Recently, I finished reading a book by lauded poet, Claudia Rankine.
The work, titled ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’, centres around racism, in particular the everyday plight faced by Black Americans. The pages cover everything from tributes to Mark Duggan and Trayvon Martin to Serena Williams’ place in tennis, evocative images to day-to-day incidents relayed through dialogues, inner thoughts and stories that read like this:
‘You are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description’.
The thing that struck me most as I was reading was the emphasis on feeling invisible. When we talk about racism, many of us think just of verbal or physical abuse. We rarely consider that those who ignore people based on their race are cut from the same backward cloth as those who shout. I don’t believe a ‘silent racist’ exists — any racist action puts forward a loud, clear message — but I do believe that we’ve all witnessed this ‘type’ of racist human being; the one who commits seemingly ‘small’ acts of racism, so small others wouldn’t even deem it racism perhaps. Purposely not seeing, making assumptions, any behaviour that suggests you truly believe that someone of a different race is invisible as an individual, or their worth is so little that their unique personality is not unique but easy to file; this all contains just as much poison as the violent, aggressive incidents that fill the news.
In an early chapter of the book Rankine writes:
‘When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliche not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Yes, and in your mail the apology note appears referring to ‘our mistake’. Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion’.
This ‘branch’ of racism — invisibility — is being discussed at the moment, thanks to the Oscars. Last year, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending on Twitter as it emerged every Oscar nominee in the four acting categories was white. This year is the same. Black comedian Chris Rock is hosting the ceremony, but that’s about as diverse as the ceremony gets (he has also commented on the lack of diversity). Commentators, such as Andrew Gruttadaro, have suggested that the Academy isn’t to blame for the fact that ‘this year, no black people deserved a nomination’. Perhaps others would disagree. Perhaps others would think that Michael B Jordan in Creed was worthy, or O’Shea Jackson Jr in Straight Outta Compton. The same way others thought that David Oyelowo was worthy of a nomination last year for his depiction of Martin Luther King in Selma.
Following the nominations (and on Martin Luther King’s birthday), Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee and Don Cheadle announced that they would be boycotting the awards, with the latter tweeting that the closest he’d be getting to the ceremony this year would be parking cars for the nominees.
Last year, Viola Davis said the only thing that separates actors of colour from everyone else is opportunity. Opportunity to act, to be nominated, to win the awards. And what separates actors of colour from opportunity is invisibility. It seems actors of colour are so invisible to the Academy that they’re not even seen, considered.
This particular case of invisibility has been highly talked about, with the media running headlines like ‘Hollywood’s race problem’. But I don’t think it’s just Hollywood that’s having, creating and facing this problem. It’s every community, town, city, especially in America.
Rankine’s work pinpoints that being treated like a transparent nothing is as humiliating, hurtful and direct as being verbally attacked. She says it best when recalling an incident where a man knocks over a black child in the subway but carries on walking:
‘You want it to stop, you want the child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet, to be brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.’