Neil Degrasse Tyson Controversy: Claims of Sexual Misconduct Against Neil De Grasse Tyson Shed Light on The Thorny Issue of Educational Disparity!
Neil Degrasse Tyson Controversy: A woman named Tchiya Amet dropped out of the UT Austin astronomy graduate program in 2014 after making allegations of rape against Neil deGrasse Tyson. Afterward, I advocated for coverage of the story by mainstream media journalists.
But they told me they had trouble getting their editors to let them publish the information they had uncovered, such as the fact that Amet was enrolled in the program. A blog on the religious commentary website Patheos picked up the story in October of last year, and I contacted journalists again, with the same response.
Since I first heard about them, I’ve been waiting patiently for a response to Tchiya Amet’s allegations. The interview with Amet and the accounts of sexual harassment from an astronomy professor and a Cosmos production assistant were published in a separate post on Patheos last week. (A subsequent Buzzfeed article also quoted a fourth woman making similar claims.)
This week, Tyson was finally moved to respond, and he did so with a Facebook post (which I assume, based on his celebrity and the nature of these accusations, was vetted by both a lawyer and a publicist). Except for the rape, he admitted to actions he believed had been wrongly interpreted. He insisted that all of his sexual encounters with Amet were voluntary.
His statement, “A few years later…I learned that she had dropped out of the program,” however, immediately tipped me off that he was telling a fib. After I brought it up in my weekly meeting of Black scientists, they all agreed. In the 1980s, in a field with almost no Black people, would he really have us believe that he hadn’t noticed right away that the only other Black graduate student had dropped out of the program? It just didn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Even when Black people on campus are at each other’s throats, Black academics (Blackademics) usually know what’s going on with Black people in departments across campus. It’s also true that Black academics are sometimes hesitant to express their mutual dislike of each other in front of white people. Since we have a higher standard for what constitutes “good” behavior, we are more tolerant of those who aren’t our favorites.
It was from Tyson himself that I learned my first important lesson in Academic solidarity. He gave a keynote address at the 2003 meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), explaining why such gatherings are necessary. The topic of being stopped for driving while Black came up in conversation with a group of Black men he’d met at a previous NSBP, where they’d started off talking about physics.
He said that each person recounted a time when they feared for their safety during an unwarranted police stop. Tyson told us that Black physicists would not be able to find a community where discussions could freely cover everything from their academic work to their personal lives at any other conference.
Recently, I was discussing the history of science and technology with a group of Black women academics at a conference when the topic shifted to the unfortunate reality that each of us had been the victim of sexual harassment or assault at the hands of a Black male colleague. This experience brought this lesson about identity and community flooding back to me. Nobody believed us if we told the truth, and we all felt it was important to keep the men involved safe.
The recent resurgence of the debate over allegations of sexual misconduct against female academics by Tyson prompted me to reflect on a different recollection of him. Before his speech in 2003, I had the pleasure of meeting Tyson the day before.
As a star-struck 20-year-old college senior who had never stayed in a five-star hotel before and was trying to strike up a conversation, all I could muster was, “Wow, this conference is so fancy!” If you want to know “Who’s footing the bill for this?” Didn’t you read the conference program?” Neil retorted.
Where is the conference schedule? Unbeknownst to me, Neil deGrasse Tyson was rummaging through my backpack, pulling out random items, and making me laugh with jokes about them.
A year later, I was an astronomy graduate student at a university in a small, predominantly white town, where I was one of only ten Black graduate students. I sent an email to Tyson in search of his counsel.
What transpired during the ensuing phone call is a blur, but I do recall how gratified I was that Neil deGrasse Tyson had taken the time out of his busy schedule to call me, and how he told me exactly what I needed to hear: that I could do it. Again, Tyson served as an inspiring example to his peers.
The fact that I have had numerous positive interactions with Tyson over the years does not make it harder to believe that he is guilty of serious misconduct, because all of the men who have harassed or assaulted me have said similar encouraging things.
Knowing full well that the United States has a history of treating Black people more harshly than white people accused of the same crime, I fully anticipate that Tyson will not receive the same level of support as other scientists who have been accused of harassment, such as Geoff Marcy, Christian Ott, and Lawrence Krauss.
Hating Tyson has evolved into a national pastime, and it has become so ingrained in people’s psyches that it is now widely seen as racist. People came out of the woodwork as the news of these latest accusations spread to tell me that they did not find it shocking. He once made a sexist remark, and from that point on, he always made me uncomfortable. No one has ever made any of these remarks to me about the white astronomers who have been widely accused of sexual misconduct over the past three years.
But I know from personal experience, and the data supports this, that Black patriarchy is real, and it does real damage to Black women. To me, Amet is the primary victim here, but all Black people who looked up to Tyson as the world’s most famous Black scientist are also harmed. So too were Native Americans when Tyson, in response to one of the more recent accusations, referred to a “Native American” handshake, as if all Native Americans share a common culture that can be used as a shield against sexual harassment claims.
Tyson writes on Facebook that “long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, [Amet] was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets.” This struck me as strange from a scientific perspective, as if her spirituality negated any credibility she might have had. It’s ironic that he makes this argument while also claiming that another allegation of sexual harassment can be reduced to a misunderstanding of his intention to share “spirit energy.”
Some people will likely rejoice at the destruction of Tyson’s reputation that these allegations will cause, but I can’t bring myself to do that. Instead, my focus will be on the future of the “Black scientist” search result on Google.
Instead, I’ll be reminded that the United States is home to a plethora of white male science superstars, but only one Black man was able to break down the door and enter the elite club. How things might change if society invested heavily in restorative justice to promote individual accountability intrigues me.
There will be resentment on my part toward Neil as well. True, not all of the specifics of these claims have been verified; Fox News and National Geographic have both begun looking into the matter. But I think the allegations are credible, which implies he directly damaged several women, most egregiously by reportedly raping a member of his own already ostracised tribe.
Tchiya Amet, although being Black, will never join me as an African-American woman with a doctorate in physics. To put it bluntly, she deserved better. We all chipped in to help out.
Note from the editor: “black” is typically spelled with a lowercase b in our style guide. The author of this piece, however, asked that we preserve the capitalization exactly as she wrote it. She directed us to a blog post where the rationale is laid out in greater detail.