Hidden Figures and Bathroom Breaks: The Co-Operation Imperative (for MLK Day)

Tomorrow is the official celebration of Martin Luther King Day and my wife, daughter, and I went to see “Hidden Figures”, the movie that details the story of 3 women — a mathematician, an engineer, and a supervisor for NASA who suffered the double indignities of being Black and female in 1961.

The movie is profoundly satisfying in trying to explain the days when all life was in black-and-white and computers were the size of a building to my children. These were the days when things were hard, but we had hope for new things to break through, rather than days when things are easy and we don’t. My children can’t conceive of those days and I don’t want them to at first glance. I don’t want to even give them the idea that women are only supposed to get coffee for the men or that Blacks and Whites should be separated.  At the same time, I want them to have some perspective and feel grateful for what they have, so they can guard against losing it in 2017.

Of course, though, my children can and do teach me things as well  — mostly about groups I didn’t even know existed. Thoughts about these people came up in 2017 as I watched the movie about 1961. The main heroine (if it’s possible to say that) is the mathematician, Katherine Johnson, who spends great portions of the movie running from building to building (1/2 a mile!) to use the “colored women’s” bathroom. She does this throughout the movie and manages to keep her job by keeping up with her white colleagues.

According to the movie, she’s out of the office 40 minutes per day just going to the bathroom. She not only has to travel that far to use the restroom, she and the other “colored calculators” have to have lunch in a different room, and work in a different room away from work. Here’s the thing that seems so simple (and stupid) now: we could have gotten into space faster, and possibly safer, if women like Kathrine didn’t have to go that distance and lose their concentration, data, or minds. As she ran through the rain in scene after scene carrying her data in big blue folders, I can easily imagine someone stopping her because she “shouldn’t have classified information”. “Clearly”, she had no use for it, according to the logic of the times.

There is a woman engineer who could have been in place months earlier, but there was no place for her to go to school. There is a woman supervisor who could have gotten the IBM computers moving faster if they had simply given her access. When Katherine’s supervisor (played by Kevin Costner) says that he can’t figure out why the Russians got to space sooner than we did,  I wanted to scream at the screen, “it’s because you don’t want all your potential resources! And they’re right in front of you!”.

With simple kindnesses like access to a bathroom, access to a desk, access to machines, we can progress the American dream at incredible speeds. The other option — the one we have chosen — is that we can say “no” to complex solutions by saying “no” to simple kindness and co-operation. Then, when we can’t figure out why things don’t work ala Costner’s character, we’ll be stumped and helpless.

Now here’s the generational piece: I could give a rat’s behind about bathrooms. They are the least of my worries, as are the rights of transgender people. I would have thought that a group who is probably 1/10th of 1% of the population had nothing to do with me — and I would be wrong. Worrying about bathroom privileges for anybody wasn’t anywhere near the bottom of my list of concerns. So here was a cause I didn’t care about in the slightest and a group of people who never entered my mind. Last year, when the issue of which bathrooms transgender people could use became an issue in North Carolina, I thought I didn’t have time to deal with it. There were bigger fish to fry.

Just last month, a man I knew from Deering (a Christian camp that was used by my denomination) died. His name was Dave and he had a great sense of humor. At some point, “Dave” became “Davina Del Mar” and, though I don’t know any of the details, he was clearly transgender. The idea that that man — or anyone — might have to run around trying to find a bathroom he could use is absurd to me. The idea that he could have been beaten up over this issue is stupid and nuts in ways that I can’t even comprehend. To my knowledge, it didn’t happen to Dave/Davina, but that someone went out of their way to make it possible is just evil.

Simple kindness in life — especially regarding diversity issues  –is the only thing required to make a difference in the world. Aren’t we wiser, and better, in so many ways, to exercise such kindness? Keeping people out of anything just because we can’t conceive of them being there is ridiculous if we want our society to solve its challenges.

There are women who can’t be priests or ministers simply because they’re women, so the church struggles. There are retailers in America who can’t find employees just because they won’t allow transgender people a place to go to the bathroom. Every time a Black child is shot simply because they’re Black means that all that potential goes to waste. Who knows which of those children could have cured cancer or AIDS or Multiple Sclerosis? Every time we don’t give poor children access to schoolbooks that are up to date, or computers that function, we lose their talents — or stall them longer than we need to. How hard is to understand that investing in others is investing in ourselves?

How hard is it to let someone go to the bathroom, or let them in a building, or try them out at a job? Honestly, these are simple things. I swear they are. At the very least, don’t make it harder for people to be of use to society. Further, don’t make it harder for good people to help. John Glenn — a White man — went out of his way to treat the Black women in this movie as equals. There were people then, and now, who can’t conceive of that possibility. They deprive us of creative solutions to complex problems as well.

We have choices. We can be kind and open to people’s gifts or we can sabotage and penalize their gifts just because of who they are. As the woman engineer in the movie says “I can’t change the color of my skin”. Neither can people change their gender, genitalia, who they love, place they were born, eye color, height, or any other category.

Love wins when kindness does. Hate always loses in the long run, because it is self-defeating. Martin Luther King understood this, and he convinced others of it. On MLK Day in 2017, let us all hear his wisdom. Let us make kindness our goal.

Resisting with Peace,

John

 

 

 

 

 

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