Invisible

There is no such thing as universal, standard, normal, one size fits all. So writes Caroline Criada Perez in her fascinating book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Chapter by chapter, she exposes how everything from crash test dummies to iPhone design to heart attack symptoms to snow removal assumes male as the standard, leaving women to make due (and in some cases, die).

I nodded my head through the whole thing, because, as a woman, I’ve lived it. I can remember as a girl learning early on that “boy” stories were for everyone but tales with a female protagonist were just for girls. Tom Sawyer? Universal. Anne of Green Gables? Girl. And if you watched a movie like Star Wars, girls could idolize Han Solo, but I never heard a boy say his favorite character was Princess Leia. In Church, at school, on the playground, I learned to see the world through male eyes as the default gaze, in addition to experiencing things as female. In scripture study, I could identify with men like Enos and Peter (again, no boys ever quoted Sariah, Ruth, Esther), the assumption being that the reader is male. Like most women, I became bifocal, able to see most situations from the universal dude perspective as well as from a woman’s view. And I believe it has given me a richer view of life.

I’m not sure things have changed much since my childhood in the 1970s. I recently overheard a mom lament that her son’s English teacher refused to assign “normal, classic” books like The Hobbit or Holes but instead made them read Walk Two Moons. “How is he supposed to relate to a book about a Native American girl?!” I rolled my bifocal eyes and, not for the first time, felt sad about the state of things. I feel sorry for boys and men who have been raised to believe that the female perspective is foreign, other, lesser, and can only experience half the world. And it breaks my heart when women and girls suffer because their hearts, minds, and needs are often invisible.

Now let me tell you a story that happened in 1990, right after I got married. My husband Dave and I were living in Pasadena and working temp jobs for the summer. The Saudi Arabian government was doing a PR tour and had rented the Los Angeles Forum to showcase the country’s art, culture, and history. We showed up a week into the event to work in the gift shop and, as is the case with most Mormons I know, were hardworking, efficient, and had excellent people skills. So we were not surprised when the men in charge gave us extra hours, praised our work, joked with us, and kept us front and center. Some of the other temps resented our good fortune, but if they wanted to get noticed, they’d need to step up their games. Or so I told myself.

As the days went on, we became close with one of our co-workers, Jon, a local Inglewood resident and we’d sometimes hang out after a long shift. One night he said to me, “Heather, why do you think you two get the best shifts?” I hemmed and hawed because the longer I worked there, the more I saw that my co-workers were just as hardworking and competent as we were. Sometimes more so. I honestly had no idea. But as I looked into Jon’s lovely brown face, I felt a hot shame creep up the back of my neck. Did I mention that Dave and I were the only white employees?

That night I started to realize that there are not just two lenses, male and female, and that I had many blind spots. When I got back to BYU I signed up for all the non-canonical literature classes I could find, eager to expand my view: Asian Mythology, Native American Lit, African American Lit, Jewish Lit, Lit of the Developing World. For me, the easiest point of entry to understanding has always been stories.

I keep learning that there are other invisible people too. Those queer and dear to me have been patient and loving as I’ve had to reexamine a lifetime of hetero-assumptions. I still battle my binary brain as I am realizing my original duality of male and female is not that simple. And when I arranged to meet my new hilarious and brilliant friend for lunch last year, I arrived first and panicked because I had no idea which table would best accommodate her wheelchair. Totally clueless and overwhelmed by the comfort and ease of my “universal” able body. My privilege allowed me to be oblivious to her issues of access just as it made me blind to why I was promoted over Jon.

I try to explain some of this to my 88 year-old mom this spring when protests popped up all over the country, even here in Utah County. “Why would they say ‘Black lives matter,’” she wondered. “Why not say all lives matter?”

I shared with her the NPR interview with Jenna Lester, an African-American doctor, who talked about how all the available medical books only showed how dermatological issues presented on white skin. As a result, people of color are frequently misdiagnosed, sometimes with catastrophic results. Just like women with the heart attack symptoms. Their difference is ignored because the medical lens is only designed to see maleness and/or whiteness. So if the dermatologist is pushing for more diverse skin representation in medical textbooks, is she saying only Black skin matters? Of course not. She is pushing to widen the circle of who is seen, asking that these many intersections of identity are recognized. It is not either/or, it is and.

Tim Wise, co-author of the documentary “White Like Me: Race, Racism and White Privilege in America,” states that racism isn’t just a personal failing, but a systemic, institutionalized problem that hurts all of us. He wisely asks us to resist the urge to create a hierarchy of oppression, as all of us are a combination of our various identities. Instead we need to be aware that some aspects of our identity marginalize us, some privilege us. The goal is to recognize each others’ struggles and acknowledge that our unique worldview is but one of many–some that we may eventually learn to see, and others that we will just have to take on the word of the observer. All this will broaden our vision.

I want to see those around me as they would be seen. So I will continue to squint and try not to stare and add layers to my lens, one friend, one story, one mistakes at a time. Will you join me?

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11 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Heather, this is terrific. I love this glimpse of your journey with intersectionality, and it resonates with mine in lots of ways. Like for you, literature has been a window for me into seeing and understanding the lives and intersections of others. One of the best things I’ve ever done as a parent is starting a Mother Daughter book group where we read books, usually about girls of color navigating their worlds. This month it’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a novel about a black family in the 1930s that rocked my world when I read it in 5th grade. Doing dozens of oral histories with women of color has also opened my eyes on so many levels. And I love the idea of getting these women’s voices into the historical record, a necessary addition given that archives so often favor white (and male) perspectives. Thank you again for this beautiful post.

  2. Laurie says:

    Thank you!

  3. Ziff says:

    This is excellent, Heather. I love how you start with one type of invisibility and generalize out to so many others. Your point about how there’s no universal, default version of people is so spot on! And thanks for the pointer on the Invisible Women book! It’s on my list to read, but it sounds like I should bump it up!

  4. melodynew says:

    Heather, thanks for always writing clearly and succinctly. Your summary goal: “to recognize each others’ struggles and acknowledge that our unique worldview is but one of many” is, for me, among the most essential life goals. This will stay with me for a while. Thanks again.

  5. Mary Young says:

    Thank you. I grew up in the fifties; I was so upset to learn that I was going to grow up to be a girl. I didn’t want to be quiet and make soup and nurse the hero’s wounds. I wanted the fastest horse and the silver pistols! My kids, growing up in the ’70s,’80s, and ’90s (we had eight of them) had a better world view, but still not a perfect one. All the adventures seemed to belong to boys; mostly, girls were along so girls would care to read the books. Some authors did their level best to remedy the situation. My youngest, for instance, devoured everything Madeleine L’Engle wrote. He is right now a happy stay-at-home dad, for which I must give literature some credit. But you’re painfully right; White Male is the default setting. So what of the cancer trials I’m on? I’m a tiny Hispanic female. I have multiple myeloma, which disproportionately affects Black males, but I’ve never met a fellow patient of that description in 15 years of treatment in a major metropolitan area. I’m tired of uncomfortable seats in cars and church and waiting rooms. I’m tired of dragging a stepstool around the house. And I’m tired of looking for me out in the world and being directed to the kitchen. I’m. Tired.

  6. Nancy Ross says:

    Thanks for this, Heather! We all want to believe that we earned our privileges, but it often is not that simple. Thank you for this reminder.

  7. Lily says:

    Oh, I think a lot of boys’ favorite character was Princess Leia. 🙂

  8. Liz says:

    Heather, I love this. So much could change if we just start to see each other, because seeing leads to change (just like how the first step in AA is recognizing that there’s a problem that needs changing).

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