In 2014, a woman named Tchiya Amet accused Neil deGrasse Tyson of raping her while they were both university students in astronomy at UT Austin, eventually leading to her release from the program. Later, I encouraged journalists in mainstream outlets to pursue it. But they told me that they ran into problems in persuading their editors to allow them to publish the details they could find, for example, by confirming that Amet was actually enrolled in the program. The story was taken from a blog on the site of the Patheos religious commentaries in October of last year, and I contacted the journalists again, with a similar response.
Since I first heard about them, I heard that Tchiya Amet's accusations deserved an answer, and I waited, for years, for one. Another post from Patheos last week presented an interview with Amet and stories of alleged sexual harassment by two other women, a professor of astronomy and a Cosmos production assistant. (Buzzfeed also had a later article quoting a fourth woman with similar statements).
In the end Tyson was invited to respond this week with a note from Facebook (which I assume, based on his celebrity and the nature of these allegations, was controlled by both a lawyer and a publicist). He admitted to behaving in a behavior that he believed was intentionally misunderstood, except rape, claiming that all sexual relations between him and Amet were consensual.
But he also said, "A few years later … I knew he had left the program" and I immediately saw what I thought was a lie. When I discussed it with my daily chat group of black scientists, they agreed. Would it really make us believe that in the 80s, in a field where there were almost no black people, did not he immediately notice that the only other black graduate student had left the program? It was not credible.
The truth is that black academics (Blackademics) usually know what happens to blacks in departments across campus, even when they hate each other. It is also the case that Blackademics are often reluctant to fuel our mutual aversion to white people. We know that the bar to be seen as "good" is higher for us than others, and we tend to forgive people who may not be our favorites.
My first memorable lesson on Blackademic solidarity was Tyson himself. At a meeting of the National Society of Black Physics (NSBP) in 2003, he explained during a keynote why it was important to have meetings for Black physicists. During a previous NSBP, he and a group of black men exchanged chatter about physics nerd about physics until the conversation slowly turned into a hint at Black's leadership. One after the other, he said, they went around and told a story of fear for their lives during a useless police stop. In no other conference, Tyson told us, black physicists could find a community in which the conversation could so freely spread through all their intellectual and social experiences.
Recently I recalled this important lesson on identity and the community during a conversation with fellow black women academics who started as a discussion on the history of science and technology (the subject of the conference we were attending) but at the they turned to another unfortunately common experience: we had each been sexually harassed and / or assaulted by a black male academic colleague. Each of us felt that it was necessary to protect the men involved and / or did not think we would believe it if we had told the truth.
Last week's renewal of the conversation about Tyson's alleged sexual misconduct towards women academics made me think of another memory of him. I had met Tyson the day before his speech at the 2003 conference. I was a 20-year-old college star who had never stayed in a five-star hotel before and was trying to make conversation, so the best I had was, "Wow this conference is so beautiful! Who's paying for all this?" Neil replied, "Did not you read the conference program? Should it be your conference program?" Before I knew it, there was The Neil deGrasse Tyson is going through my backpack, taking various items and making me laugh while telling jokes about the contents.
The following year, I was a graduate student in astronomy and I felt a little lost in a very white little city on a campus where not only was I the only black graduate student in my department but I was one of only around 10 in the whole university world. I sent an e-mail to Tyson looking for advice. While I remember very little about what happened to the next phone call, I remember feeling so encouraged that Neil deGrasse Tyson had taken time out of his time to call me, and I distinctly remember that he said what I needed most to hear: that I could doing it Tyson was, once again, a model of encouraging behavior.
But all the men who harassed or assaulted me said just as encouraging things, so the fact that I had more positive interactions with Tyson over the years does not make it more difficult to believe that he is guilty of serious misconduct. I am extremely aware of the fact that the United States has a tendency to punish blacks more severely than whites accused of the same crime, and I expect Tyson will not be defended by the way other harassed scientists such as Geoff Marcy, Christian Ott and Lawrence Krauss were.
Over the years, hating Tyson has become a public pastime that has inspired irrational levels of passion that seemed evidently racist. When the news of these latest accusations arrived, people came out of the carpentry shop to tell me how surprising it was. "He said something of a sexist once" and "He always gave me the creeps." None of these comments have been made to me on white astronomers who have been publicly accused of chronic sexual misconduct in the last three years.
But my experience, supported by the data, teaches me that black patriarchy is real and the specific harm to black women is significant. In this case, the damage is multidimensional: I believe Amet is the victim, and to a lesser extent, as are all blacks who have found inspiration in the visible presence of Tyson as the most famous black scientist in the world. The same applies to Native Americans when Tyson referred to a "Native American" handshake in his response to one of the most recent allegations, as if the Native Americans came from a unique culture that can be used as a shield against allegations of sexual harassment.
In his note on Facebook, Tyson notes that "long after he left school of specialization in astrophysics, [Amet] she was posting videos of colorful tuned forks with therapeutic vibratory energy that she channels from orbiting planets. As a scientist, I found this strange "-as if his spirituality somehow prevented his credibility.It is ironic that he makes this case while also another accusation of sexual harassment comes down to a misunderstood attempt to share" energy " of the spirit ".
While some will celebrate the inevitable damage that these accusations make to Tyson's public image, I can not. Instead, I will worry about what will happen to Google's search results for "black scientist". I will remember instead that the United States is a place where there are a multitude of scientific superstars of visible white men, but only a black person could get his foot through that door. I wonder how different things can go in a society where accountability is encouraged by a fundamental investment in restorative justice.
I will also feel angry with Neil. It is true that some details of these allegations have yet to be corroborated and both Fox News and National Geographic have started investigations. But in my opinion, I believe the claims are credible, which means that he has directly harmed many women, most egregiously by raping a member of his already marginalized community. Tchiya Amet is a black woman who will never join me on the list of African American women with a doctorate in physics. She deserved better. Our entire community has done.
Editor's Note: Our house style will normally enchant the word "black" with a lowercase b. In this essay, however, the author has expressly requested to keep it in capital letters, as he originally wrote it. A blogpost that has shown us to explain the reasoning.