A ViewPoint by Rev. Dr. Christy Gunter Sim Hailey
For a course that I am currently enrolled in, I selected the film Hidden Figures (Hidden Figures, 2016) to analyze in light of representations of oppression, privilege, microaggressions, and equity. I am convinced that this exercise is absolutely important in light of what is going on in the world, and it is my sacred duty as a white woman to really wrestle with these topics and learn how I benefit as a white woman from the systems of oppression and racism set up around me.
I selected this particular film, of all the available movies, because my 14-year-old (white) son insisted that when he watched it in his (very white) school it changed his perspective and he loved it. I decided we should watch it together and talk about it. Our conversations that emerged from this film will transform him forever. I used this movie as an opportunity to shed light on who he could be as an ally and a person of power. I know I have a responsibility to teach my white son to see the world as it is, tainted with inequality, institutional racism, violence, power indifference, and systems of oppression.
Human Diversity in Hidden Figures
This film is about African American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. The three main characters are Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. These women were a crucial element of the launch of John Glenn into space, but were “hidden figures,” working behind the scenes so that no one saw them, and they were hardly recognized.
The forms of oppression the women receive are intense. As the book Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (2018) states, through Allan G. Johnson, whereas “privilege tends to open doors of opportunity, oppression tends to slam them shut” (21). In other words, privilege sets people up to walk into safety and security, and oppression leaves people out in the sleet and snow to figure out how to survive.
These women deserve to be at the very top of their organization due to their intelligence, fortitude, brilliance, and internal power. But instead, they live in a world that forces them to fight for their positions in a place stained with institutional racism. For example, one woman had to read information that she needed to do her job by holding sheets of redacted information up to the light. She worked in the same space as the white men because they needed her, but they took classified information away from her. She was not a white man and, thus, was unable to be trusted. This same character was forced to do her work in the bathroom stall (which was a 20-minute walk away) because her “colored bathroom” was in a different building from her workplace.
These women get their place in the story but not in history as it was originally told. Though they made an impact, they made that impact with the doors slammed shut and an ax in hand to tear the door down. If they had been white men, we would probably be living on the moon by now. Their brilliance was unmatched by the white men, but they did not have the same opportunities those with privilege did.
There are many instances of microaggressions in the film. As Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (2018) says, via Derald Wing Sue, “microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (22). Microaggressions intentionally or unintentionally push aside the value of the marginalized group in little slights of communication.
Microaggressions are those messages, according to Christy Gunter Sim in Women Experiencing Faith (2018), that “slowly” eat “away at our sense of agency, choice, and power to influence the environment around us” and are “the scariest messaging of all,” for it is the “masked implications and suggestions that sneak up on us and often remain just outside of our awareness while it subtly changes our beliefs” (161). Microaggressions are sometimes perceived just out of conscious awareness and transform how we see ourselves. This leads to an internalized sense of oppression.
In light of those definitions, the film showed some aggressions against these women that were completely obvious. But, there were other slights that were sneakier in the way they were derogatory and unjust. These were examples of microaggression. For example, I watched as a woman who had the mind of a genius was handed the trashcan because it was assumed she was the janitor. The hidden message was that a person of her ethnicity was good only for taking out the trash. I saw a white woman utter the words, “I have nothing against you’all,” and the phrase itself separated her from a person of color. The hidden message was “I am a white woman and you are separated from me to be ‘the other’ with whom I am not connected.” The microaggressions were powerful examples of what it was like for these three brilliant women.
It is important to note that diversity was still celebrated in the midst of oppression and microaggressions. I saw this especially in a scene where all three of the women began to dance in the kitchen together. It was almost like a celebration of the genius they knew they had but was often ignored and devalued because they were people of color. But in this moment, dancing in the kitchen, they were celebrating fully who they were: diverse, beautiful, brilliant women of color.
Theoretical Perspective: Intersectionality
The most critical theoretical perspective repeated continuously in this film is the intersectionality between gender and race. There are so many instances where these intelligent women are pushed to the side based on their gender and ethnicity.
In the book Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (2018), Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge point out that “for intersectionality, this interconnectedness lies in the relationship between systems of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and citizenship spaces” (60). Intersectionality is a theoretical perspective that looks at the relationship between multiple connection points for a person.
For these women, the intersectionality happens in terms of their gender (how they are treated for being women) and that they are people of color. The relationship between these two things show an intersection of deeper oppression.
In the film, we see Mary Jackson finally awarded the opportunity to take night classes at an all-white school (after fighting in court for the opportunity), and the first response when she walks into class is, “The curriculum isn’t designed for teaching a woman,” as if her gender makes her an idiot. She was not allowed in the building because of her ethnicity, and then she was harassed upon entering because of her gender. The intersections of these oppressions make it even harder for her to succeed. But she does. She graduates and celebrates how many obstacles she overcame.
Another example of intersectionality is when several of the women are underestimated by the men who love them. In the film, the men end up apologizing for getting in the women’s way or for underestimating them, but this was yet another intersection these women had to fight. The men did not believe they could succeed, specifically because they were women.
Systems of Institutional Racism
In an article by Miller and Garran on institutional racism (2007), it is stated that “racism influences each individual’s sense of identity and his/her experiences with social privilege: what can or cannot be taken for granted. It shapes and constrains interpersonal and intergroup relationships, affecting how people think, feel, view the world, and act” (34). Racism is an important subject to consider because of its effects on the human person’s identity, feelings, and behaviors.
The systems of institutional racism must be confronted because the people affected matter. To analyze this further, Miller and Garran (2007) identify nine types of institutional racism. Although not every form was well executed in the film, I will list the nine, quote how Miller and Garran describe them, and then choose several to show how they come alive in this movie.
The nine systems of institutional or systematic racism are:
- Residential Racism
“Many poor African Americans continue to live in hyper segregated, deprived, and isolated neighborhoods, at times referred to as ghettoes” (39).
- Educational Racism
“Schools are primarily funded by property taxes, with additional aid from states and the federal government. Thus the wealthiest communities, which are usually predominantly white, typically spend more per capita per pupil” (42).
In the beginning of the film, we see a brilliant child moved out of her space in order to get a better education for her talent. It reveals how inadequate her community was at meeting her needs. It forces us to ask the question: Would this have been different in a predominately white area?
- Employment Racism
“Residential segregation means that large swaths of people of color live in neighborhoods where there are few jobs and where those that exist often pay poorly and do not offer adequate benefits. Many well-paying jobs have moved to suburbs, without adequate public transportation linking them to urban centers, effectively stranding many residents without the means to work to earn a living” (43).
It was repeatedly shown in the film that the three brilliant women had to commute together. If one stayed late, they all stayed late. They threatened each other to ride the bus if they took too long or were too sassy. Transportation to their NASA workplace was a continuous issue in the film.
- Accumulation of Wealth and Upward Mobility
“Assets are accumulated over time, are passed down from one generation to another in the form of college tuition payments and loans, gifts, and of course inheritances. The capacity to accumulate wealth is so racially different that it is one of the most profound examples of the ‘opportunity hoarding’ that characterizes durable inequalities” (46).
In the film, we see one woman who does all the work, does more work than the white woman even, and still is not given the title and pay of supervisor. Upward mobility is not an option for her, based only on her race.
- Environment and Health
“While all forms of institutional racism are abhorrent, environmental and health racism are particularly insidious. Together they expose people of color to greater health risks; injuring, hurting, and maiming bodies and spirits; depleting and devastating communities; and abrogating life chances–a graphic reminder that racism literally kills people” (47).
One of the most important scenes in the film demonstrates how hard a person of color had to work just to get to the bathroom. It literally put her health at risk and took away time from work. She was often miserable and in pain the whole walk to the bathroom. In the end, her suffering is juxtaposed with a white man who has to run the same trip to find her because they need her to save them.
- Mental Health
“The uninsured have fewer mental health options and rates of insurance coverage are lower for many groups of color” (50).
“Less counseling is available to address the stresses of daily living, to help people cope with the consequences of illness and disability, to improve interpersonal communication, and to address developmental delays and learning disabilities, all of which are exacerbated by institutional racism” (50).
“There is also an exodus of qualified counselors who seek better working conditions and higher salaries by going into private practice or working in agencies located in more affluent communities” (50).
- Criminal Justice
“African Americans constitute only 13% of the general population and yet represent nearly 50% of the prison population” (52).
In the film, we see a police officer come up behind the women as they are fixing their car on the way to work at NASA. Immediately all three women get out of the car and stand appropriately with hands visible. It was obvious they feared the police and went out of their way to avoid any repercussions.
Racism “is manifested in who is elected (and who is not), who is appointed, who can and cannot vote in elections, and who wields power behind the scenes” (56).
Although not a political position exactly, the white men in the film held the highest positions of power. Although many times a woman of color deserved the supervisor position, she did the work without the pay.
“Throughout life people are continually bombarded by complimentary narratives: whites are presented as heroes, leaders, decision makers, central characters, experts and talking heads, while people of color are frequently constructed as ‘other,’ different, deviant, quaint, exotic, and stereotyped” (59).
Fortunately, there are times in the film where people come together to enable equity for these brilliant women. In Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (2016), Allan G. Johnson says, “a key to the continued existence of every system of privilege is unawareness” (622). In the film, we see the head of NASA’s engineer department realize Katherine Goble Johnson does not have access to a bathroom. Instead of creating her one, he tears down the labels to the bathroom (literally rips them down) and declares “go to the restroom where you damn well please.” Another time, we see the same man irritated beyond words that the one person of color has her own coffee pot but no coffee. He rips it away as if to say, “this is the dumbest thing I have ever seen.” The woman is brilliant and a big contributor to the success of the mission and she cannot access a bathroom or coffee easily. Therefore, the person with power tears it all down and makes it an even playing field for her. I hope that really happened in the real-life story and was not just dramatic effect.
This film was a celebration of the diversity and strength these three women contributed to the world with their brilliance in spite of the incredible difficulties in their way. However, as I watched the film, I could not help but wonder: What if there had not been a race to space against Russia? What if there was no urgency or extreme need for these women’s skills? Would there even be a story in film now? Or would we forget them, like the many, many other persons of color in history?
Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Catalano, D. C. J., DeJong, K., Hackman, H. W., Hopkins, L. E., Love, B. J., Peters, M. L., Shlasko, D., & Zúñiga, X. (eds.). (2018). Readings for diversity and social justice (4th ed.). New York, NY/London, UK: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Miller, J., & Garran, A. M. (2007). The Web of Institutional Racism. Smith College Studies in Social Work 77: 1, 33–67.
Ramsey, J. A., & Oord, T. J. (2018). Women experiencing faith. Grasmere, ID: SacraSage Press.
Thank you, Christy, for this excellent review of the movie Hidden Figures. I’ve read your review before, but this time I want to say ‘thank you’ for your detailed and scholarly review.