In 2014, a woman named Tchiya Amet accused Neil deGrasse Tyson of raping her while they were both graduate students in astronomy at UT Austin, ultimately leading to her dropping out of the program. In the aftermath, I encouraged journalists at mainstream outlets to pursue it. But they told me that they ran into problems convincing their editors to allow them to publish what details they could find—for example, confirming that Amet was indeed enrolled in the program. The story was picked up by a blog on the religious commentary site Patheos in October of last year, and I reached out to journalists again, with a similar response.
I have, since I first learned about them, felt that Tchiya Amet’s allegations merited a response, and I waited, for years, for one. Another post from Patheos last week featured an interview with Amet along with stories of alleged sexual harassment from two other women, an astronomy professor and a Cosmos production assistant. (Buzzfeed also had a subsequent article citing a fourth woman with similar claims).
Tyson was finally prompted to respond this week with a Facebook note (which I assume, based on his celebrity and the nature of these accusations, was vetted by both a lawyer and a publicist). He admitted to engaging in behavior that he felt had been unintentionally misinterpreted—except the rape, claiming all sexual contact between him and Amet was consensual.
But he also said, “A few years later…I learned that she had dropped out of the program” and I saw what I believed to be a lie immediately. When I discussed it with my daily Black scientist chat group, they agreed. Would he really have us believe that in the 1980s, in a field where there are almost no Black people, he hadn’t noticed right away that the only other Black graduate student had dropped out of the program? It wasn’t credible.
The truth is that Black academics (Blackademics) usually know what’s up with Black people in departments across campus, even when they hate each other. It’s also the case that Blackademics are often loath to air our dislike of each other in front of white people. We know that the bar for being seen as “good” is higher for us than others, and we tend to be forgiving of people who may not be our favorites.
My first memorable lesson about Blackademic solidarity was from Tyson himself. At the 2003 National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) meeting, 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 nerdy chit chat about physics until slowly the conversation turned to being pulled over for driving while Black. One by one, he said, they went around and recounted a story of being afraid for their lives during an unnecessary police stop. At no other conference, Tyson told us, could Black physicists find community where conversation could range so freely across all of their intellectual and social experiences.
I recently recalled this important lesson about identity and community during a conversation with fellow Black women academics that began as a discussion about history of science and technology (the subject of the conference we were attending) but eventually turned to another unfortunately common experience: each of us had been sexually harassed and/or assaulted by a fellow Black male academic. Each of us felt like it was necessary to protect the men involved and/or didn’t think that we would be believed if we told the truth.
Last week’s renewal of the conversation about Tyson’s alleged sexual misconduct against women academics got me thinking about another memory of him. I had met Tyson the day before his speech at that 2003 conference. I was a star struck 20-year-old college senior who had never stayed in a five star hotel before and attempting to make conversation, so the best I came up with was, “Wow this conference is so fancy! Who is paying for all of this?” Neil responded, “Didn’t you read the conference program? Where’s your conference program?” Before I knew it, there was The Neil deGrasse Tyson going through my backpack, taking various items out and making me laugh as he told jokes about the contents.
The following year, I was a graduate student in astronomy and feeling a bit lost in a small, very white town on a campus where not only was I the only Black graduate student in my department, but I was one of only about 10 across the entire university. I e-mailed Tyson looking for advice. While I have very little recollection of what happened on the subsequent phone call, I do remember I felt so encouraged that Neil deGrasse Tyson had taken time out of his day to call me, and I remember distinctly that he said what I most needed to hear: that I could do it. Tyson was, yet again, an encouraging role model.
But all of the men who have harassed or assaulted me have said similarly encouraging things, so the fact that I have had multiple positive interactions with Tyson over the years doesn’t make it harder to believe that he is guilty of serious misconduct. I’m extremely conscious of the fact that the United States has a tendency to punish Black people more severely than white people accused of the same crime, and I expect that Tyson won’t be defended the way other scientists accused of harassment, such as Geoff Marcy, Christian Ott, and Lawrence Krauss, were.
Over the years, hating on Tyson has become a public pastime that inspired such irrational levels of passion that it seemed evidently racist. As the news of these latest accusations came out, people came out of the woodwork to tell me how not surprising it was. “He said something sexist once,” and, “He always gave me the creeps.” None of these comments were made to me about white astronomers who in the last three years have been publicly accused of chronic sexual misconduct.
But my own experience—backed by data—teaches me that Black patriarchy is real and the harm specifically to Black women is significant. In this case, the harm is multidimensional: I believe Amet is the victim, and to a lesser extent, so are all of the Black people who found inspiration in Tyson’s visible presence as the world’s most well-known Black scientist. So too were Native Americans when Tyson referred to a “Native American” handshake in his response to one of the more recent accusations, as if Native Americans all come from a single culture that can be used as a shield against sexual harassment allegations.
In his Facebook note, Tyson notes that “long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, [Amet] was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets. As a scientist, I found this odd”—as if her spirituality somehow impeaches her believability. It’s ironic that he makes this case while also arguing another sexual harassment accusation comes down to a misunderstood attempt to share “spirit energy.”
While some will be celebrating the inevitable damage these accusations do to Tyson’s public image, I cannot. I will instead worry about what will happen to the Google search results for “Black scientist.” I will instead be reminded that the United States is a place where there are a multitude of visible white men science superstars, but only one Black person could get his foot through that door. I will wonder how different things might go in a society where taking responsibility was encouraged by a foundational investment in restorative justice.
I will also feel angry at Neil. It’s true that some details of these allegations have yet to be corroborated, and both Fox News and National Geographic have launched investigations. But in my view, I believe the claims are credible, which means he directly harmed multiple women, most egregiously by allegedly raping a member of his own already marginalized community. Tchiya Amet is a Black woman who will never join me on the list of African-American Women with PhDs in Physics. She deserved better. Our whole community did.