Two weekends ago, I went back home to Lake Orion, something I do every month. It’s nice to sleep in my own bed and spend time with my family, but I like Ann Arbor more than my hometown. Ann Arbor is more diverse (which is something that just about no one says) and I feel more comfortable here (for once I’m not the only Black girl in my class). If you have an obsession with lakes, like spending the day on a boat or like high-school football, then you’ll love spending time in Lake Orion. But if you’ve lived there for your entire life, aren’t impressed by lakes, aren’t interested in football and don’t understand the point of standing on a boat all day, then you’ll get bored quickly. Every time I get on the freeway in the direction of the small town I’ve lived in since I was a toddler, I think, “I should’ve stayed in Ann Arbor.”

There usually isn’t much to do besides go shopping or see a movie, but thankfully “Hidden Figures” was playing. When I first heard about this film, I knew I had to see it. The casting seemed incredible — my favorite actress Taraji P. Henson and my favorite singer Janelle Monae had major roles — and the film is centered around the lives of Black women, which is something I can relate to but have trouble finding in major films. A cast with minority female leads is rare in major Hollywood movies, which made “Hidden Figures” an important movie for my family to see. Additionally, the film focused on the contributions these women made to the Space Race and U.S. history, which is a topic I love and want to know more about.

I felt like I needed to see this movie in theaters, that it was my responsibility to make my family members watch it. A couple of weeks before I went home, I tried to organize a family outing to go see it, but that didn’t work out so well. So while my sister and dad stayed home, my mom and I went to see it. I expected the theater to be empty. “I really don’t think that many people from our town will see this movie,” I told my mom before we left.

The reason for this belief had nothing to do with the film itself, but the way I saw the community I lived in. Lake Orion’s slogan is “Where Living is a Vacation,” but in 2016 I nicknamed it “Trump Country” — a catch-all term to describe anything I don’t like about it. The nickname seemed appropriate: The people in my town who supported Trump were very vocal about it. Someone in my town hand-made a massive paper mâché Trump sign for their yard and almost every day in my macroeconomics class a kid would interrupt the lesson to talk about how great Trump was. But I never saw a “Stronger Together” sign on anyone’s yard and outside of my friend group, I never heard people defend Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as strongly as they defended Trump.

I also got the sense that many people in my town were not comfortable with Black people. Maybe it was the stares that I or anyone in my family got any time we left our house, or maybe it was passing a car with a Confederate flag bumper sticker every day on my way into high school until my junior year, biking past trucks with massive Confederate flags attached to their backs or seeing people wear Confederate flag necklaces and T-shirts. Whenever I caught someone or a group staring at me or my family, whenever I saw an image of the stars and bars, it reaffirmed my belief that my hometown had no place for me or my family. Based on these events and experiences, I did not think that too many people in my town would be interested in seeing “Hidden Figures.”

But I was so wrong: The theater was packed. I looked back at my mom and gave her an expression of pure shock, then looked back at everyone in the theaters, then looked back at my mom again with the same shocked expression.

While I searched for a place to sit, I began to realize how skewed and unfair my characterization of Lake Orion was. I call my hometown “Trump Country,” but it actually isn’t — Hillary Clinton won the majority of votes in my county. Obviously, not every car in that town has the Confederate flag attached to it or on its bumper; I only remember the ones that did because they reinforced my belief that I didn’t belong and that my community could not accept me. It was difficult for me to see the positive aspects of my town because I spent so much time trying to craft scenarios that would get me out. Also, I’m a bit of a pessimist; I expect the worst in everything to avoid feeling disappointed. But I need to stop allowing perceived future disappointment to shape my perceptions — especially my perceptions of others.  

Once my mom and I sat down, I thought about what it meant to sit in the theater, surrounded by people who didn’t look like me but wanted to see a movie that dealt with race and the challenges Black women faced during the 1960s. It showed me that confronting issues of race is awkward, and at certain points during the film I could tell that people were uncomfortable. There were times when my mom and I, as well as the other few Black people in the audience, would laugh or shake our heads — but no one else in the audience did. Only a few people in the audience were in on all of the jokes while the majority did not understand what was so funny.

This mirrors aspects of the debates over topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. On one side, people cannot, or may not, be willing to understand the obstacles minorities and women encounter and why they feel threatened. For people on the other side, these obstacles are obvious and clearly need to be broken down. But for both sides to be united, each needs to confront — not avoid, dismiss or just talk about — the problems that exist. In addition, neither can allow negative preconceived notions to affect their expectations. Both sides need to act; that may take the form of learning about someone else’s experience or speaking up for your beliefs in classes or on the street during a protest. This may be uncomfortable or awkward, but it is necessary in combining two divided groups into one.

Corey Dulin can be reached at cydulin@umich.edu.

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