About two years ago I wrote about how the “monsters” of Halloween give people a way to explore their own shadows. I’ve also written several times about various forms of demonization and dehumanization: how some people with power chip away at other people’s humanity by rendering them malevolent and monstrous.
But there are other ways to become monstrous than masked play and projection. Cultural invisibility is one of them. Though I had a nourishing community around me during my first two decades, I experienced cultural invisibility and later had to actively counter it for my own health.
Writer Junot Diaz once shared how not seeing people like him in literature or mass media affected how he saw himself:
‘You guys know about vampires?’ Diaz asked. ‘You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
It can feel good to open up a news magazine and see your people there. But if that representation is based on malicious stereotypes, it can do more damage than good.
Riz Ahmed is a British Asian actor who has traversed the Atlantic for work for about a decade. In that time, he’s discovered that being part of a hyper-visible demographic in post-9/11 UK and US border control processing rooms and auditions means that “you are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens; you are a signifier before you are a person; you are back at stage one.” Ahmed nevertheless hopes that his art can change how the security state perceives him and others like him.
According to Cherrie Moraga, visibility is “the most effective strategy to quell the rising tide of discrimination.” Social activists from 19th Century abolitionists to the contemporary disability justice movement have used it as an effective, humanizing strategy.
People seem to need to know Others’ stories before they’ll grant them “neighbor” status and offer compassionate care or impartial service. I used to imagine that being invisible could be a superpower, but it turns out it’s more of an Achilles’ heel. Poor representation costs minoritized people dearly, and that’s why good stories told well matter so much, especially for people who rarely see the social spotlight.
Read Ahmed’s reflection in the London Guardian. It’s well worth the read.