Davidson’s Invisibility Problem

Quinn Massengill-

Have you ever been made to feel invisible before? I’m not talking about the hot-guy-never-notices-you-in-class-even-when-you-wear-your-cutest-outfit invisible (don’t we all know that feeling). I’m talking about the sort of invisible when you know that everyone you meet never thinks of you as a person, as another human being; if they think of you at all, they conceive of you as a quaint, sometimes tedious fixture of their environment, like furniture in the background.

I’d like to tell you about a time when I experienced such invisibility. Right before the beginning of the school year during freshmen orientation, I held a temporary job at the college farm. One of the things I did as a part of this job was to assist Theresa Allen, Davidson’s amazing farm manager, with the Wednesday farmers’ market booth in the union. On this particular day, I was dressed in my usual farming gear, beat-up sneakers, old jeans, and a dirt-stained shirt.

That day, from set-up to sales to teardown, I noticed something strange. While plenty of people were friendly and many of the frequent patrons of the farm greeted me with enthusiasm after my summer away working in Michigan, the people I didn’t know were the ones who stood out. All day, whenever an Odyssey group that had just gotten back to campus walked by or when tour guides led prospective students and parents passed, their eyes slid over me even faster than they did over the vegetables themselves. I smiled at each bunch of folks who went past, but the more times my smiles went unseen and unreturned, this became a tiny bit harder to do.

I was a little unsure why this was going on—after all, union was pretty empty and there wasn’t much to look at except us. I remembered too, all the friendly smiles and waves I typically get when greeting passing tour groups, and I couldn’t quite make it all fit together in my head. Then I looked back down at my clothes and I realized: there was nothing about the way I was dressed that indicated I was a Davidson student. To these passing strangers, I was just some employee of the college–one who could have probably stood to wear a whiter shirt.

I know from the experiences summers spent working with my dad in maintenance and carpentry the unspoken policy for manual laborers and service workers: the less noticeable you are the better. My dingy shirt made me self conscious because it marked the labor I did day to day—it reminded everyone who saw it that vegetables come from hard work and that having your weekly organic produce means someone else had to dig in the dirt. This thought is not comfortable—it reminds us that not everyone sits in the AC all day and brings home a hefty salary for doing so.

So now I have two more questions for you. Have you ever treated a staff person at Davidson as if they were invisible? From the averted gazes when Physical Plant workers pass to the silence in response to Commons staff members’ kind greetings, I know many Davidson students have. Next time, why not replace the empty silence between you and a laborer with a kind greeting. Chances are you’ll both walk away happier. But if the solution is so simple, why is the world still like this?

Here is my tentative answer: Our world is like this because we let it be, so let’s change that. At least for the people we meet in passing every day. At least, let’s change our individual worlds.

Quinn Massengill ’19 is a Studio Art and English double-major from Hickory Flat, Mississippi. Contact him at qumassengill@davidson.edu