How Hidden Figures Reveals Hidden Systems

“White people,” I once heard a white guy say, “are not taught to see systems.”

He was referring to unjust social systems, the way we organize ourselves to benefit some people at the expense of others. In whatever ways we fit into the mainstream of society we tend not to notice that things are arranged. If it’s working for me it feels like normal, fair.

His assertion could be heard as an accusation, but I don’t think it is. I heard it as an observation. This is how things are. We — white folks, people in society’s mainstream — need to learn to see unjust systems so we can help work to change them.

Sometimes learning to see is as simple as going to the movies.

On Martin Luther King Jr. day our family  went to see Hidden Figures. The women in this movie are spunky, smart, and persistent. They have grit. I loved them. I loved their story. But I left angry because their enormous intellectual gifts were buried by an oppressive social system. Their story is of digging, digging, digging out to expose the gifts God gave them.

Katherine Johnson is a brilliant mathematician. She is hired to an elite NASA group because she understands the cutting-edge trigonometry necessary for America’s budding space program.

She has a gift and NASA needs it.

This elite team is all white men except for Katherine, a black woman, and the secretary, a white woman. On her first day, Katherine asks the secretary where to find the restroom.

“I don’t have any idea where your bathroom is.”

The only restroom for ‘colored ladies’ is half a mile away. Katherine picks up her work, runs off in her high heels for a one mile round trip to the bathroom.

Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

She doesn’t complain. She doesn’t even mention it to anyone. Again and again we see her clip, clip, clip across the parking lot, rain or shine.

Eventually the boss complains. Where is she? Why isn’t Katherine at her desk working? She must be slacking off. She’s never here when I need her!

Katherine walks in and the boss thinks he’s caught her: Why are you taking 40-minute breaks? Explain yourself!

So she does. She explains the system to the white man who had not been taught to see systems. She explains the indignities of separate coffee pots and bathrooms, exposes some of the enormous extra work she has been doing to fulfill the expectations of this job.

And like the blind man after Jesus laid hands on his eyes, Katherine’s boss sees clearly.

He sees that

  • what looked like laziness was actually diligence;
  • what looked like lack of motivations was evidence of a deep desire to work;
  • what looked like avoiding work was persistence through extreme hardship;
  • what looked like disrespect of him was actually adaptation to a system with no respect for her.

After that, of course, everything changes. The boss needs the work to get done so he desegregates the bathrooms in one grand sledgehammered gesture.

As Christians we believe that the image of God resides in every person. Systems that disregard people, or bury their gifts, disregard the very image of God in the world.

From our 2017 vantage point it’s easy to see the problems with mid-20th century practices of racial segregation. How can we learn to see clearly what is happening right now?

“Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” I think we need to listen to people who are on society’s margins, and attend to God’s leading. When Jesus healed the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), it took two tries. The first time Jesus laid hands on him, he moved from blindness to seeing poorly. With the second touch, his vision became clear.

Listen, trust, pay attention. We can learn to see more.