This is a single post that turned into four (although I’m not sure when you’ll see the third and fourth). I am so, so nervous about posting this, hence the big notice at the top largely aimed at the Feministe audience. That’s because this is being cross-posted at Feministe and FWD/Forward.
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.