In social justice spaces, we often talk about the importance of visibility. We want the needs, desires, struggles, and identities of marginalized people to be acknowledged and represented so we can shift away from our culture’s narrow focus on whiteness, maleness, and other forms of privilege.
But we often conflate visibility—being seen completely—with hypervisibility—being placed under a microscope in parts. The difference between visibility and hypervisibility is that the former is an important part of being recognized as human and the latter is a consequence of being seen as “other than,” which in our society means other than white, other than male, other than thin and able-bodied, other than what our culture has trained us to think of as the default human being.
As an example, for Black women, visibility in the media could mean having a diverse array of Black women’s stories represented on screen. Hypervisibility in the media, on the other hand, would be something more like Blaxploitation—Black women routinely being cast in stereotypical, oversexualized, one-dimensional roles that prioritize the white male gaze and profit over telling the stories of real Black women.
It’s easy to confuse examples of hypervisibility with constructive visibility. For instance, we’re more likely to see Black women winning awards for playing slaves, maids, mammies, and the like than we are to see Asian women winning any, but the heightened visibility of the Black actresses is a double-edged sword. Though their talent is being recognized in some way, they’re still often relegated to roles that magnify Black struggle at the hands of white people. They are being seen, but often because of the magnification of Black pain and subservience.
Similar things happen in everyday life. Black women’s natural hair has become more visible within the Black community, but many Black women find their afros being gawked at and touched by entitled and invasive non-Black people. People from many backgrounds have started to pay more attention to Indigenous issues in the midst of the #NoDAPL fight, but the hypervisibility of Native People has prompted unqualified “allies” to treat Standing Rock like Burning Man or some formative adventure.
See the problem? Though marginalized people are often rendered invisible, a side-effect of finally being seen by those with power and privilege can lead to another form of dehumanization. Being hypervisible means being reduced to the exotic or dangerous “other” by way of stereotypes, media distortion, exploitation, and cultural appropriation.
And when we fail to see hypervisibility for what it is or confuse it for positive forms of visibility, we run the risk of dehumanizing people, even as we fight for social justice. Hypervisibility can fuel problems like performative allyship, which is exploiting a “trending” marginalized group or cause to boost one’s own image, and gentrification, which often occurs when the things poor people of color do to survive become trendy and adventurous for rich white hipsters.
In light of that, here are five of the biggest drawbacks of hypervisibility for marginalized people. Given that most of us tend to be privileged in some ways and marginalized in others, you may have both experienced and perpetrated some of these things. Therefore, learning to recognize and correct these problems is an important step toward making visibility more constructive.
1) People Feel Entitled to You
One problem with being hypervisible is that people feel entitled to you. They feel okay with scrutinizing you, gawking at you, touching you, exploiting you, asking you invasive questions, or stepping on you to lift themselves up.
A small example: people love to ask me where I’m from. I was born in the United States and am a citizen of this country, but my name stands out in a way that “John Smith” doesn’t. It’s not a huge deal to me—I’m glad to explain the origin of the name to people—but there is a certain sense of entitlement that comes with thinking an unusual name is somehow more foreign or exotic than a name like Smith—which came from Europe and is just as foreign to this land as Uwujaren (though way more common).
Now turn that sense of entitlement up to 11 and you’ve got a recipe for much more invasive behavior—feeling entitled to an education on someone else’s culture or heritage, feeling entitled to the story of how a person lost a leg or got PTSD, feeling entitled to take and profit from aspects of someone else’s culture, feeling entitled to ask about the genitalia of a trans person.
In short, the visibility of marginalized people is often mistaken for an invitation to satisfy one’s curiosity about people who seem “different” or engage in a bit of cultural tourism. Though a healthy sense of interest in other people is part of making conversation, a feeling of entitlement to a person’s background, body, or private life is rude and can make marginalized people feel as if they’re living under a microscope.
2) People Fetishize You
Related to this sense of entitlement is the problem of fetishization. A person who fetishizes a culture or identity reduces it down to the parts that they find personally gratifying. This is often used to talk about sexual fetishization, but this kind of objectification isn’t always overtly sexualized.
Sexual fetishization is a side-effect of hypervisibility because it involves an obsession with and overrepresentation of the shallow at the expense of the substantial. For instance, Asian women are often fetishized by white men and men of other races because they are stereotyped as submissive, hyperfeminine, and youthful. This is reflected in dating interactions, pornography, tourism, and other areas of life where white people reduce Asian women to stereotypical roles that they get off on without recognizing Asian women’s full humanity or desires.
However, fetishization doesn’t have to be sexualized. Just look at how Asian cultures are fetishized and exploited by the movie industry, which often traffics in cultural tourism by dressing white heroes up in the trappings of stereotypical “Asian” clothes and traditions. This fetishization of the exotified idea of Asian cultures in movies like The Great Wall (starring Matt Damon) is reductive no matter how much it increases the “visibility” of Asian people, who rarely land leading roles in such films.
3) People Use You
Another problem of hypervisibility is that people use your visibility to boost their own status. For an idea of what I mean, just look at how much money has been made off of memes, dances, trends, fashions, and slang that originated in Black culture.
Black culture is hypervisible. Black people are highly present in the music industry, creatively involved in sparking social media trends, the source of many of the fads currently sweeping mainstream culture, and the originators of many of the culinary trends Brooklyn hipsters have set their palates on. People see us, but they also tend to use what they see to further their own money-making enterprises and agendas.
Hillary Clinton quoted Beyoncé’s “Formation” to endear herself to young people. Words from Black ball and drag cultures have permeated the internet vernacular of straight white women. Iggy Azalea, a white Australian woman, built an entire mediocre rapping career off of a bad American “blaccent.” Black culture is being used by everyone, but Black people are often erased from it.
4) People Fear You
Further, marginalized people often become hypervisible when they are used as scapegoats. We saw it happen to Black women on welfare with the “welfare queen” narrative that the media has been fueling since the ‘80s. We’re seeing it with Muslims, Latinx people, and others who Trump demonized to further his campaign. We’re also seeing it with the political backlash against transgender people, particularly trans women, who have become more visible in positive ways but have also been scapegoated as predatory and deceptive in scaremongering media narratives.
When you deviate in any way from what our society treats as the default human being—if you are a person of color, trans, gender nonconforming, disabled, fat, mentally ill, a religious minority, and the list goes on—people will magnify that perceived deviation in order to justify fearing you. This form of hypervisibility relies on people’s fear of difference and nonconformity. If it doesn’t align with white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant values, it’s a threat.
This drawback of hypervisibility makes productive forms of visibility that much harder to achieve. As an example, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has made people more aware of police violence against Black people, but bigots have painted Black people’s legitimate fear and anger as hateful, threatening, dangerous, or devaluing of white lives. Thus, Black anger is magnified and white complicity in racial violence is downplayed. The visibility Black people fight for is used against them.
5) People Expect You to be Grateful for All of the Above
And despite the pain that this sort of hypervisibility causes—the pain of being watched, tokenized, and objectified—people will expect you to thank them for seeing you at all. People will expect you to take their entitlement, fetishization, exploitation, and even fear as compliments. Because they think they’re seeing you. Because they think there is inherent value in scrutinizing someone, even if that scrutiny is dehumanizing and unwanted.
If you’ve been hypervisible, don’t accept that. If you’ve put others under a microscope, stop doing that.
We are all of us, before anything else, autonomous, complex human beings. We cannot be reduced to any single aspect of ourselves, and we cannot thrive in a world that treats us as objects to be studied, used, and glared at.
In order to do right by each other in our interconnected fights for justice, we need to be careful not to confuse visibility with hypervisibility. For example, many of those less recognized in the LGBTQIA+ community have mistaken the current hypervisibility of trans women as evidence that their rights are front and center when transmisogyny is as rampant as ever. Non-Black people of color similarly mistake the hypervisibility of Black racial justice movements for greater progress without acknowledging the ways they themselves benefit from anti-Blackness.
Real visibility means seeing nuance. It means looking beyond two-dimensional media narratives and statistics to see each other as people with intersecting identities, varied viewpoints, and differing degrees of privilege. It means challenging ourselves to seek out the messy truth of people’s lives rather than relying on our own prejudices and the easy stories we tell ourselves.
This is all to say that real visibility means real work.