Breaking the Curse of Invisibility
“I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” - Ralph Ellison
See me! I am a woman. I am intelligent. I am beautiful. I am all of these things and more.
Why does society expect me to choose? Why can’t I be a multi-hyphenate of my own choosing and not the multi-hyphenate you expect me to be?
One of my earliest encounters with invisibility was as a college professor. Many of my students could not see me being the professor of a higher level math class. I didn’t have the look of the typical math professor. I was young (in my twenties at the time), female, and African- American. It was the second day of class and I was counseling a student. Another student who missed the first day of class stood to the side and I could see that he was waiting to talk to the professor.
However, when I completed my discussion with the student, the waiting student proceeded to walk not toward me, but toward the student that I had just been counseling, he then proceeded to start asking his fellow student questions about the class.
I just stood to the side and waited. When it had gone on for maybe five minutes, the student I was counseling corrected the waiting student and directed the student to me and told them that I was the professor and he needed to ask those questions to me.
What presumption and what a look on that student’s face when he realized that it wasn’t a joke and that I was indeed the one who was teaching the class!
Why didn’t I just correct his error when he initially approached? Why did I choose not to reveal myself? I was engulfed at the time in that invisibility curse. That was an early error in my career and I found it amusing and took it for granted. Unfortunately, that would not be my last encounter like this. I never thought that error would manifest itself into a continual theme throughout all of the positions that I’ve taken.
I consider myself a Triple-E. An Educator, an entrepreneur, and an engineer. I have encountered the invisibility curse on countless occasions in each of these fields. Initially, it was very discouraging. I knew I could analyze that data, develop that computer code, solve that problem - but I had to yell to be seen. It felt like in order to become visible, I had to perform some kind of trick. Continually proving myself to remain visible.
It took an internal realization that I mattered and what I had to say and offer mattered. I had to learn not to sit idly by and wait to be acknowledged by another. I had to learn to acknowledge myself and be comfortable with that acknowledgement. Once I acknowledged myself, many people also began to acknowledge me. Realizing that I deserved to be seen allowed me to throw off that coat of invisibility.
Many days, I am challenged. What has changed is that I’ve stopped jumping through the hoops. I walk boldly in my intelligence and let people know what I know without hesitation. Whatever blindness they have is not my responsibility. They can choose to see me or not but it’ on them if they miss what I have to offer.
Here are three things that you can do to break the Invisibility Curse in your own life.
Be BOLD! Don’t shy away from where you excel; especially if it is in things you’re not “supposed” to be good at. There are many smart, intelligent, and beautiful (you don’t have to differentiate) women out there who are beyond competent in science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM). Be that light for other ladies to encourage them so that they can become visible as well. Let our light shine so brightly, that others will be forced to see us, accept us, know us and have a desire to be where we are.
EMBRACE the gifts that are given to you. It took me a long time to embrace my gift for numbers and mathematics. I often shied away from my intelligence and revealed just enough to support other people’s comfort. Now, I walk brightly and I dare folks not to see me. I enjoy teaching mathematics and I’m good at it. I’m a good engineer. I’m not where I am by chance. I have an ability to put things together, to figure out problems and to develop solutions. I manage a team of engineers not because they pulled a number out of a hat; I manage them because I was the best engineer for that job. I am an excellent entrepreneur. I have taken my gift and grown it to include assisting students in a myriad of subjects, rebuilding their confidence and talking and mentoring so they too can be seen!
NO FEAR! Being invisible allows you to hide. Don’t. There are people who are waiting for the opportunity to see what you have to offer that need that guiding light. Don’t be afraid.
Alexis M. Scott is a Triple E: educator, entrepreneur, and engineer. She founded AMS Academic Solutions to share her gift of numbers and education. She has been teaching mathematics for more than 20 years, including 18 years as a college professor. She is a 2017 NSBE Hidden Figures Awards recipient for her contributions to STEM. She has three books coming out this year highlighting young women in STEM, including “Embracing STEM Smarts: An Encouraging Guide for Young Ladies to Be Bold in Their Intelligence.” She currently lives in Dallas, TX and in her spare time enjoys reading and playing tennis.
Have you ever felt invisible in your career or in the classroom? What are you doing to become visible? How would you encourage other women in similar situations?
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