Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

During a recent flight I finally had a chance to watch Hidden Figures, the movie about the untold story of the black computers who were instrumental in NASA’s manned space flight program. They fought dehumanizing, demoralizing racism and even so managed to make key contributions and keep their pride and hope.

In short, the movie should be seen by everyone, and I’m glad to hear that it’s becoming part of school curricula. It touches on a lot of topics I care about. It shows the beauty and importance of mathematics, and dispenses with the idea that mathematics isn’t for everyone. I am slightly bothered by the genius-worship in the movie, but that’s a minor niggle. It talks about the incredible efforts that went into sending humans into space, and it finally recognizes the important role of people who had been written out of white-washed history.

The portrayal of racism was matter-of-fact which in many ways lessened the immediate emotional impact until you actually thought about what just happened. Not a ton of subtlety either, but some pointed and clever dialogue:

White woman: “You know I don’t have anything against you.”
Black woman: “I know. I know you believe that.”

The protagonists were lionized as perfect; it shouldn’t take that to be respected, and the relatively happy ending also seemed arguable in contrast to real history.

The protagonists were/are heroes, and they broke down barriers. I am immensely glad the movie celebrates this and gives them recognition. Yet I’m hoping nobody thinks that their accomplishments meant that others had the same opportunities shortly thereafter, or that the continuation of the very same fight isn’t happening today.

There has not been a magic turning point between then and now that has made everything better. Yes, things have gotten better, and they’ve gotten better because of the tenacity of people who refuse to sit in the back of the bus, refuse to give up their rights, and those who fight for equality.

I’ve chosen the still from the movie on purpose. This very same scene is still playing out in way too many meetings I have been part of in my own field generations later. The next time you find yourself at an IT trade show, or a training class, or a work meeting, look around and consider how many women of color there are. Then consider how much brilliance and contribution is going unused in a world where they can’t, or won’t, be part of our profession. Then consider what you can do to change that.