When Brea Dahlgren, a D.C. Ward 7 high school student, began watching “Hidden Figures” at a special December screening of the movie at the White House, her frame of reference regarding Blacks and women in the nation’s space program, was limited. By the end, Dahlgren had a new understanding of Black women in hard science careers. She also gained advice from First Lady Michelle Obama and the “Hidden Figures” lead cast members about the continuing need for resilience among Black female intellectuals.
First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged Black girls in STEM programs to ignore the naysayers and focus on their education. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)
The movie is scheduled to open nationwide on Jan. 6.
“I don’t complain about Hollywood. I don’t say that they don’t do this for Black women, and that, and the third. I just keep working because one day you look up and you’re a Golden Globe winner, you’re Academy Award-nominated, but I couldn’t get there by complaining,” Taraji Henson told the group of roughly 300 girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math careers. “At the end of the day, you couldn’t take mind from her. You could call her all kinds of names and belittle her efforts, but she had a brilliant mind that God gave her. And she walked in that. She did not complain.”
Henson’s words were more than a pep talk about staying the course. Research has shown that despite matriculating successfully through STEM programs, and private and Ivy League schools, Black girls tended to be most ostracized and least accepted among their counterparts. In fact, a 2013 Atlantic Magazine feature reported that while Black boys were considered by their White peers to be cool and tough, Black girls were stereotyped as “ghetto” and “loud,” without any interaction.
Octavia Spencer encouraged the audience to embrace a pop culture that respects them by showing more of Black girls and women than mere stereotypes. Stereotypes from television, she said, often fuel negative beliefs about Black women and their competency. “There is cognitive dissonance when I think of African-American women at that time and their contributions at that time. There’s an underserved audience for stories of women like this working, and succeeding,” Spencer said. “There is a kind of fatigue on slave stories, on subjugated stories, which for some reason there is still a plethora of in Hollywood. I think this movie will be impactful in a lot of ways because African-American women have contributed so much and have been regarded so little. But there’s still a lot of road to cover, a lot of stories to tell.”
Perhaps no one has understood the impact of stereotypes and racial bias more than Michelle Obama. Her reign as First Lady caught her firmly in the netting of cruel stereotyping and harsh, undue criticism.
For Obama, the goal, she said, was always to ignore the comments and focus on the job. “When you’re faced with overwhelming challenges in life – and in this case it was winning the space race, it was a challenge that we were actually losing at first, the United States. We didn’t shrink back from that challenge, and we didn’t point fingers or cast blame. We just did the work,”
Michelle Obama told the girls. “We sought out the very best minds in math and engineering at the time, people with diverse perspectives who could think in ways that no one had ever thought before – people like many of you in this room.”
Saying she and the President were supposed to be ‘hidden figures,’ who many people didn’t believe were real, Obama stressed the importance of disregarding naysayers and being prepared by putting down cellphones and focusing on school.
“Skin color and gender are the most ridiculous defining trait that we cling to continuously. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you believe in your own potential, and that’s for sure, because people will try to tear you down, I guarantee you that. There will never be a point at which people will 100 percent be cheering you on,” the first lady said. “So, when you hit those barriers in life, all you have is your belief in yourself. That’s all you have to fall back on.”