I don’t normally get political in this space. That stems from the fact that I just don’t like politics, and I want to be careful about what I invite into this blog. But this is shaping up to be a year of things-I-don’t-normally-do, (big thanks to Marissa Burdett and her #Ampersandproject for pushing me to say “yes” to ideas even when I don’t have them fully fleshed out), and there are some things that are important enough to speak up about. Things that transcend politics, though they are too often turned into political issues.
And, I’ll go ahead and say I didn’t plan on doing this on MLK day, but I saw Hidden Figures last night and, well, inspiration has its own kind of timing.
It’s a great movie, by the way. One of those that you go to with your family and all you can do on the drive home is talk about your favorite parts and what you learned.
My family was raised on math. My father has been a math teacher my whole life. Add to that the fact that we’re all nerds in one way or another, and it’s no surprise that another movie we all loved was IQ, a romcom with Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein, and one of our favorite family vacation activities is visiting science and space museums. Growing up, I knew about things like the Theory of Relativity and the Space Program the way other kids, I imagine, knew sports.
Thus I was not a little ashamed at the fact that I had never heard of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, or Dorothy Vaughn before this movie, nor did I realize that not just women but black women made up a significant portion of the workers in the American Space program.
While a genuinely delightful movie to watch, in and of itself, there’s a lot to Hidden Figures that you have to cringe at, because you go in knowing the kind of treatment these women experienced, but, at the same time, a better part of you knows that you can’t look away, because it happened and it’s important we remember that it happened.
It’s similar to a feeling I had when I saw Allegiance on Broadway last year, a musical about the Japanese Internment camps in WWII starring George Takei and inspired by his own experience as a child. While a great piece of theater, it too was something that was hard to watch. Hard but necessary.
Because both of these stories, and many others, remind me of my own position, my own privilege. After Allegiance, I was haunted by a question, one I find myself wrestling with again today, one that I realize I have never had to seriously answer.
How do you stay patriotic towards a country that hates you?
I’m going to go ahead and say I don’t have an answer to this question, because, again, I’ve never had to answer it. And I realize, as a straight, white, cisgendered male, I probably will never have to.
There’s a lot to be worried about these days, but one thing that I keep coming back to is the lack of empathy. Politics, of course, has always been divisive and adversarial. But this feels different. It’s not so much that “I’m right and you’re wrong”, but “I’m right and I don’t even need to understand why you’re wrong.”
There’s an important sequence in Hidden Figures that involves Taraji P. Henson’s character Katherine having to use the “Colored” bathroom, of which there is only one and it’s across the campus from where she is working. I don’t want to ruin the movie, but this eventually comes to a head. What struck me most, though, was the lack of effort any one of her coworkers were willing to put forward to correct this obvious issue.
It takes so little effort to say, “Hey, use the nearest bathroom. It makes no sense to waste time to make you walk a half a mile to use the other one.” In the same way it takes no effort to say, “Hey, why don’t we let the smartest person do the calculations, regardless of who she is or what she looks like? We’re NASA for crying out loud.”
But that, I realize, is nothing new. Racism has never made logical sense. It makes no sense to spend money adding in a whole other water fountain or a whole other anything just because you don’t want to share. It also makes no sense to refuse business to one group of people because you don’t like them; their money is just as good as anyone else’s. And I know I’m not being radical or forward thinking pointing that out. It’s pretty obvious.
Yet it persists. It’s not a thing of the past. We’re still arguing over bathrooms. We’re still turning away good money because we don’t like who’s holding it. And, again, I’m not looking for praise as some kind of “super-progressive white guy”, because this is common sense, but the fact that it’s common sense is what’s so frustrating.
Because it’s people just like me doing it. The lack of empathy is so strong from people just like me. People who know better. People who follow, or claim to follow, a guy who told them better.
And that shames me even more than the first thing.
I don’t know when it became patriotic to not care, to put zero effort into correcting the obvious injustices around us, and, at the same time, I know when it became patriotic. Because it’s always been patriotic to some people. For all our high-minded philosophy, America has, to many people, meant the exact opposite. Not “from many, One” but “One, me, mine, and if you’re not, get out.” In the same way, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, there are those for whom America has never been America. It has never treated them like it should. The New Patriotism is the Old Patriotism.
And, as I’ve been learning for some time, there are those for whom Christian has meant the exact opposite of Christ, a faith of hate and malice, where we worship power and mock empathy itself. And, deep down, I know there’s nothing new about that either. That element has always been among us.
And I know I have to own that. And I am so sorry.
I’ll never have to wonder how to stay patriotic to my country. I’ll never have to live in the kind of fear that warrants that question.
And because of that, empathy becomes all the more important. My effort becomes all the more important because it is, apparently, easy to not put forth.
And, above all, I know I’m called to it.
If it’s not building empathy, it’s not Christian. And if it’s not supporting the ideals of America, it’s not Patriotic.
And if there was ever a day to be reminded of that, it’s today.