Not making people invisible.

Molly from Reality Outran Expectation left this comment on my Small world post in which I wrote about talking to a man no one else wanted to talk to: 

I suppose that people push away “odd” people the same way that death and illness have been pushed away from our healthy, immortal well-being society in which everything is perfect. Your lost man seems to want to be let in on the secret of being well, last time by reading and this time by healthy living. Unfortunately, none of these are going to make him “like the rest of us.” But a smile and a chat with you include him in the human race, and that is what he wants and needs, just like the rest of us.

Years ago I heard an advocate for the homeless say that just looking a homeless person in the eye was a valuable act, to acknowledge that a person is standing in front of you is a gift to that person.  At that time, I was teaching a GED class in a women’s shelter, and I asked my students about that.  Only two students, Toni and Ida, had had the experience of being identifiably homeless — on the street with bags of their belongings — and both agreed immediately.

Toni explained that she had never asked for money, only for food, that she had wanted people to know that she was actually hungry, that she wasn’t interested in buying crack, buying a bottle.  She said it didn’t matter, that people would walk past her as if they could neither see nor hear her.  Ida nodded.  She told us that the worst thing about being on the street — aside from danger, fear and realizing that she had no one to turn to — the worst thing was people looking past you, through you, people moving on as if you weren’t there.  What she said was “the way people can make you invisible.”

I know this feeling.  I am made invisible all the time.  It’s hard not to see me: I am a big, tall woman who often has regally flamboyant hair, and yet there are so many people who look right through me, who walk into me not because they have poor depth perception but because they have made themselves truly unable to see me.  Black people, fat people, and people with disabilities are often rendered invisible, so I guess I have the triple whammy of diaphanousness.

But all the ways people don’t see me cannot compare with the way we don’t see street people.  Someone who chooses not to notice my cane so that they don’t feel guilty about not offering me a seat is ignoring me in a very different way than the person who closes his face and doesn’t see the woman curled up sleeping on the subway steps at Atlantic Avenue, the man moving through the train asking for help.  That closed face — with the hard-set mouth and the look of judgmental disgust — isn’t about racism or fat phobia or hey-I’m-tired-and-I-got-this-seat-first.  That face is the one we make when we step in dog mess.

Ida said she felt worthless when people looked through her, that it didn’t matter that her homelessness was no fault of her own, that it didn’t matter that she made every effort to keep herself clean or that she managed to keep her kids in school the whole time they were living on the street.  Who she was didn’t matter.  What she was eclipsed that.

I honestly don’t remember what I did before I worked at the shelter, whether or not I looked through the homeless people I encountered on the street.  I want to believe that I didn’t, that I saw them, that I looked at them, that I didn’t erase them.  I know for certain that, since my year at the shelter, I have made a conscious effort to see people, to look them in the eye and respond to them whether I’m giving or not giving.

Which can be uncomfortable.  It’s not always easy or pleasant to look people in the eye, to acknowledge that you are seeing them and seeing their situation … and still not reaching for your wallet, and still enjoying the snack you just bought, still reading your book or having your conversation with a friend.

Of course, in the case of my ‘lost man,’ looking at and talking with him is both easy and pleasant.  But even with aggressive people I’ve found that direct, I’m-seeing-you contact often changes their behavior, enables us to have a less confrontational interaction.  This effort is so small, as I said in the other post.  It takes so little to give that moment of visibility.   And part of my desire to do that stems from my work with homeless women, and part stems from my own experiences of being made invisible.  But hasn’t everyone been made invisible at one time or another?  Is that maybe part of what holds others back from making the same small effort I make — a kind of “no one notices me, why am I going to go out of my way for anyone else” thing?

I’m still puzzling this one out, and I’m curious to hear others’ takes.

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4 thoughts on “Not making people invisible.

  1. I rather frequently give money or food to homeless people (i.e., people on the street who are requesting help and may be homeless) and make a point of looking them in the eye and smiling and saying “You’re welcome” if they thank me. However, I haven’t quite worked out what to do when I’m not going to give the person anything. Saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t right now,” doesn’t seem quite honest, because I COULD. Just smiling and nodding, which is what I often do, doesn’t seem like quite an adequate response when someone has spoken to me. Fairly often, I don’t have a cent on me, and then I may say so; “I’m sorry, I’m not carrying any money.” I would be interested in learning from homeless or formerly homeless people what, if anything, they like to hear if no money or food is forthcoming at that moment. I feel lame saying, “Sorry,” and leaving it at that; I guess I fear that the person will run after me yelling, “Really! What are you sorry for? That you live inside and have a job, while I live outside and have no income? I’m sorry about that, too!!!”

  2. First, I don’t get to the city that often, so I don’t have a lot of experience in this. Second, it’s not that I don’t want to help. My hesitation about helping someone on the street is that I’m not sure what I’d be opening myself up to. I’m not all that big or strong and I don’t feel I could adequately defend myself if a situation went bad. Therefore, I have to think twice about opening my purse on the street. If I’m with my kids (which I realize is the BEST time to help others) my sense of vulnerability is magnified a thousand times.

  3. Pingback: Read it « Punkin Dunk

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