Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most famed astrophysicists of our time, highlighted a very important point when the topic of lack of representation of women in the field of science came up at a recent conference, “Secular Society and its Enemies.”
Tyson made the brilliant connection between lack of representation of women and lack of representation of people of color in his answer to the awkwardly worded question, “what’s up with chicks in science?”
Although he could not speak for the struggles of women trying to break into various science fields he addresses the obstacles he faced as a black man trying to pursue a career in astrophysics. In his answer, Tyson does something we seldom see from people of color in higher positions in this country, he put the burden of correcting the lack of representation of marginalized groups in science careers on the institution not the people on the margins.
With the ever-growing attack on Affirmative Action and the 2013 gutting of the VRA, there is a national shift toward placing the burden of bettering oneself on the individual instead of the system that was designed to keep them out.
Tyson could have easily blamed people of color and women for not achieving the level of success he has attained. Many prominent
people of color and women tend to reproduce this bootstrap logic (here’s looking at you former Secretary of State Condi, Justice Thomas, and The Queen of Neo-liberal feminism HRH Sandberg).
The question regarding the lack of women in sciences being posed by a man is important in that it shows that there is still the belief that women are responsible for their absence in sciences. As a white male—the common face of science—he did not ask what we as men in the sciences can do to make sure there are more women in science careers, but why women are not present in the sciences as if the burden of responsibility to be more represented is on women and/or people of color.
Tyson’s comments are important because they address the problem for what it is: the barring of marginalized people through institutional means such as not providing the appropriate education to people from lower class backgrounds or tracking students into vocational fields or athletics.
Tyson references his own experiences with overt and discreet discrimination to explain the very real forces that stand in the way of blacks entering careers in science. He cites an incident where a white man exploited the racist assumptions of the security guards at a store by walking out of the door with stolen goods at the same time as Tyson knowing that they would check the astrophysicist first allowing the thief to walk out of the store scot-free.
At many different points in his life, people doubted his desire to become an astrophysicist, questioned his ability to succeed at astrophysics and even suggested that he become an athlete instead, yet Tyson carried on with his childhood dream to become an astrophysicist.
The sciences have commonly been portrayed as a white man’s field (look it’s Albert Einstein, Galileo and all the other white men who singlehandedly invented the world!!) with women and people of color showing up occasionally and soon after being wiped from the public memory. Outside of George Washington Carver (whose prolific work regarding agriculture is generally reduced to solely the invention of peanut butter, which he totally didn’t do), very few non-white scientists are celebrated throughout history.
This lack of representation of people of color and/or women has a very real impact on marginalized people looking to get into the sciences. Tyson named his pursuit of a career in astrophysics as “the path of most resistance through the forces of nature.”
Tyson explicitly names American society as a “white-male dominated society” and explains how his desire to “become something that’s outside the paradigms of expectation of the people of power” was a direct affront to this society. Basically, he wanted to break the stereotypes put forth by the patriarchy and he was not going to let the patriarchy stop him from being great.
In order to dispel myths that genetic differences are to blame for the lack of women, or people of color, (myths that have been long used to explain racial or gender disparities) Tyson asserts that those in power in the sciences must “come up with a system that is equal opportunity” before we ask why there are not more marginalized people in the sciences.
Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought states that there is power and empowerment in thriving against the odds. Even though Tyson only briefly talks about the obstacles he faced pursuing his career, it is obvious that he chose to thrive in astrophysics in spite of the odds. I think it’s safe to say that his success serves as an inspiration and point of empowerment for us all.
Even if you don’t know about astrophysics or care about how the galaxy works (which is totally okay because not every one is called to be great in the sciences) you should pay attention to Tyson’s words on access to opportunity because his statements can easily apply to a variety of institutions in America.
We have to stop trying to treat the symptoms of institutional discrimination such as women and people of color missing from a field and begin looking at the root of the problem which seems to clearly be unequal access to opportunity.
Check out the clip from the conference below!
Tyson’s work can be found at haydenplanetarium.org/Tyson/.