Friday, April 14, 2017

Losing What Never Was

by Jean Roberta

In the movie Hidden Figures, there is a dramatic scene in which three “colored” women are on their way to work as mathematical “computers” at NASA* in 1961 in a car with big tail fins that has seen better days. The car has broken down on the highway, and one of the women, Dorothy Vaughan, is lying underneath, her stockinged legs and ladylike shoes sticking out as she tries to figure out the problem.

Along comes a police cruiser, driven by a white man in uniform. Anyone who knows anything about American culture at that time knows that this could mean more trouble for the stranded women. Will he haul them all off to jail? Will he assault them right there?

The police officer tells the women this is not a safe place for them to stop.

Mary Jackson (who later becomes an aeronautical engineer) says: “We didn’t choose the place, sir. The place chose us.”

The officer asks her if she is disrespecting him, and of course, she says no. The tension continues to build until he asks all three women for ID, and learns that they are working at NASA, helping to send men into space for the greater glory of America. Even after the women manage to start the car, the officer offers to escort them to work, so they arrive with his blessing and protection. A potentially ugly incident is averted, this time.

Later, brilliant mathematician Katherine Goble (one of the women in the car) explains to two white male supervisors that she can’t do her work accurately if she is not allowed into the daily briefings in which projected figures always change. One of the men listens to her, and brings her in to a meeting, where she is by far the most colorful person in the room: a short brown woman wearing red lipstick and a print dress, surrounded by white men in white shirts, ties, and black trousers. The men all turn to stare as she walks in.

It’s easy to guess what the men think they see when they look at her: inappropriate earthiness and sexuality in a place dedicated to applied science, and especially to the macho “space race” between the U.S. and Soviet governments. The sight of Katherine probably reminds some of the men of their secret mistresses or the whores they have visited on the “wrong” side of town, or their housekeepers and nannies.

The men consciously know who Katherine is, and what she does for the space program. The looks on their faces show that they can’t reconcile what they consciously know about her work with what they think they’ve known all their lives about people like her: nurturing women who can’t think logically, and “primitive” races who represent the pre-human ancestors of “Man.”

Official segregation (enforced by “Jim Crow” laws) and the more grass-roots versions are still in force in most public places, and Katherine is only able to avoid walking half a mile to the washroom for “colored women” after her supervisor asks her about her long absences from her desk. Before this, she doesn’t dare create a scene by using the washroom frequented by her white female coworkers.

Why do so many people in the 21st century feel nostalgic for the 1960s? True enough, it was an era of progress on several fronts (technological, ideological, social, political), but that is partly because so much about the status quo needed to be changed.

Even extreme bigotry can produce side-effects that its victims find comforting or flattering, and this can explain why increased social status and assimilation can feel like a loss. In the movie, we see Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy go home after work to their own community, where they dance to recorded rhythm and blues and attend the same church. The segregation that keeps all but the most talented out of jobs at NASA also gives the women a home base where they are comfortable in their skins.

As far as I know, African-American communities still exist as physical spaces, but integration and upward mobility since the Civil Rights era must have had a drastic sorting effect on them. I suspect that in our time, people with the brilliance of the three women in the movie could no longer hang out unselfconsciously with relatives and neighbors who never finished high school. A certain belief that blood is thicker than brainpower and ambition has been lost.

Supposedly affirmative messages aimed at “people of color” and women in general often simply put a positive spin on old racist and sexist assumptions about the non-white and non-male as foils of white men: natural and instinctive rather than civilized, emotional rather than intellectual, appealingly childish and playful rather than serious, sexy and attractive rather than businesslike or nondescript.

It would take a brave person to give up a claim on our supposed special qualities when racial and gender equality still hasn’t arrived, despite improvement in some areas. Would anyone with a sense of style really want to dress like a white man with an office job in 1961? Would anyone who loves to dance be willing to give that up in order to seem reliably businesslike all day long?

I grew up believing I had a racial secret that carried its own complex mixture of pride and shame. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a visible amount of Mohawk blood, and my mother had more pigment in her skin that I have. My grandfather on my father’s side seemed more mysterious, having died suddenly before I was born. All the photos I ever saw of him show a man who looks Eurasian, supposedly for no logical reason. (My grandmother, his widow, told me his nickname was “Chinaman.”)

I was convinced that I was fundamentally different from most white people outside my family. I was always afraid of how they would treat me if they found out “the truth” about me, so I sometimes explained that I wasn’t as white as I looked, to get it over with. Polite friends assured me that I could “pass” perfectly, which was an ambiguous compliment. In a time when racist ignorance seemed to be the general state of white consciousness, I cherished a belief that I carried an antibody. If I also had instinctive wisdom and a special bond with nature, those were fringe benefits.

If a cartoon image of Pocahontas had sung “The Colors of the Wind” to white invaders of the 1600s in a Disney movie in my childhood, I would have sung along, thinking of her as my distant foremother.

This year, my spouse Mirtha and I sent our saliva away to two companies that analyze DNA: and 23andMe. Before this point, we liked to think we were both Metis (Canadian term for mestiza or “breed”) in different proportions. It seems we were wrong.

The results for Mirtha show that she is a one-woman melting pot: Native South American, European, Asian, African, a trace of Ashkenazi Jew. You name it, she’s got it.

I’m white. According to, 100% of my blood comes from Europe, including Britain and Ireland. I couldn’t believe it. All these years, I thought I was hiding something that never showed because it wasn’t there.

According to 23andMe, I am only 98.9% white, which might seem to confirm my previous self-concept, but not much.

According to BOTH companies, I have no Native or First Nations DNA whatsoever. has a helpful chart showing that DNA is not passed down the same way to all the offspring of the same two parents. My two sisters could possibly have some Mohawk or even some Asian blood (I don’t know, and I’m unlikely to find out), but officially, I don’t.

After getting these results, I had a few anxious moments. Was I infected with pathological racism all my life? Would I suddenly become a supporter of Donald Trump?

Just asking myself these questions restored my common sense. Like Popeye the Sailor Man, I yam what I yam. As I always was. If I want good instincts and a special bond with nature, I can work on that. After all, my European ancestors lived in the natural world. (Quel surprise.) Now maybe my special power can be a resistance to romantic stereotypes.

*National Aeronautics and Space Administration, run by the U.S. government.


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  2. has a helpful chart showing that DNA is not passed down the same way to all the offspring of the same two parents. My two sisters could possibly have some Mohawk or even some Asian blood (I don’t know, and I’m unlikely to find out), but officially, I don’t.

    That's a distinction that I imagine a lot of people who do DNA testing are unclear about. Two people with both the same biological parents have exactly the same ancestry, but (unless they're identical twins) not exactly the same DNA. So, as you say, from the genetic point of view you might be "missing" a particular ethnic or racial strand that a full biological sibling of yours has; but as far as who you're descended from, you have the same diverse ancestry as your sib.

    1. (And so the more children of the same two biological parents who test their DNA, the more complete a picture of their shared ancestry one has.)

    2. Really good point, Jeremy.

      We use the term "blood" (in the sense of family relationships) and "DNA" almost interchangeably, but there's a clear difference.

    3. All this really points to one element of the complications of race. Family, surroundings, and other factors are part of all this, as much as blood.

  3. Both and 23andMe encourage people who pay for DNA testing from them to find as many blood relatives as possible on their sites. They also keep finding and uploading old historical records, such as the results of a U.S. census in 1930, which defines my mother's father (with the Mohawk nose) in Pennsylvania as "white." (If he gave his own racial designation, his reasons seem obvious.)

  4. I've tried to convince myself that if I've lived in a place, eaten food grown locally, raised some of it myself, drunk the water from beneath its surface, I have as much connection to that land as any DNA could give me. Shaky rationalization, I know; by that line of reasoning, some of it, at least, I could claim a connection with anywhere that raises food I eat (bananas, for instance) or provides water for beverages I drink, like bottled iced tea or craft beer (although I do mostly stick to relatively local breweries.) The having lived in a place limits that, though, to New England (where I am now, and was born) and northern Califorinia, so artichokes and wine are the only things I can think of that might still link me to the latter area. Hmm, well, never mind.

  5. Been wanting to see that film, but we missed the first run. We're waiting for the Academy awards to see if they bring it back to theaters. My opinion is that a truly great movie loses something on the small screen. The work was intended for a big screen, and when we try to compromise art, well... the art is compromised.

  6. I'm on a long, long wait list to get the movie from my regional library system. I do wish, too, that it would be be brought back to theaters, but I'm not holding my breath.

    1. Huh, this is interesting. In Providence, it just about never left! I am pretty sure it's still playing at the second run theater.

  7. "Would anyone with a sense of style really want to dress like a white man with an office job in 1961? Would anyone who loves to dance be willing to give that up in order to seem reliably businesslike all day long?"

    Your post does a fabulous job explicating the contradictions involved in being part of a minority, Jean. I know I'd be disappointed to have spent my life believing myself part Native American, only to discover I'm not.

    I'm curious - what motivated you and Mirtha to check out your genetic heritage anyway?

  8. We planned to do it for a long time, just to compare notes but then Ancestry had a sale, and the price seemed reasonable. 23andMe had a sale later, and we wanted to know if the results would be similar. (They are, but the 2 sites have different categories. For example, Ancestry lists "Irish" and "British" separately, but 23andMe combines them.)

  9. I'm also confused about why people are nostalgic for the 50s or 60s. My mom said something about things being "safer" then, and I was like, really? Are you sure? For who? I think things were segregated enough then that people didn't know what was happening outside their own lives. It's like how smart phones magically revealed all this police brutality. It's not like that wasn't happening before...

    1. Yeah, exactly: part of the "good old days" mythology comes from the illusion of wholesomeness created by a more thorough suppression of general awareness of all the bad shit (especially, as you note, when the bad shit was happening to the people whose lives "didn't matter"). And, as we know, the more the bad shit is being covered up, in fact the more it can occur without anyone interceding.

      I think another basis of the mythology is the dysfunctional tradeoff in more conservative times between the increased security (at least in certain ways for certain people) of having a more "tight-knit" community where everyone has their noses in everyone else's business and where potential dangers (of certain kinds) might be more quickly noticed; and the awful cost in terms of people having much less freedom to conduct their lives the way they please without having to be accountable to the prejudices of neighbors, religious leaders, family elders, etc.—and obviously, in that kind of old-fashioned paradigm, life is often hellish for nonheterosexuals, atheists, free spirits, and others who "deviate." So the people who tell themselves that life was "better" in the old days because "people looked out for each other" are showing their blindness to the other side of that coin.