Excerpt of an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson
A Story About Race - Neil deGrasse Tyson
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Interviewer: Neil you make it sound like at age 9 you had this vision of yourself as an astrophysicist and you sort of marched very steadily towards that goal but there must have been some time, tell me about the time that-, the toughest the time you had on this pathway, when you almost went and did something else. And what kept you on track?
Neil: Well, I still can't say that I almost did something else. You know, astrophysics is not the first subject you think of to put food on somebody's plate, or to somehow improve the situation of the underprivileged in the world. It's just not the first profession that you think of. Um, so my parents who were- my father was active in the civil rights movement. My mother was a housewife at the time, a very common profession of the day, and later on went back to school, became a gerontologist. So here my parents who are helping people, and here's their son, you know, studying black holes, right?
Interviewer: Looking up at the sky.
Neil: Yeah yeah so it's a little weird, but they were supportive of this, and all right, but I still had some discomfort about whether I was doing the right thing culturally. And I knew I was doing the right thing personally, but you want to make a difference in the world. If you don't want to make a difference in the world, go move to another planet. I mean why, what are you here for, you know? Why-
Interviewer: Just don't move to Pluto!
Neil: But and so, meanwhile, I go to high school and I take extra science classes and extra math classes, and advanced calculus and all this stuff. And I go to college, and I was athletic in high school and college. I wrestled, by the way. I wrestled in the weight category at the time - 190 pounds. 190. Now, that's a key weight category of all of them. There are ten weight categories. Why? Because if you show up 192 pounds, you then get classified in a weight category called "Unlimited", okay? So, there's really good incentive to hit that weight.
So there's another guy on the team who is my weight. We were the same weight. He was a senior, talented fellow, majoring in economics, in fact he became a Rhodes scholar during the year. And we had a nice good workout, we're coming out, and he said "How's it going? Neil, how's it going?". I'm a freshman. "How's it going?". I said "Oh all my problem sets are kicking my butt, I barely have time to go to the bathroom", and he said "Oh what was it you were majoring in again?". I said "Physics" and he said "Well, and you want to do what with that?", and I said "I want to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics". And you know what he said to me? By the way, what was he going to do with his Rhodes fellowship at Oxford? He was going to explore the role of enterprise zones in inner city neighborhoods to empower those who were economically disenfranchised.
Okay. He's black, by the way. So, he turns to me and said "Astrophysics?". Then he says the following: "The black community cannot afford the luxury of someone with your intellect to spend it on that subject". And I was devastated by that comment. Devastated. Now he wasn't just anybody saying it, this is somebody who was walking the walk, and talking the talk. And so, I had no way out of that. He dug a hole, and put me in the hole. And I had no shovel and no ladder, no way to- there was in a hole, trying to think my way out of it. And I knew my interest in the universe was real because I felt it in my heart, I felt it coursing through my veins, but my responsibility as an educated member of society was eating away at that ambition.
In the absence of another way to think about the problem, I just kept at it, but with this albatross around my neck, this, this guilt that maybe I wasn't doing all I could to help others.
All right. It's 1989. I'm in graduate school, in New York City, Columbia University, Upper West Side. A phone call comes in to the department from Fox News. This is before Fox was a national network. It was just local Fox News. The weather guy had read over the newswire that there was an explosion on the sun. Okay. A blob of plasma, plasma, astrophysical plasma, which is just a gas with a lot of ionized particles in it, so it actually responds to magnetic fields. It's kind of a cool state, sometimes called the fourth state of matter. And the guy said "You know like if there's this explosion on the sun, what can you tell us about it?" I said "Oh it's just a blob of plasma, highly charged particles moving fast".
Interviewer: About a hundred times the size of the earth
Neil: "Yeah, it's large. It's a big plasma pie headed towards earth. As it gets closer, these charged particles witll notice the magnetic field of the earth, they will split positive and negative, they will be attracted to the poles, they'll spiral down, collide with the molecules in earth's atmosphere, excite them and render them aglow, creating the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis. So, tomorrow and over the weekend, why don't you go North and have a good look at it?". He said, "You mean earth is okay?". I said "Earth is fine".
He said "Can you say that on the air?" and I said "Okay". And he said "We'll send up a limo", and I said "Limo? On the air?" and I'm like, I'm a graduate student, alright. I'm wearing my one shirt and I got B.O. and I'm not- you know. So I said "Could you send the limo to my house, okay? To my apartment, and meet me there, not at the office?". So I like, run home, shower, put on my one tie, my one- you know shirt, my one jacket, go to the interview. But sitting here like this, a little backdrop of books, kind of this- the erudite set. Anyway so we do the interview, and it's fine, we record the tape at three in the afternoon. So I go home, call everybody - mom, dad, sis, brother, grandma, grandpa, said "I'm gonna be on TV! Tune in!". This was my first time on TV.
So, I'm home eating dinner, kay? And the interview comes on. There it is. So, there it is, and at the end, I had an epiphany. A revelation. You ready? 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. I'm talking about experts-
Intellectual. I had never seen a back person in- the guy didn't ask me, "Well how do black people feel about this plasma coming from the sun? What does your community feel about this? Will it harm your skin the way it will harm ours?". That's not the conversation that unfolded. I was telling him whether earth would survive. 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? You know, shiftless and lazy, and then Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics sets four world records within 45 minutes in front of Hitler, right? The Aryan race, so that kind of fixed that one. We got that one done, you know? No one is saying blacks don't have physical ability, that one's done. Okay.
So when you combine this, I wondered, maybe it is more of this, that's a way to undermine this sort of, this stereotype that prevailed about who's smart and who's dumb. And think about it: the word "smart" is not applied to all professions, even if you are smart in that profession. 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.
Interviewer: And Neil, well at this point you had the answer to your Rhodes scholar.
Neil: Thank you! I said to myself, "I just have to be visible, or others like me, in that situation". That would have a greater force on society than anything else I could imagine. Anything else. And so, to this day, I'm getting email from white people saying they wish they were as smart as I was. That was an unthinkable thing thirty years ago. It just would not have ever happened. White people wishing they were smart like black people. And so, um, so, so, then said to myself, "It's not that the black community can't afford to have me do astrophysics, it can't afford for me to NOT do astrophysics", and at that point, I find myself standing outside the hole. I'd climbed out, just the act of observing that interview. And since then, there have been other interviews with uh, intellectuals of minority groups that have nothing to do with their being a minority. But I think that might have been the first ever. And I'll tell you why I think it was the first, not that I've seen every single broadcast up until that minute of every channel, but it was another five years before I saw it happen again. That's why I think it was- then you're looking, it's like you buy a new car and everybody somehow has your car that you're driving, how did that happen? Well you're now looking for it. So I was looking for it, and it went another five years.
So, yeah, so I'm out of the hole. So then I said "Well let me look up my guy, see what he's doing". I can't find him anywhere on the internet, I don't know where he is. So I think I made the right decision. And that's what- that's how that unfolded. But that and I- yes I still knew I wanted to become an astrophysicist, but there's the comfort level for having made that decision that I had to work myself into.
Interviewer: Very good, wonderful story.http://zabberts.com/transcripts/transcript-Neil_deGrasse_Tyson-A_Story_About_Race.html