Hidden Figures: On White Feminism and Race

I saw Hidden Figures last Friday and was so moved by the movie. The movie is about Black women working at NASA during the space race and the strides they made and struggles they fought just for decency and respect.  Before I get into it, I just need to take a  moment and say that I cannot even imagine what life would be like to be as smart as Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) like how is it even possible to understand math in that way? Maybe because I’m always on the struggle bus when it comes to math and science so it extra blew me away, but like HOW can anyone be that smart?

Anyway, that’s not the point of the post—the characters that caught my interest the most were Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst. Kirsten played a supervisor who was hella rude and very obviously yielded her power for her own benefit. Octavia played Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician who eventually became the first African-American supervisor at the agency.

On its face, their interactions may not be as important as the lead’s story or Janelle Monae’s character who fought to become an engineer, but what I saw was a great example of why White Feminism does not work.

For me, Kirsten Dunst’s character was White Feminism personified. She played a character who had power and authority over other women and yielded it poorly. She was a woman who knew what struggles and problems any woman at NASA would face, and instead of finding ways to empower and elevate those women, she refused to help. Not only refused to help others, but Dunst’s character made her ability to retain power her number one priority; telling the lead character—a grown ass woman—to not embarrass her because the group she was being assigned to had never worked with a Black woman before.

Her myopic form of “leadership” is the problem that many women of color encounter when we try to get involved with mainstream (aka white) feminism. So often white women refuse to see how racism impacts us. They see and feel only their oppression. They refuse to acknowledge the privilege they have over other women due to their race. When women of color point out racist rhetoric, systems, actions etc. they refuse to stand up against them. And in more dangerous cases, they’re not just silent, but actively fight against us. See: Abigail Fisher and the fight against Affirmative Action.

When we see how quick you are to dismiss our concerns, throw our men under the bus, and refuse to acknowledge the power you hold– what women of color would want to be a part of that?

Watching the movie reminded me of a This Bridge Called My Back and the plea coming from women of color to their white counterparts for them to see our struggle and to help us, not just themselves.

In the movie, not only was Dunst’s character a great example of how not to lead, but Spencer showed the exact opposite. She shows what it really means to be a woman who understands the importance of helping other women. [Spoilers] Spencer realizes that the IBM is going to outsource the job of the Black “computers” so she learns how to program the machine and teaches her girls how to program so that they’ll be able to continue working.  And then—AND THEN—when she’s given the IBM assignment she refuses to take it unless all her girls, who she’s trained, are assigned along with her. I mean. …

When you think of what kind of leader you want to be? I was moved by that because it’s not enough to be the first; we have a duty to ensure there are more coming with us or aren’t that far behind.

Please go see this movie. We need to support movies with WOC as leads, but beyond that it is empowering to see how our intelligence can take us places in spite of barriers placed before us. At the very least, go see the movie and keep an eye on Spencer/Dunst story line to motivate you on what type of leader you want to become.