I Didn't See You

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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.


"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.

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