Recently I’ve been thinking about the implications of feeling visible or invisible, and how the implications vary by context. On one hand, invisibility can be a sign that a community finds a person or population uninteresting, inconsequential, or even necessary to hide. (Think Mr. Cellophane.) On the other hand, invisibility can be a form of protection. (Think of invisibility as a superpower.)
I started thinking about this after reading two papers on the role of race in mathematics education. First came Maisie Ghoulson’s (2016) striking piece on intersectionality, where she demonstrates the ways in which Black girls and women are invisible in mathematics. The invisibility isn’t inevitable. Rather, it is constructed. Ghoulson points out that Black women are used as props to justify research that excludes them. When researchers discuss the difficulties facing the Black community as a whole and then pivot to discussing the particular issues facing Black men, for example, Black women drop out of the discussion. Because of this, we don’t know how Black women are doing in mathematics. We presume they’re doing fine, when really, we have simply made them invisible.
This piece, naturally, got me thinking that invisibility is perilous.
A few days later, though, I read a study by Niral Shah (2017) about the ways that racial narratives relate to mathematics education. There’s a prevalent narrative, for example, that Asian students are particularly good in mathematics, and another that says Black students are not. Shah’s study found that these narratives about the role of race in mathematics education are quite often evoked in relation to each other in ways that imply a hierarchy. One of the excerpts from his study, for example, was this, from a Black student: “Like I’m Black but I’m good at math. So are you not going to ask me for help because I’m not Asian?” (Shah, 2017, p. 23). This statement places Asian students high on the hierarchy and Black students low, giving each group not just an absolute position, but a position relative to each other. Meanwhile, narratives about White students did come up occasionally, but not nearly as often. The White students, in this case, were invisible — which, in a sense, gave them a pass from being ranked according to their race.
So, perhaps invisibility is not always perilous? What makes the consequences so different for Black girls than for White students? I know, of course, that the contexts of the invisibility are quite different. Invisibility from attention in research is different from invisibility in racial narratives. That alone, I suppose, could be enough to make this comparison uninteresting. But something about this explanation just wasn’t satisfying to me. It was as if the comparison was nagging at some dusty memory in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite identify.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to speak to Dr. Shah about his article a few days ago. I posed this comparison to him and asked what he thought. He said lots of interesting things in his response, but the thing that really gave me a light bulb moment was this: Dr. Shah suggested that perhaps thinking of White students as invisible isn’t the most illuminating way of thinking about visibility in his study. Rather, maybe the effects of the racial narratives are to make Asian students hyper-visible. Further, Dr. Shah said he wasn’t convinced that being hyper-visible was beneficial to anyone.
This made perfect sense to me, and helped me think differently about the narratives about Asian students and those about Black students. For the Asian students, the narratives could lead to high expectations based on race that, for some, could be hard to attain and lead to undue pressure. For Black students, the narratives could lead teachers to devalue their contributions to mathematics discussions, which in turn could lead to a kind of invisibility.
Thinking about this also surfaced that nagging memory I suspected was in my head somewhere. When Dr. Shah used the term hyper-visible, I suddenly remembered writing this Facebook post on the day that Hillary Clinton got the Democratic party nomination for President:
I know what it means to be hyper-visible, and while the consequences are different than being invisible, they can still have detrimental effects.
Once again, I find myself with a new frame for thinking about a complex issue related to teaching and learning. Grad school is good for that.
What do you think? What are the potential effects of invisibility and hyper-visibility? What does this mean for teaching and learning in classrooms?
Gholson, M. L. (2016). Clean Corners and Algebra: A Critical Examination of the Constructed Invisibility of Black Girls and Women in Mathematics. The Journal of Negro Education, 85(3), 290–301.
Shah, N. (2017). Race, Ideology, and Academic Ability: A Relational Analysis of Racial Narratives in Mathematics. Teachers College Record, 119(7), 1–42.