Why is the Invisible Man invisible?

The Invisible Man is invisible because he is Black. Because of the social construction of race in American society, people either refuse to see him or see him merely as a representative of a despised group.

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In Ellison's Invisible Man, the narrator is invisible because he is Black. As the narrator writes early on in the novel:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

This sets him apart from the narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, an important source for Ellison, who is physically and morally diseased (internally made invisible), or The Invisible Man in H. G. Wells's science fiction classic, a scientist who chooses invisibility by drinking a chemical potion.

This narrator does not choose to be invisible but is rendered so by the way race is constructed in America. People either look past him because he is Black or, more often, seen him not as his individual self but as the faceless representative of a despised group. As he puts it, this is a

matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.

In other words, they have been taught not to see Blackness. This is similar to the people in China Mieville's The City and the City, who are taught not to notice the people in the "other" city that weaves through their own.

The invisible man is subjected to the negative projections of white people who don't see him, but project on to him their own self-hatreds, such as the "blond" man early in the novel who meets him in the dark. This white man, who does not know him at all, begins to insult the narrator simply because of his race. The narrator's rage at his situation becomes clears when he beats the white man up.

But in addition to being enraged, Ellison's invisible man sees the advantages of racial invisibility in the freedom it gives him. He notes, for example, that he is stealing his power, undetected, from the electric company.

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