Strategic Invisibility: Hiding in Plain Sight
“Being alive is intimately connected to a desire to be seen and acknowledged,” writes Karen Lollar of Metropolitan State University. Unfortunately, she notes, strategic invisibility—a complex response to an inhospitable dwelling place—is often employed when people confront untenable life situations. Such invisibility is characterized by a conscious decision to be emotionally, verbally, and/or physically in the background, silent or unseen. People who strategically choose to conceal parts of their identity, locations, or life situations are hiding in plain sight or staying behind the scenes.
In her study, Lollar examines the language people use and the circumstances they face when choosing to strategically hide. “Interestingly,” she says, “I did not seek these stories, but they came to my attention and I took notice and began listening more carefully.” Using Hannah Arendt’s framework, which distinguishes the public, social, and private spheres, Lollar examines the different stories of six people choosing to live their lives behind the scenes: a tenured faculty member, a mentally ill woman, an immigrant family, a group of refugees, a child living in subsidized housing, and a man who lives in a tent by the river.
Choosing strategic invisibility may be the first step toward a strong act of resistance by someone dwelling in an inhospitable environment, Lollar notes. Strategic invisibility “resists an oppressive environment by disengaging from it until new possibilities arise,” she says. The author notes that people choosing this strategy are agents, making things happen by their own actions. “Agency embodies the endowments, belief systems, self-regulatory capacities, structures, and functions through which personal influence is exercised,” Lollar writes. Agency manifests itself within dwelling places, or communities. In an ideal dwelling place, everyone would have access to the resources they need for physical, emotional, and cognitive nurture and development. Dwelling spaces would be inclusive, and all voices would be heard and acknowledged.
Unfortunately, not every dwelling place is ideal, and when important resources are denied to dwellers, the dwelling place is inhospitable. Dwelling places can at once be hospitable to some dwellers and inhospitable to others. Often in these situations, people find themselves making a decision to “stay below the radar,” “hide in plain sight,” “mind their own business,” or “distance” themselves from others.
For example, Dasani, a sixth-grader in New York City, adopts a strategy of blending into the mainstream “they” by hiding her life story with what Lollar calls a “veneer of sameness to everyone else.” Dasani lives with her seven siblings and parents who are unemployed and struggling with drug addictions. According to a 2013 New York Times story, they live in a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless, a place where “mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.” Although this young girl has a “home” of sorts, she uses strategic invisibility. With other children on the subway, her donated clothes give the appearance of affluence. She says she likes being small because she can “slip through things.” Dasani makes an appearance in the social sphere, but controls how much of herself to make visible. Hiding her socio-economic status is a choice that opens up opportunities for her.
Lollar tells another story of immigrants from Mexico. The family of four includes Anna, 39 and her husband, Manuel, 40, and their two children. For years Anna endeavored to join her husband who was in the United States “legally,” but after many attempts, Anna crossed the border finding herself labeled “illegal” in a system where the process for becoming a resident is so tangled that it could take some Mexicans 131 years to even be considered. After 11 years of working and contributing to her community in the United States, Anna continually experiences derision by strangers, law enforcement profiling, threat of deportation, loss of income, and fear of separation from her family. Anna’s husband, Manuel, explains the price of staying invisible to avoid the system to a reporter for an Oprah magazine article. The reporter writes:
“My wife says I am depressed,” he mumbles, keeping his eyes on the disembodied keyboard. “I don’t know.” Manuel says that many of their friends no longer leave their homes to socialize. They imprison themselves before someone else can. Illnesses go untreated. Crimes [go] unreported. Children play alone indoors. Dogs run circles along their fences.
By sharing her story with a reporter, Anna and her family move from strategic invisibility into speech as a public action. She chose invisibility as a pretense of normality. Anna’s family chose to fade into the larger culture that Dasani is also a part of, but the stakes were higher for her family—the exposure and consequences could ultimately lead to separation from her family and deportation. Strategic invisibility was the “surest step to survival in a hostile culture and a sign of strength.”
The stories that Lollar shares in her study are valuable sources of information about the human experience. Many individuals are thrown into inhospitable dwelling places that impose difficult constraints. The stories shared in Lollar’s paper could propel individuals to consider the overt and inarticulate aspects of a culture that may cause others to go into hiding—choosing strategic invisibility over transparency. Staying invisible does not allow these people to become part of the public dialogue. However, strategic invisibility is a small act of resistance that may well be the first step toward a stronger act of resistance, such as speaking out as Anna did in telling her story to a reporter.