I’ve just watched the movie Hidden Figures over Netflix and some reflections come to mind.
Set in the 1960s during the US and the Soviet Union, the film depicts how three women of colour and of substance dealt with their station in life. They lived in an era when there was a separate drinking fountain for coloured people, an era of whites-only schools.
The movie is a biographical drama and narrates how these three women confronted and overcame the barriers facing them.
My first thought was that despite all the discrimination many non-Malays face, they never had to contend with racial toilets or racial tea break corners. Perhaps this is why the racists among us feel that non-Malays should be more grateful and not persist in demanding the removal of other types of discrimination.
Yet, the bigots ignore the fact that non-Malays were also partners in the independence of our nation. The New Economic Policy, which began in 1970, after the May 13 riots the previous year, was meant to lapse after 20 years. But 30 years after its expiry date, it is still used as the official ‘affirmative action’ (discrimination for others) policy of the land.
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The film shows how a single person with authority and conviction can make changes. Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, head of US space agency Nasa’s Space Task Group, single-handedly removed the signage for the ‘coloured bathroom’ to abolish bathroom segregation at his workplace after finding out that Katherine Johnson had to walk 800 metres to the nearest coloured bathroom from her work desk. He also removed the “whites only” sign from the coffee canister at the tea corner in the workroom.
At this time in our nation’s history, when race-based policies are on the ascendancy, we sorely need such a leader – one who dares to go against the tide. We all bleed red, or as Kevin Costner declared, “Here at Nasa, we all pee the same colour”
Mary Jackson was another inspiration. She became Nasa’s first African-American female engineer. She did so by petitioning to attend the all-white Hampton High School to allow her extra courses to get her engineering degree. She pleaded her case in court and won over the local judge by appealing to his sense of history. In the end, she was allowed to attend night classes.
Yes, even in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, we must take whatever action we can to challenge the status quo. We must never allow soothsayers to declare that everything is set in stone.
After all, we are, the last time I checked, a democratic nation. If enough people want change, we can make it happen.
Loyal Malaysian is the pseudonym of a regular reader of Aliran