Disappearing Acts: Performing Hypervisibility
A little over a year ago, on 25 May 2020, the way we discuss race, law enforcement and disparities in justice shifted around the globe. The horrific, public death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis sparked a sea-change, and in the days and weeks following people took to the streets to express their anger, their exhaustion, and their insistence that Black lives matter through protests and marches.
I was in London at the time, watching the world move from the screen of my cell phone. The London march occurred less than a week later, but I didn’t go: while I was in a country where I could in many ways exist in my Blackness with more freedom because I had the numbers on my side of a much larger Black population, I certainly didn’t have the law on my side.
I wasn't a UK citizen, so if anything bad went down - anything at all - and I was seen to be in the middle of any of it, the immigration department would not hesitate to deport me back to Aotearoa. This would also ruin my chances of ever being able to return to the UK to live and work, and potentially even to visit my family there.
Terrified by this prospect, I cowered in my stifling bedroom, guilty and ashamed, but safe; I responsibly stayed in my room and instead posted my thoughts on social media, safe from being seen. This seemed like the only safe choice available to me because in London with CCTV - you are always seen. According to Big Brother Watch, it is estimated that there are close to 6 million surveillance cameras across the UK, and 1 camera for every 10 citizens; and that tens of millions of citizens have been scanned, mostly without their knowledge. As a side note: this is also a technology that has come under scrutiny for being used by law enforcement to predict crime, despite being prone to misidentify Black people and flag them as targets.
So from the safety of my room, swallowing the guilt as it rose like bile with each new photo or video from the streets coming in on my feed, I figuratively beat myself up saying, “I should be out there raising my voice and calling for justice.” Because, privacy and the racial bias of technology and algorithms aside, surely now was the time to disregard that? Surely being seen, demanding to be seen was the entire point here? And if I’d attended, there would be safety in numbers, right? The Black population of London is much more substantial than in Aotearoa as a whole, and thousands were marching. Safety and solidarity in numbers - i.e. the higher the population of [minority community] calling for progress, the more progress can be achieved, and the more effectively racism can be addressed, right? In theory.
Despite having the numbers, there was no safety to be found in them, because my heightened level of scrutiny, my hypervisibility to those in power as a stereotype of criminal behaviour was a concern. As a Black person without UK citizenship and therefore troublemaker; another angry Black woman in a sea of many angry Black women marching that day. I felt decidedly unsafe, and in my room, there was safety in my isolation and in my individuality.
And a couple of weeks later, from the safety of my room, stifling the guilt as it rose like fire with each new photo and video of my mates marching in Aotearoa, I again figuratively beat myself up because this time I knew I should have been there, raising my voice where my NZ passport would allow me to do so with (hopefully) less fear.
I wondered what the feeling of it was on the ground in Aotearoa. I wondered if it really was safer there because
a) NZ police don’t have as ready access to firearms as in the US (though armed police are disproportionately deployed in predominantly Māori and Pasifika areas), and
b) they were marching for Black America.
Yes, people from the Black community of Aotearoa spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement, but it still seemed - from my warped cell phone view across the world - that this was an opportunity to talk about the mistreatment of Tangata Whenua (which should never be ignored) and that this was all in response to Black America. From the images and videos I was finding, Black Aotearoa didn’t come into it.
On top of that, there are far more Black people of African, Carribean, and mixed descent in Aotearoa than one might think, but even so, the percentage of the overall population doesn’t match that of the US, and so again I wondered if
a) the Black New Zealanders marching in their relatively few numbers felt any sense of being overexposed and hypervisible, or
b) if they felt like the risk was low because in such few numbers (relative to other populations), they were not a threat, and therefore relatively invisible.
This pull between two opposing yet connected points - hypervisibility and invisibility - is a constant tug of war for me, and navigating predominantly white spaces whilst always being perceived through the lens of one or the other has become a necessary preoccupation; while they can feel like a choice - between raising one’s voice and staying in one’s room - that choice is perhaps an illusion: because we can’t really choose between CCTV’s over-capture and poor recognition of a Black person being linked to the over-representation of Black people in criminal or ‘distasteful’ narratives (hypervisibility both in fiction and media)... and the dismissal, disregard and even conflation into one Black monolith devoid of individuality and cultural variance (invisibility with regard to the diversity of ethnicities within the Black community).
Sudanese-American filmmaker, Aaraf Adam who was in Aotearoa during the marches, noted a major symptom of this perceived American hegemony of Blackness in a recent interview about her work to document the beginning of Black NZ identity - a sort of “identity crisis” within the Black Kiwi. With our clear solidarity with, and sharp education on, the Black American experience, it must seem to outsiders that we are all American, somehow, as evidenced by the lack of African-New Zealand and Caribbean-New Zealand centred stories and storylines on our stages and screens. I’ve been working as an actor for nearly 10 years, and only in recent months have I begun receiving auditions for New Zealand TV commercials - before now (and even now) Black actors in Aotearoa have been called upon to make the US and UK films and TV filmed here look more believably American or English. But doesn't the mere fact that I live here in Aotearoa, and have lived here long enough to be a full, passport-carrying citizen mean that having me on screen in a NZ TV or film would make that film more believably, authentically “Aotearoa?” Instead we are disregarded as not being part of the fabric of the country.
In Aotearoa particularly this invisibility manifests as part wilful erasure of our contribution to culture, society, community, and part ignoring of our existence, to the point where my cousins - who grew up in Tāmaki Makaurau, have thick kiwi accents, and are raising newborn Kiwis of their own - are still asked where they’re from. Sometimes it’s not enough to call a place home. You have to be “welcomed” in.
I recently saw a performance where there was only one actor of colour on stage. It was a comedy show involving many improvised lines and this POC actor kept finding opportunities to make reference to themself as the only POC on stage. I was sitting in the audience with a friend, also Black, both of us getting increasingly annoyed by this. It took me a few days to realise why: including the POC actor, there were only 3 POC in that whole room. Their repeated act of drawing attention to them being the only non-Pākehā on stage in turn made us, as the only two non-Pākehā in the audience, hyper visible for the purpose of spectacle, of pointing at the museum exhibition and saying “look at that beautifully taxidermied form of that sadly endangered species''. This is how I feel any time something that highlights specifically Black mistreatment comes up, be it fictional like in the Jordan Peele film Get Out, or the very real plight of Black women being dismissed in the face of sexual assault like in the Russell Simmons case. Shedding light on plight is always necessary, but the other side of that coin is knowing that you can’t control the perception of the viewer - not really, not if you expect to break centuries of bias with a 90 minute documentary. The (white) viewer will take only as much or as little as they want from that experience, we can’t predict what. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you can’t guarantee you’ll be welcome in a space just because they’ve been alerted to your presence.
So, sitting in the safety of my room during the marches I felt a turmoil of conflicting thoughts: wanting to be there on the ground, to make us be seen, but also thinking, “is this just a spectacle? Will this too just be another thing kept behind the viewing glass of our Facebook memories and Instagram grids?” And I realise now that what I was feeling wasn’t just guilt, or shame, it was anger - because I was watching my Pākehā mates march in Aotearoa and in London, and it felt like I could see into the future: a week, a month, a year from that moment when it was no longer in fashion to take to the streets, or to post a Black square; when COVID would be under control in London and lockdown would ease and these middle class white people wouldn’t be bored and desperate for activity enough to go out and march anymore; when the streets of Aotearoa would go quiet again and Black New Zealanders would go back to being unheard - out of sight and out of mind. And so it was my anger that was silently screaming at the animated and well-meaning Pākehā faces on my cell phone screen, “What did your marching do? What did your yelling change?”
Because while we may not have what feels like weekly fatal shootings by law enforcement to contend with here in Aotearoa, we do have daily attacks on our character, our spirit, and our peace at the supermarket when our bags are checked as we leave, in case we’ve “forgotten” to pay for something; or at the box office of a theatre when we’re being asked to provide physical proof that we require a concession ticket price; or on the street in broad daylight when a Pākehā woman hugs their handbag a little closer to them as you walk passed them.
And yet, if I’m being honest, I have to ask myself, “Do I want ‘ordinary’ visibility? And all the things that come with it? Would it change my life for the better somehow?” Well maybe, because though I may live with my Pākehā friends in a Pākehā neighbourhood, I'm still followed and checked by a security guard at the Countdown. So the privilege of ordinary, neutral visibility would be nice - a wonderful and predictable beige; a relief from the black or white dichotomy we have now: not a sliding scale of visibility, or a gradient on which we smoothly move up or down. But rather it’s two distinct columns: Now we see you; Now we won’t.
Now we see you (hypervisibility)
Shopping (read: ‘stealing’) As one of a handful of POC in the audience of...anything - “Ooh, what a novelty!” Crime rates Assumption of future and past crime acts Stereotypes perpetuated in media e.g. Angry Black Woman, Absent Black Father Items or moments or modes of behaviour and culture that are trending - what's ‘in’, (but not if we're wearing/singing/dancing it) e.g. cornrows, twerking, fashion lines
Now we won’t (invisibility)
Equity - when we as to get as much as is needed to level the playing field, with supporting infrastructure for sustainability, to give us an equal shot Inclusion - a seat at the table with regards to discussions at all levels of community and policy, and positions of power Funding Marketing - being considered a viable consumer and making marketing and goods relatable Design innovations (eg accurate face biometrics, air hand dryers that recognize darker skin) When we ask to be credited for the items/moments/modes of behaviour that are trending because we created them
Despite the rich diversity within Blackness, in this dichotomy - and in our more violent trauma at the hands of white supremacy - we are connected, we are the same. And so we stand together; we stand up, we leave our houses if we feel safe to do so, (and even if we don’t) and march together as one. And perhaps the coloniser, the oppressor, the enforcer of arbitrary, supremacist law wilfully misunderstands that solidarity and chooses to see us all as only one thing. And perhaps this contributes to our shifting sense of self, our tenuous - at best - hold on our identity as being Black in diaspora. So maybe we start to reach for anything solid - even if it's Black American or Black British and not our specific experience of Blackness; a constant identity transposition as a symptom of being forced to try and copy-paste the critical race theory of one country onto another, ignoring the subtle nuances of each, all to make for easier study notes for white people who might feel like entering the discourse. And maybe it remains up to us then to constantly see and reaffirm our differences, our variations, our infinite interactions of beauty, boldness, and ingenuity.
And with that I issue myself a challenge for growth in the wake of the bitterness and anger I experienced watching the marches from my safe distance: what is my nuance? My iteration of beauty and ingenuity? I used to call myself an African-New Zealander, but I don't see myself here - there's no mirror reflecting myself back to me with enough frequency on stage or screen to be welcoming. The hyphenate suggests a confident embodiment of both worlds. But while I can go to Zimbabwe and feel that I can take up space there, it often feels as though I will never be so bold here in Aotearoa. But do I just want to keep my head down, and get by without making any waves? Am I happy to be a singular entity and simply deal with Human Resources on a one-to-one, case by case basis? Or am I willing to assemble and mobilize? To move against the quiet anti-blackness that sneaks up on you at work drinks when your colleague says it's so cool how you don’t sound African, or on a night out with mates when the bartender doesn’t notice you signalling to try and order a drink but somehow notices everyone else?
I’ve also wondered if perhaps I’m not alone in my reticence to make noise: the fact that we see so few of our community turn up and make use of free opportunities (tickets to a film, or to a network event, etc.) suggests that making waves is perhaps the last thing our community wants.
And so I watch in awe as the East Asian community really turns up. And it's not because they’ve waited patiently and now it's their turn to progress in the creative world (or some other divisive rhetoric peddled by Pākehā gatekeepers), it's because they recognize that they shouldn't have to wait in line for anything. There is no line. The line is a scam. Our worth is not time-dependent; we are always deserving of what we ask for. I’d like to learn from that and commit to ignoring the fake line and stepping up to the window to be heard. Because sometimes it’s not enough to call a place home. You have to demand space. Sometimes you have to risk being seen in order to finally be seen.
By Keagan Carr-Fransch