I Didn't See You

2 min
at 11:43 PM

Well, I went back and just asked her.

You see, I was waiting in line for frozen yogurt. One customer was ahead of me. There were only three of us in the shop: the clerk, the customer and me. His order was complicated with indecision; did he want a bowl? A cone? What size? They were friendly. They were white.

As they finished and she started for the register, and then a family came in: a man, a woman and two older children. They were happy. So was I. The clerk handed the man change and then turned to the family. "What will it be?" They ordered. I looked at myself. I studied the family, the clerk. The first customer was just out the door. The family sat down to enjoy their treats. I debated-inside my head.

When the shop was empty again, I went back to the counter, "Why did you serve that family when I was ahead of them?"

"I didn't see you," she said.

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"I know I'm short. But that's not true."

She looked away. She insisted she just didn't see me. Then something clicked. I was right in front of her. She didn't see me. She didn't expect to, and so she didn't. No, really.

In my line of work, a negative hallucination is when you don't see something-or someone-that's actually there. Maybe that's what Ralph Ellison was talking about. I was invisible-a spook as my father would have joked-located where I could not be seen.

But seriously how does a perfectly rational person in full possession of her senses fail to see a little brown woman standing right in front of her? So I asked. "What happened?" We talked.

Expectations happened. What she saw, what she didn't, and what she expected to see: this is the stuff of routines and competence. Everyday routines-with people at work, at play, around home: they're filled by expectations. Following expectations conveys a kind of competence.

So can we risk it? Can we risk incompetence? Change routines. Change expectations. Don't know what I mean? Just ask. And let's talk.

With a Perspective, this is Rose Thomas.

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Rose Thomas is an East Bay psychologist who studies race and culture.

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