“Hidden Figures” Proves You Might Not Realize How Racist You Are

There’s a moment in the movie “Hidden Figures” that should remind every white person why we’re all part of the problem.

It’s when Kirsten Dunst’s character, a supervisor, tries to prove she’s not racist.

“Despite what you might think, I have nothing against y’all,” she says. This is after she’s spent every scene being rude and dismissive to black characters, all for the sake of keeping things the way they’re supposed to be.

Octavia Spencer’s character, Dorothy Vaughan, responds: “I know you probably believe that.”

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And that’s the problem. Every white person I’ve ever met (which is a lot) is fully convinced they’re not racist. But because we exist in and benefit from a racist society, we are racist by default. It doesn’t take a KKK membership to be a racist. And if we don’t start recognizing this, nothing will change.

The white liberals I know are just as guilty of positioning themselves as the perfect non-racists as conservatives are. And I’m sorry, you might have the NPR-approved talking points memorized and you might have friends of all races, but it’s unfair to pretend this erases your privilege. Nothing can do that.

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“Hidden Figures” is remarkable because it reminds us how when subjugation is the norm, the people in power barely notice. And even if they do, they’d usually rather keep up the status quo than question it.

Take, for example, when Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) pours herself a cup of coffee from the communal (read: white) pot, and everyone in the room stares at her like she’s insane. Katherine wasn’t breaking the law, and neither were the white people who gawked at her. They were just marveling that she dared to do something that wasn’t supposed to be done.

And I bet you anything that in the real world, when something like that happened in the 1960s, plenty of the gawkers would have later told the story to their friends and prefaced it with that era’s equivalent of, “I’m not racist, but…”

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Another infuriating aspect of “Hidden Figures” comes from white male characters’ insistence that if the black female characters just dream big and push themselves, they’ll be able to achieve anything.

No matter how big Katherine dreamed, it wasn’t going to change the fact that she had to walk 40 minutes each way to a segregated bathroom. And as the movie goes on to prove, the bathrooms could only be desegregated when a white man in power — Kevin Costner’s character — realized how asinine they were.

Oh, and he only realized bathroom segregation was asinine because it started to affect his team’s productivity. Even though Kevin Costner’s character wasn’t an evil person, he was blissfully ignorant of what Katherine had to deal with. He didn’t even realize it until it started to impact his life. It took a white person being inconvenienced for Katherine’s equality to matter.

We don’t have segregated bathrooms and whites-only signs on our coffee pots anymore. But we do have coffee pots that are segregated by default because people of color are excluded from certain industries or companies because of systemic racism.

Maybe if we stopped trying to prove which among us is the most or least racist, and instead acknowledged that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things because entire races of people are being subjugated, we can close the gap between how white people and people of color are treated.

So, 50 years from now, what will be the moment in a Disney movie when we’re shocked and appalled at the racist behavior white people engaged in to maintain the status quo? I don’t know, but I do know is this: if white people keep competing to prove who’s the least racist via woke tweets and blog posts, instead of accepting that we’re all at fault, we won’t know until it’s too late.


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