Startup Southerner was invited to a special screening of “Hidden Figures,” the based-on-a-true-story hit of the three black women mathematicians behind NASA’s first successful space missions who didn’t get credit for it because they were black women. It’s easy to think of this story as something from the past, as something that could only happen in the 1960s, but the reality is women and minorities are still under-represented in the tech industry. As part of the screening, there was also a panel discussing some of the issues that persist today. Here’s what Ingrid Cockhren, adjunct professor of psychology at Tennessee State University and Startup Southerner contributor, took away from the experience.
To be honest, I hadn’t planned to see this movie. When it comes to Hollywood, I’m jaded. Hollywood does not do history well. History in Hollywood is often white-washed and packaged well. But, I must admit that this movie was worth seeing. Besides the fact that I am biased (I’m an African American woman who believes in science and math), this movie perfectly reflects America, then and today. The setting is a segregated Virginia. And, whereas people of color no longer have to deal with colored-only bathrooms and water fountains, there are still obvious inequities.
First, in the totem pole of America, the white man is on top. Nowhere is this more obvious than in STEM fields. STEM is a boys club, a White boys club, to be specific. Which is problematic because STEM is the future. And if STEM is the future, then what kind of future will girls and minority children have? But that is another discussion.
And if the white man is on top of the totem pole, then the Black woman is on the bottom. She is the last hired and the first fired. She works hard. She is a part of the most educated demographic in today’s America and yet she is paid the least. This can be seen in “Hidden Figures” when the heroine, Katherine Goble Johnson, saves the day, does the work, but only Paul Stafford’s name is on the report. And when IBM comes along, she is discarded despite all her efforts to help America win the Space Race. Technology replacing the human workforce. That also is another discussion.
“Hidden Figures” tackles all of these issues. How can humans remain relevant as technology continues to dominate? How can minorities and women thrive when doors seem shut? According to the women in the panel discussion before the film screening, the answer lies in STEM education. But how do we get girls and people of color to see themselves in these fields when, from the outside, it looks like an all-white boys club?
The answer is to tell all of America’s stories. And “Hidden Figures” fills that role in Hollywood for the first time as it pertains to math and science. Children have to be able to see themselves in the future. They have to see themselves in their role models. They have to get to the point where they can say, “I can do that.” Representation matters. And, for many years, Hollywood has failed those children. But it is not just Hollywood; excluding women and minorities is the American way. By only telling white history, it creates the illusion that white history is American history. That only white history belongs in our culture, our movies, our public school history books, but the stories of other races are oddities. That stories of minorities and women having a positive impact on our nation’s history are rare. They are not rare; they are hidden. I mean, let’s face it, mathematics and the sciences were created in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
To ignore the contributions of women and people of color throughout our history only hobbles our country. America is no longer No. 1 in education, science or technology. Why is that? Could it be that we are more diverse? That our girls and children of color are not afforded certain advantages or they are crippled by poverty or they are oppressed by racism, sexism and xenophobia? As Al Harrison, portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film, says, “We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.”
Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox