Math Wasn’t Always Black&White


This has been on my calendar for oh gosh…a year? And it’s finally here!!! I went during opening weekend and the showing was SOLD OUT. We laughed and cried and got so angry. And at the end EVERYONE CLAPPED because it’s about damn time we start honoring the folks who disappeared into the shadows of our history books.

This movie struck me when I saw the previews because I am a woman in math.  This is my world and these women were missing from it.  I hold tight to my identity as a feminist because it connects me to a string of women and men who fought for my rights over decades, centuries even.  It reminds me to be grateful but not complacent, and to work hard but not fruitlessly.  These women that we see in Hidden Figures paved the way for me to do the things I’ve done and I was eager to add them to my story.

Hidden Figures – based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly – depicts the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson at NASA leading up to John Glenn’s orbital launch in 1962.  It’s worth noting that NASA was the MOST PROGRESSIVE environment for black, female mathematicians in the 1950s which is so, so, so sad because it was still a terrible environment.*  Basically, we have an army of primarily white men handing math computation worksheets to overqualified white women and eventually black women.  Hidden Figures is a story about…

  • …race&gender and an entire cross section of American citizens treated as less than.  (This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you because race relations in our country have been despicable since our founding fathers pulled their boats onshore North America.)
  • …3 brilliant, black, female, mathematicians who are trying to do their job.  These women have the brainpower of jet engines and are being asked to do the tasks of a paddleboat.
  • …a country – OUR COUNTRY – that is SQUANDERING its human capital.

Hidden Figures struck me differently than other movies I’ve seen about race, partly because STEM is a language I talk and a world that I live in and can relate to.  But also because it shows the discrimination that black women faced in their workplace and in other areas – and I’m sure continue to face in many arenas – every. single. day.  I cried because it is maddening and so disappointing to watch humans denied the opportunity to pursue those things that their abilities allow.

When thinking back on the characters in this movie, I realized that there are no white heroes.  I appreciate that this is the portrayal for today’s kids because when I was growing up, I learned in history class that white folks were the heroes in these stories:

  • Underground railroad? My teacher lauded the abolitionists  who took in the runaway slaves and we talked about the bravery of doing something illicit.  Sure, Harriet Tubman sang songs, but whites, among others, were taking a risk by making their homes stops on the railroad.
  • The Holocaust? My teacher lauded the folks who allowed Jews to stay in the crawl space behind their bookshelves.

So I came home from school excited that I was descended from heroes and my parents got to tell me that a) there’s nothing heroic about treating humans like humans -that’s just part of being human, and b) I came from recent Armenian and Italian immigrants.

But there is still a moment of climax that presents whites as quasi-heroic:  Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group, tears down the “Colored Women” bathroom sign to allow colored women to use all of the bathrooms. My first thought was “WOOHOO YES!” and my second thought was “HOW WERE YOU SO IGNORANT/OUT OF IT AS TO NOT KNOW THAT THIS WAS GOING ON YOU BUFFOON?!!! Like…SERIOUSLY?!”  Was that moment of white triumph necessary?  I’m guessing that Hollywood needed the drama.  It’s as if they’re saying “be grateful for what you get” even when you know it’s paltry.

What I took away from this movie:

  • People who oppress other people are filled with fear.  It is a fear that comes from knowing that the people you are oppressing are good, thoughtful, brilliant, and creative, and that they can take your job.  We come up with fantasies in our mind about how another group is less worthy than we are and how our struggles are more important.  Perhaps most critically, we fantasize that there is not enough to go around.  We have to stop these fantasies in order to move towards the equality and advancement of all peoples.  When I was canvassing for Hillary, I saw this fear in undecided voters.  Now that Trump has provided an institutional platform for spewing this hate, we need to work harder than ever to vanquish the fear of scarcity, however irrational, that so many of our fellow citizens have.  Lately I’ve been turning to this guy and his book, Creating True Peace.
  • Black folks are just like other folks.  They are curious and funny and brilliant and productive.  But how they’re not like me/whites?  They have to fight, every single day, for every single thing they have because “we” were/are dead set on taking it away from them and making their lives a living hell.
  • We, Americans, CONTINUE to squander our human capital! As President Obama said in his farewell address “We have to pay attention and listen.  For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the sixties.”  We need to be providing equal and quality education for ALL OF OUR CITIZENS.  Decades of institutionalized racism are threatening our humanitarian, economic, and national security interests.
  • And most poignant for me: I am standing on the shoulders of invisible giants.  It’s my job to help remove their invisibility cloak.  They’re invisible because it’s convenient for us: their brilliance, productivity, impact, and HUMANITY goes against so much of our country’s narrative, and it’s expensive to rewrite textbooks.

I will not be complacent.  I can never know the struggle but I can listen and I promise I will always be an ally.

*The movie depicts a dispute over bathroom-access for colored women.  Research shows that many girls across the African continent drop out of school during their adolescence because they do not have access to adequate bathroom facilities –> Our nation’s resources were on par with a third world country as recently as 60 years ago, and there are still many places in America where access to resources is woefully inadequate.

11 thoughts on “Math Wasn’t Always Black&White”

    1. Hi Kiri! I plan to write on things that I’m passionate about. I’m not ready to restrict myself to a specific category bc I care about a lot of different things and I want to use this as an outlet for my ideas and for my writing. I think it will take a lot of different shapes over the next couple of years, and even weeks!

      It means a lot that you came to check it out! Xoxo

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I saw the movie this weekend with my girls. Loved it! I felt similarly to you. There was so much joy in finally knowing these women and their brilliance, yet the victories they had onscreen felt too small. Like — wow, she gets to pee in the same building she works in but doesn’t get paid fairly or hold a title commensurate with her contributions? We have so much more work to do! But that’s what the movie is about. I am grateful to you, Michelle, for giving me language to understand that as a white ally in the struggle against racism, I need to do more to recognize the “invisible giants” on whose shoulders I stand. That is my duty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment is making me tear up – you articulated the things I couldn’t figure out how to say and it really moved me! Especially the way you write that “the victories onscreen felt too small…” – yes! But at the same time, maybe that’s the point? That they had to settle for so little, that they’ve been doing that for decades/centuries, and that we are still nowhere close to where we need to be. We have so much work to do!!! (Thank you for taking the time to read through this and comment! It meant a lot to read your thoughts!)


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