I’m not a big movie buff, but I’ve been fascinated by Hidden Figures, the forthcoming film about the largely unknown African-American women mathematicians and engineers whose calculations were crucial to enabling the Apollo moon missions. Their contributions are particularly monumental since they came at a time when segregation and racism constrained educational and professional opportunities for so many black Americans. So I was excited to read this weeks’ New York Times profile of the movie.
That said, I couldn’t help being put off by how the article reported on the math aversion of the film’s leads. The opening sentence reads:
Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress from playing two of the most important mathematicians the world hasn’t ever known.
The article continues to reference Henson’s and Spencer’s discomfort with math as if it’s slightly endearing, without ever questioning the educational and life experiences that might have led these two highly accomplished women to hate math.
Why is it acceptable and cute for grown adults to say they’re not comfortable with math? Why do we treat discomfort with math as something to be taken for granted rather than the result of our education system’s long-running failure to teach math effectively, combined with low expectations for women, girls, and students from historically underserved racial/ethnic groups and low-income families? Continue reading