One of the most toxic attempts to dismiss the prevalence of racism is what Jenée Desmond-Harris calls “vanity sizing for racism,” the idea that a large number of Americans cannot be racist. That “racist” is a hurtful term that only really describes people so outwardly bigoted that they use racial slurs and harass people of color. But in reality, a large number, even a majority, of white Americans can be racist. Their racism is not necessarily overt; rather it is oftentimes more insidious in its subtlety.
Hidden Figures understands this. The film tells the story of three black women at NASA who were pivotal in Project Mercury, the mission that sent the first American to orbit the planet in 1962. The three brilliant women, Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), struggle throughout the film to have their skills utilized, let alone recognized, by their white “superiors.” They are confronted with misogynoir at every turn, whether it be Dorothy trying to get a book from the whites-only section of the library or Mary trying to receive an engineering degree at a white-only school. Segregation is an inescapable part of their lives.
But their oppressors are not the typical racists depicted in film. It is not random blue-collar white men who advocate for racial violence, but rather professionals in fancy clothing who use “precedent” and “rules” to deny black women access to the resources and basic needs they are entitled to. NASA is segregated, with Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary working at the West Area Computing facility, which lacks the technology granted to the white Langley Research Center. However, the three black woman continually prove themselves to be deserving of what they ask for. Eventually, when their skills are finally realized to be essential to the mission, they are allowed to enter white spaces. (more…)