On Statelessness and Hypervisibility

Joe Poladoghly

July 2021

In this blog entry, Joe Poladoghly, stateless writer from Lebanon, considers how non-consensual hypervisibility of stateless people can be just as problematic as their erasure through perceived ‘invisibility’.

Much of the recent study of hypervisibility focuses on the manifestations of race, ethnicity, gender and  sexuality. The critical bridges between hypervisibility and statelessness have been little explored to date. In this context, hypervisibility pertains to the spotlighting of consequences of leading a stateless life, and making visible the external markers of statelessness, such as precarity, poor housing, poor health, etc. In this blog, I present examples of three scenarios when the ‘invisible’ stateless person finds themselves ‘outed’ as stateless and thus hypervisible: regardless of whether their statelessness is relevant  to the immediate intellectual, political, or work-related engagement. Generally, a stateless person does not get easily singled out in a crowd on account of their appearance or behaviour due to lack of physical attributes identifying their situation. For a stateless person to become hypervisible, therefore, their statelessness has to be common knowledge among a group of people. Ethically, this should be relayed after the informed consent of the stateless subject, with the least amount of commotion and essentialising. Yet, the terms of representation are often defined by how other, non-stateless people, (struggle to) understand statelessness as a lived reality. These, sometimes, crude assumptions of the lived reality of statelessness thus indirectly contribute to the hypervisibility of one’s stateless peer.

Hypervisibility exposes the gaping holes in the otherwise seemingly coherent pattern of social structure. It is the spotlighting of those who do not conform to the perceived norm. This phenomenon can be traumatic as it almost always happens when the person concerned would rather not receive attention or special treatment. Given that stateless people — unlike racial/ised or gendered subjects — can often blend into their societies and communities without being perceived as the contextual Other, the hypervisibility of statelessness often takes the form of performative obligation. Here, I explore how, despite their bureaucratic, and sometimes physical ‘invisibility’, stateless people can be made problematically hypervisible by those around them.

Non-Consensual Hypervisibility at Work

In some contexts, potential employers pretend to take ‘the moral high road’ when faced with a stateless job applicant. Once hired, the stateless employee can become a card used to showcase the diversity of an institution. Consequently, the stateless worker transforms into the living, walking, talking success of inclusionary politics at work. In this way, the stateless worker is forced to shift their ideal self-image — that of an apt and competent employee — into that of someone making a living out of the goodwill of benevolent employers. In addition to being expected to be grateful, the hypervisibility of the stateless worker is further intensified when they have to present their travel document, either to get it scanned upon employment or to receive their salary. Instead of being a quiet process that holds some degree of privacy, the matter can turn into a storytelling circus.

When, for example, I hand over my Laissez-Passer at work, the primary reaction I receive is that of fascination. The person on the other end of the table — be it HR or a (potential) colleague — is almost always curious to know more about “this weird passport”. I am subsequently expected to summarise the complexity of my statelessness and accept the palpable shift in the atmosphere which ensues once I share my struggle: I emerge as an awkward extension of a human crisis. In one particular scenario, I realised one of my colleagues was treating me with aggressive and terse behaviour. When I confronted her about the matter, she admitted she thought I had an authoritative attitude - a complex she reckoned I developed as a result of my statelessness. My statelessness, of course, does not form the basis of how I work or every decision I make, and yet, my status imposed an over-presence in my workplace, directly impacting the way my colleague behaved around me.  I, as such, began to wonder if this was the case with everyone else, and this doubt caused me to feel extreme levels of hyperawareness wherever I found myself at work.

Assuming consent

Professionals in the fields of humanitarianism, litigation, and research have also been part of the problem. Normally, I do not refrain from disclosing my legal status with them; an unequivocal trust has always existed between us. The transgression occurs, however, when my counterparts decide to speak on my behalf and to divulge my status without consulting with me first. For instance, during a meeting with a potential funder, my status was once revealed by an employee of an organization with which I was volunteering. When it was my turn to discuss my time as a volunteer, I was flustered by the unanticipated expectation that I would be speaking as a stateless volunteer, even though my statelessness categorically bore no relevance to my volunteer experience. The preliminary narrative for which I had been preparing — that of an empowered volunteer — morphed into a sob story that may or may not secure funds.

Another time, I was invited to a workshop that explored the discriminatory nationality laws in Lebanon that prohibit women from passing their citizenship to their children. I was seated alongside other participants with whom I was situated as equal in value and presence. During the screening of a Human Rights Watch video that calls for the amendment of Lebanese nationality laws, the facilitator approached me and asked me in whispers if I could share “[my] own testimony” with the others at the end of the video. There was little over a minute to collect myself to address a room full of strangers, who would then surely view me as a case study. When I returned to my seat after finishing my short speech, I could not rid myself of everyone’s sorrowful gaze, a form of attention I did not welcome. They seemed surprised that I could speak so eloquently, that I was educated and was capable of generating income against all odds. A sharp contrast lay between me (the stateless) and everyone else (the non-stateless) — at which point, I hoped I could reclaim my ‘invisibility’.

The way forward

Evidently, the question that begs itself is the following: Should the non-stateless be obliged to put the stateless at ease when directly dealing with them? The answer is yes and no. The kind of relationship the non-stateless should aim for is not that of the healthy treating the ill, but that of equals. With this, I am proposing a black-and-white binary between the stateless and the non-stateless. The stateless are located in a tight spot where they are rarely, if ever,  offered the space to transcend the stereotype the non-stateless have placed them in. In other words, hypervisibility depreciates, by default, any other special attribute a stateless individual may have; competence, education, personality, etc.  Consequently, the stateless are constantly spotlighted as the living exemplars of governmental and systemic failures. This particular type of identification is detrimental to the mental state of the stateless. Stateless people battle against their invisibility only to be cheated by their hypervisibility in places where they ought to feel safe.

There is no denying that researchers on statelessness may know more about the legal ins and outs of statelessness, yet their ‘textual attitude’ towards stateless people (i.e. reliance upon textual authority over human experience) creates and maintains psychological repercussions. Statelessness might be viewed as a multidisciplinary field, yet the subjective facet of statelessness is unidirectional. It leads to a place of pain — and sometimes, embarrassment. As a result, stateless people may sometimes internalise and therefore reproduce the tokenisation of themselves; doing so as a defence mechanism because academics, policy makers, lawyers, and legal practitioners still fail to recognise their problematic behaviour towards the stateless.

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