When my daughter was 12, she offended one of her friends, who decided to retaliate. “We will shun her,” the friend said to the rest of the group, putting her hand up in my daughter’s face. For the rest of the day, the group would not talk to my daughter. This invisibility brought tears to her eyes.
By learning the languages of the people around me, I strive to make those who are invisible, visible. The immigrants, the lower classes, the ones whom others don’t notice become the source of my learning, so I have to see them; better, I have to look for them.
In a recent encounter, the tables were turned. I became invisible among those who are normally invisible. On this “ecolinguistic expedition” to scout the linguistic ecosystem of my community, I felt the invisibility that many folks in my community feel every day. My white, majority power pulled me out of that state in a way that they can’t, but I learned some sympathy that day.
I went to the Somali Mall recently, where I always stand out. I like learning Somali because it takes me to more out-of-the-way (or, at least, out-of-my-way) places and heightens my ecolinguistic awareness of the linguistic landscape around me. Skin color immediately sets me apart from everyone in these cafes. Then, once I greet someone in Somali, I get great, positive attention, as Somalis (like many minority groups) enjoy hearing their language spoken by a foreigner.
This time, though, folks quickly stopped noticing me. When I went to sit, no one invited me to sit with them. Since everyone shares tables, the waiter just sat me down in the TV area next to another gentleman, where the guys were watching football (soccer). Once I sat down, no one looked at me, not even the person at my table. I wanted to chat in Somali to practice my language, but I got no reaction—not even a look—from anyone.
Honestly, I would rather seem stupid than invisible. Opening my mouth will reveal my poor Somali, but at least no one can ignore it. I’d rather be a joke than a nobody. The guys chatted, joked, and yelled—without me, even though I sat right next to them.
My situation in that cafe paralleled their situation everywhere else.
How often do these guys feel invisible in the Twin Cities? I thought. Where do they go if they simply want to socialize with non-Somalis? Do people greet them at coffee shops? Do riders in their cabs ask them about their families? In reality, probably no one makes an effort to include them. I can’t think of any place where they could just meet white people and practice English.
While I was sitting there, a man came in with a disfigurement (maybe he was missing a nose?) with a scarf over the lower half of his face. I know that during war some people would disfigure victims by cutting off their nose, and many of these men came to the US as refugees. This man’s condition could have resulted from violence or some birth defect.
It struck me that I don’t see white people in a similar condition. Either white people in such a state do not go out in public, or they get plastic surgery, or there just aren’t many of them. A Somali already sits low on the social hierarchy of the Twin Cities, but, I would assume, a physically disfigured one surely sits even lower.
This man surprised me. As he watched the football match, he was joking and gabbing as much as anyone. He clearly fit into the community.
Clearly more than I did. He might have been unusual physically, but I was invisible. My loneliness deepened.
Finally, I had to break the silence. I spoke to the gentleman sitting at my table—or, rather, at whose table I was sitting.
“Who do you like?” I asked in Somali (completely incorrectly, I later found out). “Arsenal,” he replied. We chatted further in Somali, so I got a chance to talk in the end.
He could have turned his nose up at my attempt at engaging. I had to take that risk. I think that being white and speaking Somali (to some small extent) aided my situation. Nevertheless, I learned the loneliness of invisibility, and the anxiety of trying to make myself visible.