Sunday night I watched the new Apollo 11 documentary by Todd Miller. At first, I was really into the show. When the Apollo 11 mission happened I was just starting high school and had been a big fan of the space program going back to Project Mercury. Watching a Saturn V lift off has always induced a profound sense of awe in me.
But I was increasingly struck by how white it all was. And male, but really, really white. That diluted the joy I was feeling with some deep regrets about how we act still today over what are basically paint jobs and some minor accessories.
Given where we find ourselves these days, 50 years hasn’t brought as much progress as it should have. We’re still really stupid about paint jobs.
And that’s all they are is paint jobs.
Race is a story we tell. The truth is there really is no such thing as “race” — any two healthy humans can have children, regardless of paint job. Race is something that is literally only skin deep.
Let me walk that back just a little: There are some small biological differences that matter mostly in the context of medicine. There are specific cases (leukemia, for instance) where research using only white people misses important facts.
This is even more true with regard to gender. Obviously, studies using only males miss important facts that pertain to the females of the species (regardless of that species).
So when we get down into the weeds of biology, there are some differences, but the biological similarities completely overwhelm them. When it comes to being people, that’s all we are: just people.
I’m old enough to remember the racial unrest of the 1960s.
I remember watching the riots and the marches on TV. I remember predicting civil war by 2001 — the poor, the non-white, the disenfranchised; I assumed they’d rise up. How could they not?
But a degree of legal and social progress, both for race and for gender, seems to have seduced us, to have lulled us into complacency.
I remember how proud I was in 2008 when we elected Barack Obama. I remember thinking that maybe we’d finally arrived.
But the reactions, the push-back, from the Cro-Magnons of our society made it starkly clear we were — and are — still mired in this racist bullshit. That fucker we let be POTUS now leads the pack.
Alligators never drain their swamp.
It has always been that bullies try to draw lines between “me and mine” versus “you and yours” using anything they can find.
Those lines become a wellspring for racism, misogyny, nationalism, attacks on religion, bigotry of all stripes. In many cases, the hatred is directed from an attempt to define “the other” — the imagined barbarian at the gate.
Ultimately, it’s fear: of change, of the unknown, of having to share (of not having enough).
There is an illusion — a lie — that if we eliminate the other, if we can all be one thing, then we’ll get along great and do great things.
After all, there it is: a bunch of white guys decided (for very political reasons) to go check out the Moon and they did it. And it was pretty amazing. Totally awesome.
But, hey, guys. You left behind your brothers and sisters, and I’m not okay with that.
The movie Hidden Figures (which I highly recommend) offers a view of what it was like for talented women of color. It also implies how much better it could have been had we been smarter.
So much talent and ability was squandered.
The thing is, firstly, that past unity and togetherness was a lie. There was just as much shit, just as much strife. But on different counts and more codified into the social fabric.
High or low, there’s always a bully who wants more than their fair share. In every group, there’s some backwards tribal asshat that just can’t get along.
In our history, to our shame, besides people we kidnapped from our ancient birthplace, Africa, we’ve made into “the other” the Irish, the Japanese, and the Jewish. Now it’s the Middle East and Islam.
[Jews, Christians, Muslums,… for the love of the same god of Abraham you all claim to love and worship… Get. Your. Shit. Together. And. Work. It. Out. The way y’all are behaving is the opposite of what Yahweh/God/Allah commands. It’s different paths up one mountain, you idiots.]
Weirdly to me, it seems that we’ve even defined as “the other” people with red hair — the dreaded, and probably sinister, “gingers” (which I think, along with white people getting sun tans (and all the other appropriation, especially the music), speaks to how some of this involves jealousy).
Secondly, group unity is what we make of it.
Which is better: the unity of a group of like-minded people who want to explore space (or do whatever big exciting task), or the unity of a group of people united by the accident of genetics?
You know how you can pick your friends but not your family? You can’t pick your race or gender, either. We’re not automatically bound by these things.
How better to be closely bound by interests.
And loosely bound by our interest in the human race — the only “race” that matters.
Because if we don’t grow up and starting seeing paint jobs like we see eye color — as a slightly interesting minor attribute — then I promise you this is gonna be it for the human race.
Forget space; we’re going nowhere.
Baseball went through an evolution we need to repeat in the large.
There was a time of segregation in baseball, but it became impossible to ignore that some of the best players were in the Negro Leagues — there was a vast amount of talent excluded from The Show.
Not just because it’s inclusive, that’s a nice moral win, but the actual game is better for having the best players possible.
There is a Yin-Yang of “pure” versus “composite” — neither of which is inherently better or worse.
If we’re talking about gold or diamonds or water, then “pure” is probably a property we’d like to see. If we’re talking about strong flexible materials, then “composite” is more likely a better attribute.
Metal alloys are often better than pure metals.
Groups of people, because we’re much more complex than atoms of gold or carbon, benefit from being composite, from being diverse.
As the example of baseball shows.
As almost every social experiment shows.
The USA, after all, has always been a composite, a rich stew.
Granted, the variation at first wasn’t much, white Europeans, highly male dominated, but diverse within that narrow group.
Over time, to our benefit, that diversity grew, and of course there were, and are, growing pains. Some of that pain was strong in the 1950s and 1960s, and it traced its roots to our country’s beginning. Echoes of it clearly remain.
We’ve got plenty of room for growth.
My family moved to Inglewood, California, in 1967, and I lived there until The Company transferred me to Minnesota in 1984.
The Watts riots were in 1965; Inglewood is the Los Angeles suburb directly west of Watts. When we moved there, those who could afford it were moving out of Watts, many of them closer to the ocean in Inglewood.
That triggered a “white flight” situation in Inglewood. The positive feedback effect of which is that the suburb transitioned from being mostly white to being racially mixed.
That was my high school environment. Very chaotic. Very racial.
Transitions are always hard. It’s easy to long for the before picture when nostalgia insists it was all much better. We overlook the pains of the past sometimes. We forget pain; it’s built in to us.
The country seems stuck in transition, unable to get past it into acceptance. Electing Barack Obama gave me such high hopes that we’d finally matured, but the counter-reaction has dashed most of them.
Watching the Apollo 11 movie in the current political context was doubly evocative for me. I really enjoyed seeing that footage again and reliving those moments.
The beautiful lift-off footage was as stirring for me as always. There’s nothing like a Saturn V launch. I can watch those clips over and over.
I’d forgotten how they set down the lander with only 16 seconds of fuel remaining (due to having to fly beyond a boulder field). I’d also forgotten how short their time on the Moon actually was (under 24 hours).
But every shot of the mission control room — white guys (an occasional token white woman). And every shot of the crowd: all white people.
Talk about conflicted.
On the one hand, one of our greatest human achievements. On the other hand, we excluded a whole bunch of people.
I want to believe in a different future.
But our history seems to get in the way.