I took my oldest daughter to see Hidden Figures last weekend—a remarkable story that is very well told. It has something for everyone. Math geeks, feminists, space enthusiasts, romantics, justice advocates, history buffs—all will appreciate this movie. My daughter enjoyed it as much as I did.
One aspect of the story haunts me. (Besides the analytic geometry.) I am nagged by the question, How could all those well-meaning white people not see the injustice they were perpetrating on those African American women?
The story is set in Virginia in the early 1960s, and focuses on three women who work for NASA. The woman are exceptionally gifted in math, engineering, and mechanics, respectively. Their gender and their race hold them back, however. We see a NASA that was progressive for its time, but yet assumed that the people with the most to contribute must be white men.
Most of the NASA leaders bear no ill will towards the women, but they do not seem to grasp that these women might be just as qualified as themselves. As they race to send a man into orbit before the Soviets do, they give no thought to the injustice of making their black colleague drink from a separate coffee pot or walk half a mile to the bathroom. They don’t, in fact, seem able to see her as a colleague at all.
Many will say, Of course they can’t see it. That was the way it was back then. You can’t expect them to see outside of their culture. Can’t I?
This is what haunts me, the idea that we can be so blinded by our culture that we cannot perceive evil right in front of our faces. How can we avoid being so unseeing? I do not want to be party to evil, no matter how normal it is.
On Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in its entirety. It too tells the story of a group of people who were blind to injustice and ended up perpetrating it further. King wrote the letter to a group of Birmingham pastors who themselves had published a letter in the newspaper questioning the timing and method of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s demonstrations. They called King’s methods “unwise and untimely.”
With stunning erudition, logic, and eloquence, King makes clear how wrong these clergy are in their assessment. After some introductory words, he begins,
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.
From the perspective of 2017, it is easy to see that King was wholly right and the pastors were wholly wrong. True evil was being done to African Americans in Birmingham, and the SCLC had designed shrewd and non-violent methods to protest it. The forbearance of King and his colleagues stuns me.
To the counsel from the white clergy that they wait a bit longer to demand change, King unleashes the genius of his pen:
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never”….We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters….when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
In the face of this treatment, how could those (probably well-meaning) white pastors ask King and his colleagues to wait? How could they be so comfortable with the way things were? We must think long about this, especially those of us who hold position and power.
We cannot assume it was a fluke that these white communities, pastors, and churches were so entirely on the side of wrong. Rather, we must assume that the temptation is always present to ignore injustice done to others.
Where might we be blind today? Where are we telling those suffering from things we have not to wait? How are we sitting back and critiquing the methods of the oppressed to protest their oppression?
I can think of two ways to begin to answer these questions. First, I must pray for God to give me eyes to see truth. Lord, drop the scales of my culture from my eyes. What, Holy Spirit, am I not seeing? Where do I hold privilege that blinds me from the struggles of those without it? These are prayers I pray often.
Second, I think we need to listen hard to voices that come from other groups, particularly ones claiming injustice. It is arrogance to assume every complaint made by a different group is hyperbole. It is hubris to accuse people who have experienced things we have not of playing the victim. Some call it identity politics. I call it listening.
How easy it was for white people to dismiss King and the women in Hidden Figures. How much better for them to lean close and listen.
©Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2017