Am I An Invisible Man?
I originally wrote this back in May of 2005 for one of my newsletters. I tend to reference this article often, but since I don’t have it uploaded anywhere else, and never really wrote much about it on this blog, I decided to just post the entire article here.
The opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are thus:
The Invisible Man is a real man, flesh and bone, but he is invisible because people refuse to see him. He feels stifled by the stereotypes of his race and believes that when people look at him, those stereotypes are all they see because they don’t look any deeper than that.
I am an invisible man; I’m also an enlightener. Last week I went to dinner with a colleague, to a very expensive restaurant in Westchester County. When we walked in, it seemed like any other restaurant I’d ever been in. Someone from the bar saw us standing out there, and called for someone to seat us. This guy comes around a corner, looks at my friend but not at me, grabs two menus, and escorts us to a table. He never looked at me; he looked at her and handed her a menu, while setting mine on the table and walked away.
I am an invisible man; now it was time to show someone that when the collective “we” says something, we’re not always exaggerating or seeing things wrong. As odd as it sometimes seems to me, there are many people who, when I tell them these things happen, they tell me it’s all in my mind. They sometimes say I go out of my way to look for these things, and therefore they happen to me. I used to deny this, but I stopped because you can’t convince someone of anything unless they see it for themselves. I decided it was time to have someone see it for themselves. I tell her that the man who sat us down never looked at me, and asked if she noticed; she said no. I said I hadn’t expected her to, but that there was going to be more afoot and to be alert.
Our waiter wasn’t bad, but it was interesting. He was the youngest worker in the place, so I guess he drew the short straw. Now, my colleague is attractive, but it was made known right up front that we needed separate checks for our expense reports. Not that it should have mattered, but anyone who still believes that interracial dating isn’t still seen as a bad thing in America, though it’s more common than ever, isn’t dealing with reality. Anyway, every time he came to the table, he stood next to me so that he could look at her instead of looking at me, though he did make eye contact every once in awhile; after all, he wanted a tip. She picked up on that.
She also picked up on the owner’s, or manager’s, or concierge’s… whatever this guy was, behavior. He made a production of visiting every table that has diners, new or revisiting diners… except ours. He tried to cut a wide swath around us, but, unfortunately for him, the phone was near our table, so he had to come by us quite a few times. One of those times, he went by, my friend decided to stop him and talk to him, as the restaurant had been recommended by someone else she’s working with and she wanted to say something. She also wanted to make a point, as in making him address us in some fashion and recognize us. It took him maybe 3 minutes to look at me, which I found interesting; then again, I am an invisible man. The second time he looked at me, he extended his hand, which I shook; after all, I’m friendly. As soon as he shook my hand, he left; I assume the sweat was starting to fall.
After the meal, which was okay but not great, certainly expensive, I ordered dessert; no, I hadn’t learned my lesson. What I got was tiny; shockingly so for the price I paid. I figured that maybe, because it was fancy, that it was meant to be that size; I’ve watched cooking shows on TV in the past. However, five minutes later I see another waiter carrying the same dessert to another patron, much larger than what I received.
One thing I didn’t indicate to my colleague is that there was another man, a patron, sitting at a table I was facing who kept turning around to look at me. He was about 3 tables away, sitting with someone else, yet he seemed to be interested in me. And he was staring; I know that because a couple of times I made eye contact with him, as he had to turn around in his chair to look at me, and he didn’t flinch once. In the hotel room later that evening, I started to wonder if someone had spit in my food, or done something to my food, or if he was waiting to see something happen that, hopefully, didn’t occur.
Maybe I should have said something; I wasn’t really sure. But then, why bother? After all, I’m an invisible man, which was brought home when the same man who sat us brought us our receipts to sign at the end of the meal. He looked at her; never looked at me. He asked her which check and credit card was hers, handed it to her, and set mine on the table; he never looked at me.
I’m not looking for pity. I’m not looking for commiseration. I’m not even looking for revenge, which might have been easy to do. I look to educate, to share, and to enlighten. There’s nothing special about me. There are women who suffer their share of harassment every day. There are gay people who suffer their share of discrimination every day.
I don’t go out of my way looking for these things to happen either. I had someone say that to me when I initially recounted the story somewhere. There’s this habit of discounting the perceptions of someone by others who would have no reason or inclination or opportunity to encounter these types of situations. We all tend to do it in some fashion at times to others; sometimes we’re correct, sometimes we’re not. It doesn’t make it true or false just because we perceive it in a different way than someone else. And, because of that, we always have to take it serious in some fashion whenever someone comes to us with a claim, or we see something that we have problems processing for some reason because it seems intolerant or unfair.
I am an invisible man; she is now an enlightened woman. She said she’d never seen that kind of behavior before in person, and only thought that sort of thing happened on TV. She’ll never think that again. So, some good came of it all.
Sorry Ralph, for stepping on your line. I’m sure you won’t mind it this one time.