This week, I have mostly been thinking about making the invisible, visible. I’ve been noticing the distinct differences in how my friends have responded to recent events. The past few months have changed the way we view the world around us in previously unimagined ways. Whether this has been through seeing the visible impact from the invisible threat of Covid-19 for those who have lost loved ones and livelihoods, or the realization of who we have taken for granted in terms of essential workers, or coming face-to-face with systemic racism, there has been a collective unveiling of how others experience the world. And I’ve noticed how we are still hard-wired to turn a blind eye.
As the country began to reopen, reported cases of the virus have been on the rise, and we are faced with yet another layer of uncertainty – is that a true reflection of what is happening? Was it because of Memorial Day celebrations or the protests? Are cases on the rise due to more testing? Are we still safe to reopen and reconnect with friends and family? Just because we’re allowed to do something, does it mean we should? Debates around whether masks are effective or not have become politicized and polarized. What has become more visible is the anger and frustration on both sides of these conversations and the lack of willingness, or difficulty in staying with the discomfort required, to listen to one another. We are more prone to confirmation bias than ever before.
Robert Hartwell, a musical theater actor and Founder of The Broadway Collective, posted on social media recently about his experience of finding and purchasing his dream home. He wrote:
3 weeks ago I found this house online. I said “this is my house”. I called the seller and was told it was a cash only offer and that “I’m sure that takes you off the table”. Don’t you ever underestimate a hard working black man. I saw the house last week and when I walked in I knew I was home. The house was built in 1820 for the Russell family who owned the cotton mill in town. Slavery was still legal. When the agent asked me why I wanted such a large house I said it was “a generational move”. I know this house is bigger than me. I wish I could’ve told my ancestors when they were breaking their back in 1820 to build this house that 200 years later a free gay black man was going to own it and fill it with love and find a way to say their name even when 200 years later they still thought I would be “off the table”. We are building our own tables. I’ve never been prouder to be a black man. Come to my White House any time. I can’t wait to have you! Glory to God in the highest. I’m a homeowner.
He posted this with a photo of him standing in front of the house. Now, I want to ask you to be really honest about how you feel right now having read this. What is your response? What is your instinctive reply?
I ask this because I shared this post on Facebook without any comment of my own. Within minutes, this post received a high number of “likes” and “love” reactions, along with comments about what a lovely story this is and how wonderful it was for him. I agree, this is an enormous accomplishment and he deserves to feel incredibly proud of who he is and what he’s achieved. It’s a moving story and incredibly meaningful. What I’m about to say does not in any way take away from any of that.
As the comments and reactions gathered on my shared post, something uneasy stirred in me. Apparently, what was obvious to me was invisible to my friends. Because while I’m thrilled that Robert Hartwell was able to prove that realtor wrong, I was left wondering where the outrage was for the way that he was treated and for the overt bigotry and racism from the realtor? For me, this isn’t simply a “lovely story”, but is yet another hideous example of the racist attitudes that still persist; it’s an outrageous story, in that it causes me to feel outraged. The fact that he overcame all that is, indeed “lovely”, but the fact that he had to confront it at all disgusts me.
By focusing only on the “happy ever after” outcome, we are whitewashing this man’s experience. We are absolving the bigotry because things came good in the end.
If you are one of the many people right now committed to self-reflection and anti-racist work, I applaud you. Part of doing that work is to make the invisible, visible. Many of those who commented about this being a great story are also the ones who have been posting about anti-racist resources. Yes, educate yourself. Read the books. But most of all, do the work. That part requires you to be able to hear the other more clearly and remove the blinkers. It also requires you to look more closely at any situation where racism is present and placed neatly to one side because “things turned out okay in the end”. While it’s tempting to see only the positive and the silver lining, it’s equally important to acknowledge the harm that’s been done.
My disclaimer in all this? I don’t know Robert Hartwell personally. I don’t know if he shares any of my views. I don’t know how he feels about the realtor, nor how he responded to him. I am speaking only for myself. I also know that I also have confirmation bias and critics will say that if you look for what you expect, you’ll find it. I hope that one day I can look and not find this. Until then, I will keep making the invisible, visible.