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  • Writer's pictureVeronica R. Wells

What Happens When White People Tell Black Stories

Katherine Johnson

Recently, Vice News interviewed Theodore Melfi, the director of Hidden Figures. But before he sat down with Melfi, he interviewed Katherine Johnson, one of the real life women on which the story was based. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember there’s a very dramatic scene when Taraji P. Henson, who plays Johnson, comes back into the room soaking wet because she had to walk 30 minutes, each way, in the rain, just to use the Colored Ladies restroom. When she comes back to her desk, Kevin Costner asks her where she’s been and why she often disappears throughout the work day.

Taraji, screaming in frustration, tells him that it’s because she has to journey to the Colored Women’s restroom 30 minutes away. Kevin Costner’s character, in a heroic gesture, grabs a crowbar and walks, with a throng of people following him to the Colored women’s restroom. He uses the crowbar and beats down the sign and then turns to the crowd, who’ve taken the journey with him, and says, “No more Colored restrooms. No more White restrooms…Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”

It’s dramatic and memorable and powerful but it also didn’t happen. No one did Katherine Johnson those type of favors. She did it for herself.

My friend and I had an extensive G-chat conversation about White people telling Black stories, racist ideologies and how it’s time out for White folk trying to sugarcoat the truth.

Victoria: I kneeeeew it was going to be the Kevin Costner scene. It just came off a bit unbelievable/uber dramatic.

Me:and gurl what's such a mess is that there were already White hero moments in the movie

it didn't need it at all

scene was way too long to be just a farce

Victoria: Makes you wonder if a lot of those interactions were factual

But yeah, by just knowing when to step back and allowing these Black women to do their work is enough of a hero moment for White folks. No need to fake the funk

Me: right. I'm just finna get the book

even the John Glen moment was beautiful.

Victoria: and that was factual


and I get what the director was saying about audiences needing to see everybody doing the right thing. But White folks also need to see ways in which they've dropped the ball

Victoria: I think that's just a cop-out to get people who aren't the main focus to come see a movie. White folks need the white savior and they need to know they haven't spent so many years being White devils

but what is the truth is still the truth. Just make sure that shit doesn't happen again lol

Me: that's exactly it. We don't want to alienate the White folks. smh

now I see what my daddy was talking about the movie being a little too soft

benevolent White folk were hard to come by back then

and only a handful were standing up for Blacks with dramatic gestures

Victoria: Yeah, and while it seems harmless, it's truly counterproductive

Do that shit with a fiction story

Don't create things that didn't happen, which takes the focus away from Katherine and co. to make White folks feel good or remind them that they need to do good in the world.

The whole story alone should be enough to drive that point home.

Me: right!

if you miss that, aint no good in you

Victoria: People can't own up to their roles if they are always spoon fed

Me: boop*!

now I'm like did that white lady give her pearls?

probably not.

Victoria: Only the book can tell us now

Me: exactly. I'm adding it to my cart

Victoria: Or even Kirsten Dunst's character calling ol girl Mrs.

Me: umph

and the real life moment of the judge granting what's her name permission to attend the white school was kind

he aint have to

White folks want it all I guess

Victoria: But I do wonder then what was done to keep her from having to go all the way to the Black side of campus to use the bathroom

Me: the article said in real life Katherine Johnson just started sneaking and using the White woman's bathroom

that to me would have been a better scene

subtle and powerful

Victoria: mhmm

Me: and then if they wanted to make it dramatic they could have had someone tell on her or something

but they basically put a cape on Kevin Costner

Victoria: hence the problem with White people telling Black stories, even when they have positive intentions. They eventually find a way to put their interests first. To make White people more important than they are #whiteness


shame shame shame

the story is literally about Black folks being marginalized and you find a way to do it in the movie too.

This white supremacy thing is DEEEEEP

Victoria: Exactly. And that's what a trip. People feel like you have to be doing something outright racist in order to be doing something wrong as a White person. Like naw, it's when you don't even realize shit is ingrained in your psyche. You can't help but put yourself first

Me: Yaaaaassss

and then refuse to see the error in choosing to create a false story

and love to say I'm not racist. But your mind is racist-leaning fam.

Victoria: YES!

That's the part they miss out on

privilege ain't just about being able to walk away from certain situations unscathed or being the first pic for opportunities. It's about feeling like it's ok to do things like this

talkin about "who cares?"

Me: whew.

arrogant in your error

Victoria: mhmm

This is what someone said, in reference to that whole, "White folks need to see themselves do good" point, about Brad Pitt's character in 12 Years a Slave:

“Executive producer Brad Pitt shows up in the last 20 minutes, looking vaguely Amish, and given that there hasn’t been a likeable white character since the opening minutes of the movie, it feels incongruous to see him suddenly come on screen and immediately give a speech about God-given racial parity. But by this time, we’re ready for the light at the end of the tunnel, even if his dialogue does seem right out of Lincoln.” —Chris Willman, the Playlist

Me: loolll @ dialogue "right out of Lincoln."

like just because you rock with Black people, present day in real life, let's not pretend it would have been easy or likely that you would have done so back in the day

when poor White folks saw Blacks as competition or their lives could be threatened for helping them

Victoria: Right

Me: it's like a refusal to fully commit to the evil of the White psyche back then

Victoria: Right, again, it's spoon feeding history

Like it's impossible for people of today to even watch the reality of what people of NOT THAT LONG ago was on

folks JUST got some act right.

Me: right some of them

and that's part of the problem. if White folks would acknowledge the depth of the evil, they would be able to better understand how those thoughts and feelings don't leave after a couple of generations. You're infected and instead of pretending you're not sick, you need to take this medicine

and LISTEN to people of color.

Victoria: Definitely. But when you want things to stay the same, which many won't admit, you choose to play deaf

dumb and blind.

Me: gurl.

ain't that it.

hella people don't want no change

Victoria: that's the next sign at the protest


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