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The dangers of hypervisibility

April 30, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

There has been a distinct increase in visibility for Black people right now. Whether it be campaigns by major corporations, the emphasis on “buying Black” or the onslaught of Black death on the internet, there is no denying the fact that Black people are being placed in the spotlight for various reasons. While visibility is important in order to bring to light important issues (what people like to call “raising awareness”), being hypervisible carries serious downsides.

The term “hypervisible” refers to the idea that Black people have been positioned as opposite to white people. By creating Blackness, whiteness can define itself as not being Black. Thus, those who move through the world as white become invisible in the sense that their racial identities don’t become a factor in the way they navigate society; even with the so-called great equalizer of education, a working-class white person can still get further than a working-class Black person. This is one of the reasons why the current season of job applications amidst trying to finish my degree has been so trying. Finding the time to focus on applying to jobs is hard enough when you have a Bowdoin workload to complete, friendships to cultivate and sleep to catch up on. Add in a pandemic—which some of you believe is no longer an issue—in addition to the very real threat of violence from the state for simply being Black in public, and it’s a wonder that any of us have made it this far in the semester.

Yet what choice do we have? So few students at Bowdoin understand what it means to be Black and hyper-visible in this country, the violence we face not only from white people but also from people of color who will do everything in their power to make sure that everyone else knows they aren’t Black. Constantly replaying our deaths on news channels and then following up with a mural for Black lives in the middle of downtown is hypervisibility. Looking to a Black student for their perspective on some racist nonsense is hypervisibility. Black men having the lowest graduation rates at Bowdoin and being removed from campus while white men with numerous sexual assault allegations made against them are allowed to participate in campus activities is hypervisibility. Black trauma being used to sell movies and get views on a show is hypervisibility. Hypervisibility does nothing to save us from the violence and evil of white supremacy.

**Spoilers ahead**

Recently, a show called “Them” was released with critical acclaim. While some people praised the show for its cinematography, storytelling and casting, many others—specifically Black people—were disturbed by scenes depicting sexual assault and the death of a child. This type of gory, racist horror is not new; in Jordan Peeles’ “Get Out” and “Us,” we follow unmistakably Black characters as they battle the supernatural. A key difference between “Us” and “Them,” however, is the way white supremacy is showcased to the audience. Rape and murder are things that do happen, but to depict them, as “Them” does—as a way to further a plot—serves no one, and it only further traumatizes Black people whose only representation on screen is either a biracial/light-skinned middle-class family or a Dark-skinned family being terrorized and put through our worst nightmares.

Putting our pain on display serves no one, and it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention the fact that progress for Black people has always resulted in progress for everyone else, yet we still don’t reap all of the benefits and protections that these “progressions” entail. People always want to yell about being a good “ally” (a position I don’t believe anyone can truly hold given the persistence of anti-Blackness everywhere), but it doesn’t matter how much you read or march, how many Black people you consider friends or sleep with or what work you think you might have done over this past year. At the end of the day, the privilege of invisibility that comes with being white must be used to protect those whose faces can never be just another in the crowd, and it is the only thing that you can really offer in this moment. And money. Money is also always good.

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One comment:

  1. Class of 2024 says:

    Hi Safiya, thank you for this great article. I would love to hear your opinion on the works of Toni Morrison, if you would like to comment. I personally think her writings are great but they do mainly depict graphic suffering of black people and possibly further hyper-visibility. What do you think? Thank you for your insight.


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