Change relations of race and science: Hidden Figures

I speak to diverse audiences around the country. One audience is the Africana Lecture Series led by Dr. Christina Baker at Sonoma State University (SSU). The series was created in memory of my father, LeVell Holmes, Ph.D., who began the Ethnic Studies program at SSU in 1968. I believe he was also the first African American faculty member at the university—not uncommon for that time.

In this lecture series, I have the opportunity to address science in the context of culture and society to an audience of undergraduates who major in arts and humanities. The title of my most recent lecture was “Changing Relations of Race and Science.” Christina Baker and I speak often of how we can bring together her passion for films by black women and mine for creating inclusive science culture. The recent film, Hidden Figures, is the closest example of this commonality we have found so far.

I loved the movie. It changed my relationship to NASA. As a child, I was a wannabe astrophysicist. As an adult,  other than the cool scientists I've met there, I've had an overall lack of feeling about NASA. After seeing Hidden Figures, I understood that my ambivalence was partly due to never seeing myself as part of NASA. We, African American women, were never shown or known to be part of it. 

So, this was my experience of the movie. What about the students in the lecture series? They had watched part of the movie in preparation for my lecture. I asked them if they thought the movie marked a change in science and race relations. One said, “It’s changing the narrative of the relationship of black people and black women to the space race.” Another said, “The space race was such a national achievement. It’s great to see that black people—that we were part of it.”

Who cares?

Why as scientists do we care about race or racial politics? Because we are citizens of the world. When we look honestly at the history of science, at how our cultural norms and biases are embedded in our work, we are better able to hear one another. Developing our appreciation—curiosity and respect—for others' perspectives and experiences is a critical skill in our work, which is a human endeavor.  

This kind of appreciation also creates the conditions for us to continue to change the relations of race and science.