Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Make You Watched, but Not Seen

There is a world of difference between being seen and being watched. Many people live in the space of this difference, especially those whose very bodies are seen as a threat. A simple example is of a teenager walking into a 7-11 and being under the scrutiny of the cashier, who is waiting for them to shoplift, which is totally different from being acknowledged (seen) as a valued customer. We’ve spoken a lot about invisibility in the two weeks or so, but the flip side of hypervisibility can have incredibly negative impacts as well.

Hypervisibility is a type of scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance. Often, this deviance becomes a focal point for outside attention and comes to symbolize or represent a hypervisible person, group or place. When you become overly visible, you’re often constantly under the gaze of others. You are being looked at, sure, but you are being watched and judged, so it’s not kind of visibility that people tend to seek if given a choice.

There are probably times in your life when you’ve felt hypervisible. When have you felt like you were under scrutiny because you were the “odd one out”? When I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I sometimes feel like my woman-ness stands out and puts more critical eyes on me, making me hesitant to speak. It’s at these moments that my emotions, appearance, gender, intelligence or feminism are mostly likely to garner dismissive or harsh comments. If I come across as ‘too much’ of woman, I can lose credibility and respect to some degree. These are daily moments that can highlight the discomfort of being made more visible based on difference or deviance.

Hypervisibility is experienced by many groups, but I think two clear examples in a North American context are Black women and Muslim people. These two groups are both frequently the object of media attention without being offered many opportunities to genuinely shape how they are represented or allowed space to become active subjects of media coverage by driving the story based on their own perspective. This often boils down to, on a basic level, seeing a lot of footage of these groups without hearing from them. They are highly visible within mainstream culture, but the coverage is based on reaffirming their difference and leans heavily on stereotypes to establish their deviance.

Hypervisible as Hypersexualized

In the United States, Black women have historically been stereotyped and depicted as hypersexualized and constantly available, particularly to white men. Unfortunately, that image of the sexualized Black woman is hypervisible. This means that the stereotype of the hypersexual, hyper-available Black woman is incredibly pervasive because this idea is repeated (re-presented) over and over.

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[Image depicts a Black woman with a large afro with her back to the viewer. She is only wearing very short booty shorts and has turned half way back towards the viewer so that some of her breast is revealed. She uses one hand to shield herself. She is winking and the the text behind her says, “Free Ride.”]

This is no new phenomenon, although with media available to access 24/7 hypervisibility has been taken to a whole new level. For generations, Black women were seen in the West as constantly sexually available and deviant compared to the supposed ‘modesty’ of respectable white women. Treva Lindsey, a Women’s and Gender Studies professor, has a really interesting talk available on YouTube speaking to the history of hypervisible and hypersexualized Black women in the United States. She also discusses the challenges of trying to negotiate  a powerful erotic space in the face of hypervisible hypersexualized imagery that haunts women of colour and Black women in particular. Making room for the kind of sexual performance that can be empowering rather than exploitative can be challenging when so many people insist on seeing (and depicting) your body as negatively sexualized and objectified.

Heads, I win. Tails, you lose

Managing visibility is arguably a critical, challenging and frustratingly necessary skill for those who are vulnerable to both invisibility and hypervisibility. If hypervisibility threatens overexposure and harsh scrutiny while invisibility enforces silence and erasure, marginalized groups are left in a precarious position. Visibility therefore becomes a double edged sword that seems dangerous to wield at times. Is it worth trying to be seen if it really just opens me up to be judged?

Managing visibility is very difficult in this position, as you’re likely to get burned in either direction without the benefit of truly being seen and acknowledged. On a day to day basis, it can require the choice of a) speaking up for yourself/others and being ridiculed/threatened, or b) staying silent and your interests being ignored/invisible. I don’t know if the decision of what to do in this situation gets any less stressful over time, but I think practice makes it easier if you do choose to speak up. Do you have a strategy for dealing with the moment when you are asked to risk hypervisibility or invisibility? Have you been successful in making yourself visible and heard in that situation?

Making Everyone’s “Watch List”

Muslims and Arabs in the West, but particularly in the United States, are experiencing an awful type of hypervisibility. After 9/11, there has been a significant number of people who perceive Muslim people negatively, even stereotyping them as terrorists merely for practicing their faith.  Sadly, there were 157 reported) hate crimes against Muslims in the United States in 2011;the numbers don’t appear to have settled even over a decade after 9/11. The wrongful and harmful representation of Muslim and Arab people in the media has left many people extremely uninformed about the realities of those groups. This has hardly increased cross-cultural understanding. In the wake of a national tragedy, there has been a rush to ‘secure,’ surveil and detain, but Muslim and Arab people have experienced an arguably unique brand of body terrorism based on being a hypervisible “threat.” Muslims and Arabs across North America are being profiled,* judged, jailed, denied entry, stereotyped, threatened and even killed for how their bodies are seen.

In fact, even those who can be mistaken for Muslim, like people who are Sikh or look Arab, are feeling the negative spillover effects of this hypervisibility as well.  And when I say “negative spillover effects,” I mean that people have been killed because they were mistaken for being Muslim, as we saw in 2001 when a gas station owner was murdered for the mistake and, in August of last year, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was the target of an assault that ending in 6 people dead and more injured.

It can be dangerous to be hypervisible. It may mean that when people see you, they see red. There are real, horrifying consequences to your body – your race, your religious expression, your nationality, your sexuality – being deemed a threat. (Perceived) deviance seems dangerous to some and often falls under the watchful eye of those who do not see individuals but a monolithic risk or inferior group. Unseen and  unacknowledged but always under scrutiny, hypervisible groups may find that invisibility is actually preferable. If being hypervisibility puts you at risk of violence, judgment, exclusion, or even a hate crime, there’s little surprise that people surround themselves in their community, whatever that may be.

In fact, hypervisibility really is just another way to deny people recognition and the right to be truly seen. It is the trial by fire version of invisibility; instead of freezing you out, we’ll put you on the hot seat. It’s still not a place at the table. The ability to be recognized is so often constructed as privilege reserved for lucky few whose bodies and identities are accepted by default. As a white, generally abled, cis woman and Canadian citizen, I often have the privilege to blend in when I need to and be heard when I’d like. My taste of hypervisibility comes mostly by way of gender, but my other privileges often soften the scrutiny I might otherwise feel if I ‘overstep.’ In some cases, I am more likely to find people like me in the room who can act as allies when I feel the eyes of others on me.

This privilege requires me to try to act as an ally for those who don’t benefit from this kind of easy visibility. It is my responsibility to try to soften the gaze on those who are constantly under the microscope in the media, constantly being asked to explain and justify and erase their difference. Maybe at first this just looks like recognizing my own contribution and refusing to judge. Maybe it is working to challenge policies that target hypervisible groups or petitioning media to offer better representation. Speaking to peers, friends and family about stereotypes and challenging their assumptions about people can be difficult, but as you question the judgment of others, it also opens you up to question judgment of yourself. Scrutiny of difference, labelling that as deviance and punishing it, benefits no one. Visibility can be about recognizing and welcoming, rather than exploiting and rejecting – if we are looking at it the right way.

*More general profiling information here, for example, as it is a clear consequence of being seen as a hypervisible threat and it applies to many groups.