Some of you may not know this, but I have the power of invisibility. Sometimes it is full-power and I apparently become literally imperceptible. A notable example of this was the time that I was prof-blocked. I was sitting talking to a male professor when a male student thrust his hand across my face in greeting and started a new conversation with the professor. On other occasions, my invisibility is only half-power. In these cases, my presence is half-acknowledged, but I can still ultimately be dismissed or undermined. Examples of this include the time that I was called by every generic female name (despite wearing a rather sizeable name badge), or the time that someone mansplained my own paper to me, then sent a follow-up PowerPoint ‘educating’ me on my own topic.
For a long time I assumed that it was only me who suffered from invisibility. That perhaps I was not confident or extrovert enough to be noticeable in a philosophy environment, and that my personality was just not suited to philosophy. Then a few years ago I started to interact more with other students who were minorities in philosophy. It was then that I learned that invisibility is an endemic.
Ask any minority student if they have been made to feel invisible and you will get examples like mine. These examples will range across different situations (conferences, seminars, lectures, etc.) and highlight slightly different issues for different minorities. Despite these differences though, the underlying message is still the same: invisibility is not a confidence issue; it is the result of structural problems which allow certain (typically minority) students to be overlooked or unacknowledged. These structural problems will include things like manels (male-only panels), and the condonement of passive-aggressive seminar behaviours.
So how do we deal with the problem of invisibility? Firstly, we need an attitude check. We could all be kinder and more aware of others, and acknowledge that certain attitudes and behaviours are simply not ‘good practice’. Secondly, we need structural change. There should be structures in place to ensure that all voices (minority or otherwise) can be heard. We can all accept that philosophy is awesome, and we should ensure that everyone feels welcome and able to enjoy and engage with philosophy if they want to do so. This is where organisations like MAP UK, the BPPA, SWIP and my own university’s Women* In Philosophy group come in. They work to highlight the voices of minorities and to work towards structural change.
So, if you are feeling invisible, please get in touch with one (or more) of the above groups. Together we can make the invisible, visible.
Helen Ryland is a Midlands3Cities-funded Philosophy PhD student at the University of Birmingham. She is currently also the conference co-ordinator for the British Postgraduate Philosophy Association (BPPA); a MAP UK mentor; and the PhD rep for the University of Birmingham’s Women* In Philosophy group.