Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the public image as social capital

| April 17, 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

By Ryan Schnurr
Special to Frost Illustrated

A few weeks ago, I heard an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on NPR’s Fresh Air. At one point Tyson, who is black, is asked by the interviewer when it was that he had first realized he had a gift for communicating with people about science (roughly 20:10). Below are a few excerpts from Tyson’s responses in the ensuing dialogue (though the entire interview is worth a listen if you get a chance):

“Yeah, people call it a gift, and that implies you sit there and someone hands it to you. I want to encourage people to…think in terms of ‘Wow, you work hard to succeed at that.’ Because that’s exactly what I do.…

“People say ‘Oh, you’re such a natural.’ That’s what they say, and I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.…

“You mentioned the race thing earlier, generally I never talk about race but you…did. Um, you remember the comparisons between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. When they describe Larry Bird’s very high, obvious talent they say ‘Oh, he’s a student of basketball, and he studies where the ball is and where people…’ and they’d talk about Michael Jordan [and] say ‘Oh, he’s just a natural’…meanwhile he was not a first-round pick out of his college or getting into college. The man worked at it. And so at some point one needs to say ‘Yes, black people who are talented work at what they did to become talented…’”

This is a bit of gold from Tyson, who has clearly excelled—through hard work—in his field of astrophysics as well as communication. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York and hosts an (extraordinary) update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos this spring on PBS.

In another, earlier interview, Tyson talked a bit more about being a black scientist, recounting a story in which he was asked to comment as an expert on a Fox News show:

“It was 1989. I had never before, in my life—and I believe to this day that that was the first such occasion, ever— But I’d never before in my life seen an interview with a black person on television for expertise that had nothing to do with being black. Holding aside of course interviews with performers and musicians, or athletes, right.…

“And at that point, I realized that one of the last stereotypes that prevailed among people who carry stereotypes is that sort of black people are somehow dumb. There used to be this stereotype that blacks were, like, physically unable, right? …No one is saying blacks don’t have physical ability, that one’s done. Okay.…

“No one talks about ‘smart’ lawyers, they may say ‘a brilliant lawyer’. They’ll talk about a ‘creative’ artist. ‘Smart’ is saved for scientists. It just is. It’s not even really applied to medical doctors. It applies to scientists, in the lab, figuring stuff out that hadn’t been figured out before. So if you had visible examples of this, then whatever is your next encounter with a black person trying to squeegee your windshield at the, at the red light. And if you’re prone to saying ‘Oh these black people, they don’t work, and they’re too dumb’, you’re gonna have to remember that I just told you that earth is safe from the plasma that came from the sun, and so you’re going to have to reconcile this. You’re gonna have to be wondering ‘Well maybe this guy could have been one of those’, but for lack of opportunity, but for lack of institutions with foresight, okay.”

Notice the correlations here with physical ability. Public perception affects decision-making, and Tyson points out that stereotypical black people, at this point, are considered to be physically able—but not smart.

“They” are athletically and musically inclined, and can even excel creatively and physically because of “their” natural abilities. There’s no black caricature for intellect, and none for working really hard.

He also addresses the institutional and ideological barriers that have contributed to (read: created) the absence of minorities in certain social roles.

I’m an educated, straight, white male; an inheritance away from being the protagonist in a Wes Anderson film. And so I grew up believing I could be anything I wanted. That if I worked as hard as I could at something, I could excel.

And significantly, I never felt that any intrinsic aspect of my personhood had anything to do with who I could be or what I could do with my life.

For most of my childhood I wanted to be a baseball player, and I believed that I could. Then I wanted to be an actor, a television anchor, then a filmmaker, then a sociologist, then a writer, then a professor. And, I believed that I could be all of these.

But more than that, I knew that other people believed that I could be these things too. There didn’t seem to be any barriers other than my capacity to perform the tasks associated with each occupation.

As I’ve grown older, I have realized that there are things outside of my control that may affect my chances in some fields or cause me to self-select out of them. I have been frustrated and discouraged when this happens.

But I have never felt like Neil DeGrasse Tyson in 1989, when he realized that he’d never seen someone who looked like him who was an expert on something other than looking like him.

This absence is serious and complicated. But as long as some members of our community are told—explicitly or implicitly—that there are certain roles they cannot occupy, broad declarations of equal opportunity ring hollow.

Ryan Schnurr is a writer, photographer and editor living in Fort Wayne, Ind. Read more about him and his work at RyanSchnurr.com

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