face in academia. I know my audience consists of a lot of white people, and some of you may work under the notion you understand what is going on, that you can even relate. But even if you have an example that is similar, you do not understand. You will never fully understand what it is like to be a black person, to be a black woman in this country. And that’s okay.

I’m not asking you to understand it, I’m telling you to respect it. I’m telling you that despite your lack of understanding, this is a real problem that exists. Hearing this group and their grievances isn’t a favor, it’s a requirement. If they are expected to be a part of this community, they should be given the opportunity to be heard and their grievances should be acknowledged.

I, and many other minorities, deal with a hanging anvil of stereotypes, a muzzle of miscommunication, and the weight of representation every day. We don’t get to just go through interactions with people and consider them done and over. They have to be considered in their context, subtext, and micro-expressions. Almost every day there is something or someone that makes me pause and question my entire being. At a PWI like Hartwick, where even the counseling staff providing to students may not be trained to handle racially-sensitive cases, there is very little help to quell my fears, to silence my paranoia, to ensure my personal growth and foundation.

If Hartwick – or any other College – is failing students like me, then it is failing.


Categories: Joanne Georges '15-'17

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