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Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Racism and Sexism in Science

neil degrasse tyson

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a super famous astrophysicist who is Black. His increasing visibility in mainstream media culture is due to his charismatic personality and his ability to translate dense scientific ideals to a non-scientific audience. He has a plethora of science videos on PBS, and he is the star of the new show, Cosmos. For me, he stands out as an inspirational figure because he is very outspoken about the racist and sexist conditions in scientific spaces. His ability to confront these systems of domination while still reigning as the top astrophysicist is commendable.


Check out the show “Cosmos”

There have been several conversations in mainstream culture that question why science fields and disciplines lack minoritized bodies. In fact, you might ordinarily hear, “why aren’t there more women and people of color in science?”

Do you see what’s wrong with that question? Rather than asking what makes the science space so hostile and violent that minoritized people do not want to join?, we place the burden on the minorities and pathologize their behavior instead. We are used to asking the wrong questions in our culture. We tend to question the oppressed rather than the oppressors. For example, when a woman is in an abusive relationship, we’re trained to ask “why doesn’t she just leave?” rather than asking, “why is the man hitting her?” or “what type of culture are we living in where it’s routine for men to dehumanize women?”

Questions can often reveal our personal and cultural ideologies. No question is neutral. So, when Neil DeGrasse Tyson was on a panel about science education and was asked by an older white male, “so, what’s up with chics in science?” his answer was absolutely brilliant.

After the man asked the question, another white man [who seemed like the moderator for the event] asked the panel if any of them wanted to dwell upon the genetic differences between men and women to explain why women are not in science.

Tyson stated:

I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as with the community of women in a white male dominated society…

I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was 9 years old…I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions and all I can say is the fact that I wanted to be a scientist…was hands down the path of most resistance through the…forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest teachers would say ‘don’t you want to be an athlete?’ I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power…Now here I am, one of the most visible scientists in the land and I want to look behind me and say where are the others who might have been this and they’re not there and I wonder how, who, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because of the forces of society…

So, my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today, so before we start talking about genetic differences you gotta come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation.  

In a different post, I discuss how Steve Harvey is a sexist because he tries to empower women by focusing on how delicate we are as flowers and I labeled this a benevolent sexist act. [Benevolent sexism refers to the act of using positive language to oppress someone]. DeGrasse, on the other hand, acts in a way that is ideal. Rather than saying how beautiful, or sexy, or fragile women are to explain why our bodies are missing in science spaces, he focuses on the context that women live in. He amplifies the struggles we have, rather than engaging in a faux-celebration of women’s supposed strength and beauty.

Just the other day I was watching The Talk and they had actor Ian Somerhalder on arrogantly talking about himself, and trying to score points in the feminist market by discussing how sexy ALL women were, and how empowered we all were because we were beautiful. [I am getting SO sick of this whole “women are so beautiful” garbage]. Though this may seem like a compliment, he [and all men who engage in this behavior] are doing ALL women a disservice because they are dehumanizing us. In an attempt to look progressive because they think girls with curves are cute, these men keep trying to paint a positive image of the conditions that surround women’s bodies. Rather than focusing on sexism or racism [conditions that impact our lives as women], they are merely focusing on our looks.

Tyson goes 18 extra miles by pinpointing the systems of domination that ACTUALLY impact women because, just in case you weren’t sure, women face many OTHER problems besides the media spitting out unattainable standards of beauty [also, let’s not forget to mention the fact that a lot of women are OKAY with their bodies! Sexism has many faces and forms…beauty standards are not its only expression!].

I’m hoping that this trend [the Tyson-trend] of calling out sexism,racism, and white supremacy replaces the current trend where guys lazily just talk about women’s bodies-as-beautiful-props to seem like they actually care about women. Being an ally to women means doing more than just talking about how sexy we ALL are. It requires real work. It means that you have to understand the conditions that many women face, and speak out against those conditions as Tyson does in the video.

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