Vivian Mitchell: Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.
Dorothy Vaughan: I know. I know you probably believe that.
This, I think, is the most succinct summation of non-institutionalized racism I’ve encountered. For those of you who haven’t read or seen Hidden Figures, Vivian Mitchell is white. Dorothy Vaughan is not. Mrs. Vaughan is one of the three African-American women featured in this film. She is one of the dozens of black women who worked at NASA in the 60s. She is one of the dozens who were not permitted to use the same bathroom as their counterparts. She is one of the dozens who worked without proper recognition to get our space program off the ground–literally. And while I really wanted to use Katherine Johnson’s coffee pot monologue, it was long and beautiful and better listened to than read. So go buy the movie ticket and enjoy.
In the meantime, I’ll direct your attention back to racism and the above quote. Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) pauses just after her first “I know.” I felt the audience around me hold their breath, shocked by the statement. Then Vaughan continues. “I know you probably believe that.” Collective gut punch.
It’s so easy to think of racism as somebody else’s problem, as something that I don’t have to deal with. Surely I‘m not racist. I’m a good person. And therein lies the danger. Maybe I’m not racist. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take a serious look at what I might be doing, saying, or merely implying that is in fact racist, though I believe it not to be so.
At the close of this year’s Black History Month, I hope you’ll do the same.