Being Black Means We Have to be 200% Better
I realized today after Sam Kriss decided to drag Neil deGrasse Tyson and Wired decided to publish the hit job (no I am not linking to it) that a lot of white scientists I know probably don’t really understand what this means. They thought the article was harsh but failed to notice any of the bleedingly fucking obvious racism. They failed to feel disconcerted about the disparate impact the publication of the article could have either. Folks, how can I take your supposed interest in diversity seriously when the basics pass you by and when you’re not wildly apologetic the moment it gets pointed out to you? (Some were, eventually, so I guess thanks for realizing that being wrong and saying sorry isn’t actually like setting yourself on fire.)
And I feel so pained by how that whole situation played out that I am actually taking the time to write, even though I really don’t want to, get no pleasure from it, and will experience zero catharsis at the end of it or from circulating it.
So here’s what it means: it means that Black people are VERY rarely thinking of themselves and themselves alone. We are not allowed to. We are aware of that every moment, not because we are paranoid but because we’ve been alive long enough to know how the world works. We know that when Black person A does something, if it’s good, it will be considered a fluke and if it’s bad Black people A-Z are all going to be labeled as failures.
Students walk into my office and say, “I got a C on the exam, and now people are going to think Black students get C’s in this subject.” I have to remind them that somewhere in that giant class is a white dude who got a C, and he is not at all worried that his C reflects on the whole damn race.
When a Black scientist receives press, I am not just thinking about how that press impacts them. Let’s say someone gets arrested. I know that the arrest will be used against all of us. I worry about how it will affect the Google search results. I don’t want small children finding articles about arrests when they Google “Black physicist” for example.
Do white physicists have to worry about this? Do white kids feel like they have to look for “white physicist” when they are searching for role models that resemble family? Do they worry that there are so few white physicists that one getting into trouble/not being perfect will damn the progress of the entire community?
So when you all come for a Black scientist, remember that you are not just coming for that person. You are coming for the whole community. AND YOU SHOULD FUCKING BE CAREFUL. There are children reading your words. Their parents are reading your words. They are looking to find out:
“What is it like to be an astrophysicist if you are Black?”
“What kind of experience will my child have if I encourage them to study physics?”
“What kind of respect do white physicists show to Black scientists?”
“Are they treated fairly in the press?”
“Is working to give my child a chance at the opportunities I was denied worth it? Or will my child be harassed for existing?”
“Will I enjoy doing physics or will my classmates be treating me like crap the whole time?”
“Will I be able to find mentors who understand me? Who can help me build and walk the road to my dreams?”
So, when you decide you hate Neil Tyson so much because you wouldn’t enjoy watching movies with him, consider whether you really need to post that shit on a widely read tech site. Consider whether your accusations are just whining/rooted in bias. In this case, Tyson is “accused” of needing scriptwriters, like other, white physicists don’t use them for SCRIPTED doc series, as if he is especially incompetent.
This is needing to be 200% better. It’s okay for Carl Sagan to have a scripted series. It’s okay for Stephen Hawking to plan out his speeches. It’s okay that the LIGO team carefully scripted their remarks the day of the gravitational wave announcement. But it’s not okay for Neil Tyson to use a script for a multimillion dollar television production that will possibly be the most widely watched scientific documentary on the planet for the next several years. Yeah, that’s needing to be 200% better. That’s a double standard for a Black man. That’s white supremacy. That’s why Black people often experience severe doubt that they can achieve the success they want: we know the game is rigged. We have to be 200% better.
What if I don’t have it in me to be 200% better? I have that conversation with myself almost every day.
Tangentially, to the editor at the tech site: JUST, WHAT? It is your job to have some discretion.
Neil deGrasse Tyson Is a Black Hole, Sucking the Fun Out of the Universe
That title. What a master class in dog whistling. Way to remind everyone that Neil Tyson is Black before going on to insult him in every possible manner. Way to get the physics wrong (black holes don’t actually do any sucking) and prove that you were too busy hating Neil to even listen to any of the words coming out of his mouth.
And so by the way, Neil isn’t perfect. He has definitely made missteps on social media, ones that included not respecting women scientists.
But white male scientists do shit like that all the time. COUGH COUGH RICHARD DAWKINS. People share panels with assholes like Dawkins all the time. Where are the hit pieces on them? (Here’s a link for defensive people who don’t know that in this context “them” is a plural word.)
Oh wait, those people aren’t Black so it’s okay for them to be imperfect. We, on the other hand, have to be 200%. Great. I’m still not sure I have that in me.
If you don’t understand this basic feature of underrepresented minority existence, it’s possible you should stay away from minority students and your next broader impacts proposal should be short and sweet: “I will be attending anti-racist workshops and paying for everyone in my department to as well.” (h/t to Dr. Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, an ally who puts in exactly that kind of work, for that idea)
ps: Here is a story about Neil deGrasse Tyson. When I was 20, I met him at my first National Society of Black Physicists meeting. He went through my backpack and told jokes about everything inside. Then he gave a speech about how the NSBP meeting was the one place where he didn’t have to check any of his identities at the door. It left an *extremely lasting impression on me* that has forever altered the way I think about helping students succeed in physics. Part of my competency is thanks to Neil. A year later when I was in grad school and feeling a bit out of place at the whitest campus in all of the University of California, I sent him kind of a sad sack email. Neil’s secretary emailed me and asked what time he could call me. And he called. And he told me I could do it. He’s not just a guy on Twitter or some guy on TV. If I was watching a movie with Neil, by the way, and he was nitpicking it, I would go through his backpack and tell jokes about what’s inside.
pps: I could seriously write more but I WOULD PREFER NOT TO, SO COULD YOU GUYS TAKE CARE OF THIS SHIT IN FUTURE SO BLACK PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN WHAT IS ESSENTIALLY THE ALPHABET IN FUTURE? Thanks.
ppps: I swear, if anyone ever tries to force you to watch a movie with NdT doing running commentary next to you, I will totally come and defend you. Otherwise, unfollow him on Twitter and go read a book? Or watch Continuum. That show is pretty good. Or call the police if anyone is forcing you to do something you don’t want to do. Unless you’re Black because the people you might be having a problem with are the police. I digress. The point is, you never have to do anything with a Black man that you don’t want to. It’s an American value.