Watching Hidden Figures with my Chinese immigrant family.
As soon as it came out, I purchased Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures. The exceptionally well-written book chronicles the untold stories of generations of black women who started working as “computers” at NACA-turned-NASA. As a professor of psychology/neuroscience at a small liberal arts college, I was interested in seeing how I could get my students engaged with these women’s stories. As a woman of colour in a STEM field, this book appealed to me personally. I read the book over two days (by the way, that’s the equivalent of “I read the book in a single sitting” in mid-semester professor time). It was an amazing read. Shetterly does the women great honour in her writing, but she also skillfully weaves in bits of civil rights history, showing us the often-forgotten story of science in the civil rights era. Importantly for me, she tells a story of community. The book’s main focus is most deservedly on the community of black women as they lifted each other up in the work place. Littered throughout this narrative though are also small vignettes of the men and women around our leading ladies who understood that science must welcome anyone who dares to be curious. Those men and women must also be held up as role models if we are to make any lasting progress for women of colour in STEM.
As soon as the movie came out (and I do mean as soon as it came out), I went to see it. I was visiting my parents at our home in Richmond Hill (a suburb of Toronto) for my holiday break, and yes, like most Chinese immigrant families we spent most of our break eating delicious food. Sharing meals and “relaxing” is a big part of how my family spends our breaks. I didn’t want to watch the movie alone and miss any of the now-rare time I had to spend with my parents, but I also knew that trekking to downtown Toronto for the limited release of Hidden Figures might not be something my parents were interested in doing. Downtown Toronto is a place my mom calls “dangerous.” In high school, when my friends and I wanted to go downtown, my mom would ask, “why are you going there? What’s even good downtown?” But my parents like watching movies, so I selfishly suggested that there was a special movie showing at a theatre downtown and we should go see it. Much to my surprise, my parents agreed. My mom kept saying it was good to “try new things.” So Christmas Day, my white American husband, my Chinese immigrant parents, and I bundle up in winter gear, head to the “dangerous” Cinemaplex Cinemas Varsity and VIP near Bay and Bloor.
I’ve never really had many conversations with my parents about race in my life. Race, at least as it is conceived of in the U.S., was not a topic that ever seemed to keep their interest for long enough to discuss. My parents immigrated to the U.S. when my dad started his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. After a few more moves around the U.S., we settled in Toronto in Canada. My parents have had their own experiences of feeling like outsiders. But even directly related issues, like immigration, weren’t things we talked about in great detail. Most of our conversations are about my physical and emotional health, my job, my personal happiness. I have read the famed Asian-American letter to their families about Black Lives Matters, and found it compelling and absolutely relatable. I particularly resonated with the letter’s implicit defense of collective organizing and social activism. My parents have gently discouraged me from upsetting the status quo for most of my life, instead encouraging me to hold my opinions close for fear of harming my career. I am old enough to understand why two immigrants who grew up in Cultural Revolution era China might hold these beliefs, but I’m young enough to still wish that my parents’ hearts could make room for racial justice in our new home continent.
That’s when it hit me: Hidden Figures was the first time my mom had been exposed to the facts of segregation for blacks in the U.S. She simply hadn’t known.
It piqued my interest greatly, then, to hear my mom whispering questions to my dad throughout the movie, engaging with the film. “Why is Katherine running to use that bathroom? Why couldn’t she use the bathroom in the first building?”; “Why does Mary have to go to court to take the classes?”; “Why did they make her another coffee pot?”; “What does ‘colored’ mean?” That’s when it hit me: Hidden Figures was the first time my mom had been exposed to the facts of segregation for blacks in the U.S. She simply hadn’t known. Fortunately, my dad was equipped to answer these questions — walking my mom in whispered Chinese through Jim Crow laws, segregated bathrooms, and separate-but-equal. After the movie, on our subway ride back to the predominately Asian suburb where my parents live, we talked about segregation in the U.S. My mom was particularly startled by the fact that kids went to different schools, and that some areas didn’t have higher grade levels for black kids. At the end of this conversation, she shared a few of her own experiences of prejudice in interactions with U.S. immigration when she and my dad came to the U.S. (they moved to Canada after my dad finished his PhD). She ended her analysis of Hidden Figures with, “wow, now I completely understand why U.S. immigration treat me like that.”
We haven’t talked about Hidden Figures or issues of race or gender since, but I think that watching the film changed the way my mom understands the experience of black people in America and her relationship to that history. And actually, with her new knowledge of this piece of American history, Mama Tong has already seen that the prejudices in the hearts of people with power which created the Jim Crow South are the same prejudices in the hearts of immigration officials who treated her poorly. I can only hope that as my mom learns more about why there are so many hidden figures in history, she will see that we must all join together, like the community of Black computers at NASA, to lift each other up and break the systems down.