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Hidden Figures, Hidden Fees

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by Jedidah Isler, Ph.D.
Photo and trailer both courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

On August 15, 2016 the trailer for Hidden Figures, the original motion picture based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, was released. I don’t generally watch trailers, or movies for that matter, because they often don’t interest me as much as “real life.” This one, though, this one I stopped writing my python code and turned my attention from blazars to hear and see the first scenes of the story of three black women “computers” (what NASA called women mathematicians at the time) who used their scientific expertise to put American astronauts into space and later into orbit around the Earth. I, like many of our #VanguardSTEM readers, was elated to see the story of women who looked like me —black women— and who loved science like me —they had degrees is math and aeronautical engineering— on the big screen. Representation is a powerful thing and I am certain this movie is going to make a significant difference to the up-and-comers who are just now finding (or honing) their love of STEM.

I’ll leave the conversation about representation for another day, though. Today, I want to talk about a different aspect of the power of this movie and why I turned my attention from academic work to hollywood last week. While it was breathtaking to see Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer glide beautifully across the screen in stylish 60s-era garb, with a nod to the current-day black women’s beauty movement with their saturated purple, plum and red lips, there were more inconspicuous things that drew my attention.

Perhaps it was because so many pieces of my own (or my colleagues’) story seemed to be pulled from everyday life onto the big screen, or perhaps it was because we’ve been talking at #VanguardSTEM for the last 6-8 weeks about “Burnout, Bravery and Being a Woman of Color in STEM”, but the thought I couldn’t shake was that while these brilliant women were literally laying the scientific groundwork of the Apollo generation, they were also being discriminated against, profiled, disrespected, overlooked and underestimated.

I think of the scene where the women were trying to get to work and Dorothy Vaughan’s car had broken down on the side of the highway. Seconds later a police officer stops, and in a moment wracked with my own anxiety, whose origin I can’t disentangle from the historical du jure racism and segregation of the 60s or the current moment where extrajudicial killings of people of color at the hands of police officers seem to rise and set daily like the sun. In any case, the officer hops out of the car, questions their presence and right to be stranded on the side of the road and asked dismissively where they were headed. It wasn’t until Janelle Monae’s character Mary Jackson offered up her credentials (which were met with disbelief) that the officer ostensibly let them continue. [There is clearly an ongoing and valuable conversation about the (in)effectiveness of credentials to provide safety from bigotry and discrimination, but that is not the point of this article.]

I thought about that moment for a long time. In fact, I had to watch the trailer more than once because I initially missed the scenes directly after it; I couldn’t move on from the weight and resonance of that moment. Instead, I lingered there, hot with anger that they could be so disrespected, so disregarded; remembering moments in my own life when I was met with such disdain about my place and space, reminded about Dr. Danielle Lee’s story on our last episode about when she’s done fieldwork in the past that people have called the police on her so many times that they have had to leave her name with dispatch so that they would stop sending people out just to find (and sometimes obstruct) her from doing the work of being an evolutionary biologist.

I thought about the #BBBinSTEM framework and language we’ve been learning at #VanguardSTEM and I wondered what advice Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, or Dorothy Vaughan would have given if they could have been on our show. How focused were they when they got to work that day after their brush with the law? What about days that were worse than that; days where their physical safety was directly threatened or that of their children, partners, family or friends? Can you correctly calculate the trajectory of a person in a capsule traveling around the earth while also trying to assure your safety on it? Well, of course, you can, because they did. They did it to death. Really, they did it to life, and any of us who dream of (or who have been to) space can thank them for their fortitude.

…while they were clearly hidden figures…they also paid hidden fees…

But my lingering in that scene had more to do with the fact that while they were clearly Hidden Figures —only now being unearthed by black woman historian Margot Shetterly— they also paid hidden fees. They bore the additional burden of carrying an unjust system along with them as they did the ground-breaking work of unmooring the U.S. from an existence limited to terra firma. These hidden fees include, but are not limited to, burnout, impostor syndrome, stereotype threat, bigotry, prejudice, systemic and institutional racism, and sexism. These hidden fees are still being paid by many black women, women of color, men of color, LGBTQIA* people, people with disabilities and those with intersectional identities, both within and beyond the scientific enterprise.

These hidden fees often go completely without notice or are cast in such a way that individual victory over these systemic barriers is heralded as a victory over the system itself (which is rarely, if ever, true). This conflation of individual triumph and institutional failure is as detrimental to the historical record as forgetting the individuals contribution itself. I, like many who will spare no expense to go see this movie, have the utmost level of respect, admiration and appropriate hero-worship for these women and their exceptional acumen and grace in ushering the U.S. into our space-faring history. But that does not excuse the very real systems that are still in place exacting undue tolls on people the system has deemed to be “unworthy.” These fees are real, they are still operating and they must be removed.

We can celebrate our heroes for their strength, fortitude, brilliance, perseverance and grit while also calling out and taking note of the constellation of hidden fees they paid, many of which were not ever asked of their white male (or female) colleagues. I lingered in that moment of the trailer and we here at #VanguardSTEM have lingered on the topic of #BBBinSTEM because we want to shine a light on these systemic injustices that not only obscure our knowledge about the lives, experiences and contributions of successful black women (and women of color more broadly) in STEM, but that also rob countless others of the opportunity to live out the fullness of their lives and abilities. Because by so-doing, we can recast those rendered invisible in our shared story to their proper place in the historical canon and gain some validation of our own experiences in the process. When we look back at Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, let’s not just rescue their stories from historical obscurity and thus unwittingly limit the true impact of their life. Let’s be sure to identify, honor and acknowledge their unique experience living it.

What themes resonated with you in the trailer? What are you most looking forward to?


Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
All rights reserved. The content above or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of #VanguardSTEM except for the use of brief quotations, with attribution, and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to #VanguardSTEM, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at hello@vanguardstem.com

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