I watched Hidden Figures last week, and it was a delightful movie.
The casting was perfect and the story was an earnest, well-intentioned reminder that what the law says is not always the right thing, and that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Hidden Figures is about three African-American women who work for NASA, America’s space agency.
For various reasons, mostly of race and gender, they are being kept back from progressing, but they figure out a way to do it anyway.
One of the scenes that froze in my memory in the movie is a part where one of the bosses, played by Kevin Costner, discovers that Taraji P. Henson’s character spends 40 minutes every day going to the bathroom. I must warn you, there is a small spoiler alert coming up here.
When he discovers this, he heads over to the only coloured bathroom on the premises with a crowbar. There is a sign over it, as was required in those days, declaring it to be a coloured bathroom. He proceeds to violently knock down the sign as a crowd quickly gathers to watch him.
"There," he says when he is finished. "Now they are all coloured bathrooms". If a black man had tried to do that, the chances that he would have been lynched were high.
If a black woman had tried to knock down the sign, she would have promptly been arrested. A white woman would have been reprimanded by her peers, and the sign would have stayed up.
The reason he got away with doing that, in that time, was because he was of the dominant group of his era: white, male and middle-aged.
Everywhere I go, every protest I march in, I see this struggle duplicated. The rich don’t listen to the poor, for example, or care at all, unless another rich person speaks for them.
They speak each other’s language, or so it seems. You would think that the people in Parliament would care to do their jobs instead of robbing Kenya blind, passing new laws to make sure they leave Parliament richer than when they got in, with Kenyans still starving.
If only an MP stood up and said that this is wrong, that they must vote against this, and turned on the consciences of those who govern us. But deadened, selfish and blind they remain.
Men won’t listen to women if a man doesn’t step in. Sure, we have made great strides where the workplace is concerned, but do a quick audit at the insidiousness that remains. Most bosses are still male.
Most workplaces don’t have or care to have crèches, or changing rooms for women with babies. Most women earn less – in Kenya! – than their male counterparts. Accomplished women my age still walk into business rooms only to hear the men they are meeting ask for the guy who is supervising her, regardless of how many degrees she possesses or the level of her professionalism.
And they will still call her ‘sweetheart’ or some other such term during the meeting. I wonder what would happen if they tried that with men. Saying “Listen, Handsome, your theory is sound, but…”
It is, quite frankly, appalling. A meeting will go on where people interrupt you just because you happen to have a pair of breasts – which means they don’t take you seriously and nothing you say could possibly be worthwhile – until a man repeats it.
Same as in a club, when you reject the advances of a drunken boor and he doesn’t let up, so you say you have a boyfriend, which you don’t.
Not that these situations are the only ones that exist, but for a woman living in Kenya today, having to serve tea in a meeting with your peers is the norm, as opposed to not.
The people who are fine, who are okay on their rung in the ladder, never listen to the people who are not, unless forced to, across all categories, be it the poor, women, the disabled, homosexuals, any of them.
Until someone in the dominant group picks up a crowbar and takes off the ignorant sign hanging from a door, the minorities, unfortunately, remain hidden figures.
If you are in the dominant group, you are perfectly within your human rights to ignore the plight of everyone around you and go on with your charmed existence. In my opinion, you are directly responsible for doing good with the power you hold, but of course, not obligated.
At some point, however – whether you are travelling abroad with your black skin, or not able to get healthcare at a public hospital when near death, or suddenly made broke by the very systems you support – you will realise the importance of your voice, and who you choose to speak for.
I just hope you realise it before it is pointless for the rest of us.