Hidden Figures depicts the powerful, true story of three Black women who worked at Nasa and were instrumental in helping the first Americans get to space in the early 1960s. The intellects and leadership abilities of these three women shines through the movie and it is refreshing to see Black women depicted as their own heroes. Some of the most poignant aspects of the film were the many indignities that the protagonists had to navigate while trying to do their jobs. It made me think of my grandmother who I know faced similar racism and sexism and my mother who integrated her high school and was the in the first class that included female students at Princeton. It highlighted the strength it takes for Black women to continue to hold their heads high and push the needle forward in the face of indignities. It reminded me that progress never comes without pushing from the oppressed. It reminded me of how exhausting it can be to be a Black woman in this country.
The racism and sexism in Hidden Figures was heavy and nuanced. No one use the N word or said straight out that Black people or women weren’t capable of working at Nasa but both of these -isms were highlighted throughout the movie. Black women still face racism and sexism, it may have gotten more subtle than barring women from being engineers or having to use segregated bathrooms but they persist. The racism and sexism we experience today most often manifests in systemic forms and as microaggressions. Systemic manifestations include lower pay for women, making it hard for women to work and have families, and normalizing fathers not taking an active parenting role. Microaggressions can include the questioning of our competency and expressions of surprise when we do a job well. I’m sure you have many examples of experiencing racism and sexism in your life.
I was inspired by the fact that the three Black women depicted in Hidden Figures are the heroes of their own stories. They are confident in their abilities, advocate on behalf of themselves and each other, and they are responsible for their own success. I appreciated the times the protagonists stood up for themselves. Called out injustice and pushed the needle forward. I am thankful for my mother and grandmother and our ancestors who did the same. I weep for the pain and dismissal that they must have experienced. I weep for the indignity that was forced upon them. Let us carry on the legacy of the Black women who paved the way for us. Let us be the heroes of our own stories.
What follows are my recommendations for how to be the hero of your own story.
Advocate for yourself
One of the refreshing things about Hidden Figures is that it does not include a “white savior” or a white person being depicted as responsible for the success of a Black people. The women depicted in Hidden Figures advocated for themselves and made progress in their careers because of their hard work. I encourage you to be your own advocate, to identify the areas of your life where you may be overlooked or underestimated and help the people that you work with to recognize what you bring to the table. When it’s time for you to advocate for yourself take some time to consider your strengths and the things that you contribute to your workplace, request a meeting with your supervisor or coworkers, and share your thoughts about what you contribute and the recognition you feel you deserve.
Don’t be diminished by negative opinions of other people
Other people may have negative opinions about you, particularly if they hold sexist and racist views, remember that their ignorance is not about you. It was clear that despite the indignities that the women in Hidden Figures faced, they were not diminished by the negative opinions of their coworkers and the other people they encountered. It is easy and normal for us to internalize negative opinions that other people have about us. I’m not advocating that you go to a place of “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me” because receiving constructive feedback from people that you trust is an important aspect of growth. However, if people are denigrating you or your abilities, their opinions should be brushed aside. If people’s unhelpful critiques feel destructive try to take a step back when you hear them and let them go.
Connect with Supportive Friends
One of the beautiful things about Hidden Figures is the depiction of the friendship between the main characters. They weren’t just coworkers who carpooled to work, they were friends who supported each other during times of frustration and disappointment and celebrated their successes together. It is important to have friends who are on the same page with you regarding working hard towards career success. Friends who will will dance with you and cheer you on and encourage you when you are feeling discouraged.