On Race and Invisibility

In my recent post about a puzzle, I wrote:

The odds are high that you will soon see a domestic servant, who will almost certainly be black, looking for a ride to their home in Harlem.

I should have written:

The odds are high that you will soon see a domestic servant, standing not in the street but on the sidewalk, who will almost certainly be black, looking for a ride to their home in Harlem.

Why on the sidewalk and not in the street?

That’s because black people correctly believe they are invisible to white people, so a black person standing in the street trying to hail a cab risks being killed or maimed when the driver, who may be white, drives right through the place they are standing because he can’t see them.

Let me explain.

Philippe Charles and I worked full-time on Jikes for almost four years. We had time to discuss other issues, especially while waiting as our chief competition, Sun’s javac compiler, slowly made its way through Sun’s large test suite.

I am white and Philippe is black. He was born in Haiti and raised in Brooklyn. He is one of the handful of black Ph.D.’s in computer science in this country. I consider him to be the world expert in parser-generator technology.

As a black man, Philippe is a strong fan of both programming and the internet. No one can tell the color of a programmer by the quality of their code, nor can a reader of a web page determine the color of its author by its content. Programming, especially open-source programming, and the internet are both meritocracies.

The best education I received from Philippe was not about programming, though he is one of the best programmers I have ever worked with, but about what it means to be a black person in America.

My intensive one-to-one education about race in America can be summed up in a single sentence:

Black people KNOW that they are invisible to white people.

For example, Philippe was once stopped by a policeman for the crime of DWB – Driving While Black.

This should come as no surprise. Suppose you were a policeman and observed a car drive by, but you could not see a driver behind the wheel. Wouldn’t you head off in pursuit to stop the car? I know I would.

Philippe was, and is, a very modest person, so from time to time I would urge him to follow my example and be more aggressive in self-promotion. [1]

Later on he told me he saw no point in self-promotion, as it was difficult if not impossible for an invisible person to do so successfully, especially when *all* his managers were white.

He also attended few talks. What was the point? Wouldn’t you find it disruptive to hear the speaker asked a question by someone you could not see?

I recently mentioned to Philippe that, as part of my volunteer work to assist educators and librarians in their vital mission, I hoped to visit a number of large, poor school districts with mainly black students and educators. I suggested he might want to accompany me, to led more credibility to my work. He said he saw no point to this either, for I would still be the most visible spokesperson, as he would be invisible to the other blacks when in the presence of a white person.

Philippe also told me he took particular offence in white people’s acceptance of the views of a well-known black person as being representative of the views of black people as a whole,.

I see his point. Consider Al Sharpton. Knowing that he is invisible yet wanting to achieve public recognition, he has struggled his entire life to achieve visibility.

Mr. Sharpton has not let the truth stand in his way, as demonstrated by his unseemly role in the Tawana Brawley case, in which Mr. Sharpton and two attorneys, Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, made false charges against Steven Pagones, then an Assistant District Attorney in nearby Dutchess County, New York. (Maddox was later suspended from the practice of law as a result of his actions.)

The same axiom applies to other minority groups, though in different ways.

For example, Hispanic immigrants are most visible when seen against the green background of a suburban lawn. They are also quite visible to me every morning when I drive to my gym in Mount Kisco, where I see many waiting to be picked up by landscape gardeners. (I said “Buenos Dias” to two of them earlier today.) A fortunate few were picked up by landscape gardeners, who I know will pay them well below minimum wage to tend to lush suburban lawns, lawns whose owners take pride in the hard bargain they can drive when it comes to paying for lawn care.

Asian students, inspired by their parents, know that academic excellence is their best route to achieve visibility, and so are most visible at a graduation ceremony.

Women know they are most visible to men not in the boardroom, but in the bedroom or the kitchen.


1. Boy, am I agressive. My wife Karin can provide more than ample evidence to back up this claim.

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