Hidden Within the Figures

 

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Without intending to be a cliché, I took Molly to see Hidden Figures on Monday. Countless friends had said, “See the movie!” reporting reactions that included tears, awe, and pride. As I watched the film, I was entertained and impressed, but I also felt a deep sadness. Maybe it was because we were celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

Before the movie, I had just read this post by Rachel Held Evans, which pointed out the complacency of much of the white Christian churches during the Civil Rights Movement. (Please don’t point out the exceptions. That’s what we always talk about to make ourselves feel better.) I had also read a comment on my friend Kate’s wall:

“I read this post from Naomi Schulman this morning and haven’t stopped thinking about it: ‘Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics’. They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.’”

Hidden Figures has lots of “nice” white people in it, but the film makes it clear that they really aren’t that “nice” at all. Kevin Costner’s Mr. Harrison pulls a few dramatic stunts in order to make maximum use of Katherine Goble’s genius mind, but he does it to help NASA, not her, or the black community. Motivated by empathy, a Jewish engineer from Europe encourages the brilliant Mary to continue her education. He knew what it was like to be part of a despised race. But apart from those two men, the “nice” people were simply polite, almost cruelly so.

Though working as a supervisor for almost a year, Dorothy Vaughan is repeatedly denied the title and compensation due to her. Mrs. Mitchell, Dorothy’s white supervisor, washes her hands of the discrepancy, blaming it on slowness of NASA and the inconsistency of the computing work. “What can one do?” she tells her self and Dorothy. Apparently, a lot if one really wants to. The moment Mrs. Mitchell needs Dorothy to have the title and position for the sake of her own white staff, the promotion miraculously occurs.

Someone “helpfully” provides a Colored coffee pot, so that Katherine won’t use theirs and decorum can be preserved. When Katherine needs a bathroom, the only other woman in the room says she doesn’t know where Katherine’s bathroom might be. (It was a half-mile away.) I can imagine she thought: “Well, it’s not my problem. I didn’t make the rules; I’m just following them.” She might have even thought she was being “nice” by implying that Katherine shouldn’t use the White Ladies room, lest she break the law. For the most part, Katherine is ignored by her peers in the space lab. She is a “computer,” brilliant, but nothing more than a woman and a colored one at that.

Hidden Figures prompted me to examine how I have been complacent to and complicit in systems of injustice, but they did it subtly. There was no overt attempt to produce white guilt, but I found myself thinking. When have I been polite, but not helpful? Verbally supportive, but physically inert? How often have I ignored the suffering and difficulties of others that were within my ability to address?

That’s what I found so compelling about Hidden Figures. While other films have dealt with the subject matter of racism, they usually offer a sympathetic white character with whom white audiences can identify. When we can imagine ourselves as one of the “good” people, we can dismiss the others as unlike ourselves. The Help had Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan and who wouldn’t want to be that courageous, beautiful woman? A Time to Kill had Matthew McConaughey’s sexy Jake Brigance. Selma had the mostly, unnamed freedom riders and clergy. It doesn’t matter the size of the role; our ego will attach to virtually anything that allows us to remain unchallenged. Personally, Hidden Figures offered me no such decoy. Even as the white characters soften towards the women, the recognition of their skill, much less their unique humanity, is far too long in coming.

The talent and backbone of these women is incredible; the support and sacrifice of their families is admirable, but the way we hindered them was unconscionable and that is the message that stays with me today. Please, do go see the film. It’s worth watching. It celebrates hard work, determination, and intelligence. Glass ceilings are broken, while traditional values of family, faith and love are upheld. But when you go, don’t just see the story of these women; be willing to see a story that continues to this day as we struggle to achieve equality for all citizens, no matter their color, creed, gender, or orientation.

 

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Meme courtesy of Djrarela on Instagram.  

 

 

Parenting Teens – It’s Not as Bad as You Think!

The first week of January, Brene Brown posted this image.

 

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This year, she said, she’s committing a whole lot of her energy to focusing “on how we raise courageous children and build messy, beautiful, wholehearted families.”

Emboldened by the fact that Brene and I have the same thing on our minds to start the new year, I’m going to stay on the parenting topic for another week or two. I hope you don’t mind.

The day after Christmas, I headed up to Mammoth Mountain to go snowboarding with Finn and Molly, Maddie and Nick, my niece and nephew, as well as Jack and JT, two of Finn’s friends I’ve known almost since birth. That’s right – me and six teenagers for four long days – and it was awesome.

On one of those beautiful days, we piled into the gondola and headed to the top. The sun was shining; the snow was light and our spirits were high, right up until a skier, a man in his late fifties, joined our car. He looked around at all of his snowboarding companions and asked, “How high can a snowboarder count?” Without waiting for an answer, he shouted out, “Two, since that’s all that ever get on a chair lift together!” He chuckled to himself – the joke being that snowboarders are stupid.

No one else laughed, but I gave him a small smile anyway, just to be polite.

Apparently it was enough, because he plowed on.

“I’ve got the best story for you,” he said, looking directly at me.

“I was riding on a chair with this couple on snowboards and they told me that they had two kids. These parents taught their kids to ski when they were small, but when the kids were ten or so, they wanted to learn to snowboard. After a couple years, the parents thought it looked like a blast. They learned to snowboard too, so they could hang out with their kids, but as soon as the parents learned, the kids went back to skiing! They wanted nothing to do with the old folks! Anything to get away from the parents, right?” He laughed and repeated again, “Isn’t that the best story?”

I looked at him, and around the car at my own six teenage companions, and said, “Oh, I don’t know about that. I kinda think it’s the best when your kids want to hang out with you. It’s a lot more fun that way.”

That kind of killed the conversation, but we were almost at the top anyway. After enjoying the view, our crew strapped on our boards and were off, hooting and hollering our way down the peak.

But his story stayed with me and got me thinking. Why do people cling to the negative stereotypes about teenagers? Why do they relish stories about dysfunctional relationships between parents and kids? Why do so many people find those narratives satisfying, instead of sad, which is how they always come across to me?

My experience is that teenagers – my own and others – are like everyone else going through a difficult time. They are sensitive and emotional, prone to exuberant highs and tragic lows; they seek support and solace wherever they can find it. Hormonal, social and cultural changes hit teens full force, along with a morass of competing agendas and advice. They have to navigate those transitions mostly on their own. They only have the skills we’ve given them (for good and bad) and the support we offer. But if we haven’t earned their trust, they aren’t going to seek those out very often. Instead, they are going to turn to other sources like their peers, social media and celebrity culture and that just exacerbates the bum rap “kids these days” get.

Here’s another example. A couple weeks ago, Tim told me about a video that many of his friends had shared on Facebook about workplace behavior, and smartphone etiquette and personal relationships. When he asked if I had seen it, I wondered if it was a big rag on Millennials, because that was the video firing up my Facebook feed. No, he said, it’s not bagging on them. It’s about them, but it’s about all of us, really.

Here are the different ways that the video was presented. Guess which one was going to have a greater appeal to my gondola companion?

I had refused to watch the video on the right, though it had popped up on repeatedly, because the title was so insulting to the generation behind me. When Tim showed me the “clean” version on the left, I was glad I watched it, but why do we have to throw kids under the bus to make ourselves feel better?

When I heard that story about those parents, I didn’t know what troubled me more – that their children wanted nothing to do with them, or that the skier thought the story was “the best,” a qualifier he repeated at least six times in the telling. Later that night when I was talking to my dad about it, he mused, “We have no idea the depth of people’s injuries and how it shapes their world view. The sadder part is that they don’t know it either. They think it’s normal.” When separation and rejection are the models you’ve been given for family conflict, stories like that make you gleeful. They confirm your deepest suspicions about what a crock love and family really are. You can’t imagine that disagreements and hurts can be solved with grace, or that forgiveness and generosity really are assets in any situation.

But that woundedness doesn’t stop with family life. No matter what the subject is – relationships, religion, economics, politics, education – few of us can admit that our deepest assumptions about life and human nature might be flawed, a result of our own limited experiences. It’s painful to concede that a different approach might lead to a better outcome. It’s even more painful to consider that by clinging to those assumptions, instead of shedding them for healthier perspectives, we’ve created much of the pain in our own lives.

I wish that man hadn’t gotten into the gondola with us that day. Before he hopped in, there was laughter, storytelling and selfie-taking. After his clueless contributions, there was awkwardness and impatience, but he did teach me a lesson, (besides reminding me to read my audience better.) When I am feeling cynical about a group of people, or unhappy with a set of circumstances, I need to check my assumptions, and look for the bigger picture. Who am I judging and do I know the whole story? What part have I played in creating the mess? And besides critiquing it, how can I make it better?

Which brings me right back to parenting, especially parenting teens and my last blog. I took it as a huge compliment that all those kids spent all that time with me, but I think it goes back to what I talked about in the Contemplify podcast about being conscious of your own projections and expectations. If you haven’t been able to give it a listen, I hope you will.

Contemplify: Episode 17: Alison Kirkpatrick on Conscious Parenting and Mark Longhurst on The Brothers Karamazov 

Just today, as I was working on this post, Jen Hatmaker, author, speaker and extraordinary mother, posted this status update on Facebook.

Amen, sister!

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