I am a non-white person with light colouring, and I am physically disabled, but people generally can’t tell either by looking at me. My race and my disability status therefore come under the umbrella of what are known as invisible identities. These are not the only parts of me that fit into the category, but they are the ones I’ll be using to explore some of the problems with the idea of the invisible identity.
So, first up, we’ve got to ask what the phrase means. Invisible to whom? Whether an identity is invisible or not depends on who is looking.
My identities are not invisible to me. So who is doing the perceiving here? Not me, clearly. It’s not my ideas about myself that matter here. And it’s far less likely to be members of my communities observing and not realising I am one of them. So to whom are these identities invisible? The people who don’t share them. The privileged people are the ones who don’t notice my identities, who assume I am one of them, who deny me who I am. They are the ones who are noticing, the only ones with agency here. It is their perspective that gives us the term “invisible identity” and is allowed to define my experience and being.
And, of course, the person who “sees” is inevitably sighted. The whole concept of whether identities are visible or not relies on visual cues (not that those are themselves reliable). Once again, disabled people are left out of the equation; once again, privileged people are in charge of identity. As such, with regards to disability in particular, the notion of invisibility to describe the dynamic here is a fair bit problematic.
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