Hidden Figures: Moves to Innocence

“Moves to innocence are characterized by strategies to remove involvement in and culpability for systems of domination” (Mawhinney, 1998, p17).

I went to see Hidden Figures this weekend. The movie brings to light the important work of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Three African-American female mathematicians who worked for NASA and their role in the launching of the space program. While Hidden Figures is being celebrated as finally giving credit to these women and launching women and girls into the field of science, embedded in the Hidden Figures movie is a white redemption story and move to innocence.

Mawhinney (1998) and Tuck and Yang (2012) introduced and deepened my understanding of this concept and how it applies in so many areas of history and contemporary narratives of white power and privilege. “Moves to innocence are characterized by strategies to remove involvement in and culpability for systems of domination” (Mawhinney, 1998, p. 17). Importantly, claims of innocence are rooted in framing the innocent as non-oppressors” (Tuck & Yang, 2012).

The film brilliantly highlights how systems of white dominance and oppression are set up to be reinforced. When Johnson repeatedly asks to be in the Pentagon briefings because she needs the up-to-date information to do her job, the response is that women are not allowed and she doesn’t have the clearance. Harrison asks who makes this rule and Johnson responds that he makes the rule so he allows her into the briefing. The white judge who rules to allow Mary Jackson to attend University of Virginia graduate level courses at the segregated Hampton High School. These examples demonstrate how those with the power can change the system.

In this same way, the film reinforces moves to innocence by showing white men as heroes towards integration. Specifically, the characters of John Glenn and Al Harrison (admittedly an aggregation of several NASA leaders) are portrayed as white male heroes. John Glenn-steps out of line to shake hand with the African-American women lined up to greet them and also specifically asks for Katharine Johnson to double check his landing coordinates. The scene in which Al Harrison personally breaks down the “Colored Ladies Room” sign and says “We all pee the same color” effectively integrating the bathrooms at NASA is set up to be the movement of change.

This is not to say that white allies are not needed in the fight for racial justice. However, I am critiquing the narrative. The motivation of Glenn and Harrison is never questioned to be anything but motivated by racial justice. I am left wondering if Glenn and Harrison did indeed act in those ways, was it self-serving towards their own professional goals? If their actions were motivated by racial justice, where have they been all these years? Glenn specifically spent a lot of time in the public arena and where was his strong voice in racial justice movement?

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