December 19, 2018
A few years ago, Tchiya Amet, a Black woman, accused popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson of raping her while they were both astrology graduate students. Amet eventually left the program because of that experience. Other women have accused Tyson of misconduct, and the story is just now emerging in mainstream news. As a woman, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics, sees how long it took for Amet’s story to receive attention. She sees a powerful man questioning the validity of the woman’s allegations—leveraging his authority to undermine hers. As a Black scientist, she knows Tyson will see more severe punishment than the countless white men in power also accused of sexual misconduct and assault. She sees a popular Black scientist, unfortunately a rare occurrence, ruined, and a Black female scientist, also rare, pushed out of the sciences. She struggles with the truth that in Black academia, the pressures women face to remain silent in the face of sexual misconduct and assault are even stronger. Prescod-Weinstein concludes that she believes Amet is a 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.”
Facing discrimination from fellow Central American migrants, a group of about 80 LGBTQ people recently broke off from the caravan making its way to the U.S. border. LGBTQ migrants face “a dramatically higher risk of violence due to homophobia and transphobia,” both in their home countries and in immigration detention facilities. Because U.S. asylum law requires proof of membership to a persecuted group, LGBTQ migrants end up having to prove their LGBTQ identity in court. In past years, some judges were guilty of relying on stereotypes about LGBTQ people in order to determine whether an asylum-seeker was indeed LGBTQ. Today, thanks to training, most judges expect a “coming out” story, which relies less on stereotypes. But there is still room for improvement. Not everyone has a clear-cut story. For instance, in some cultures, there is no differentiation between being gay and being trans, so some asylum-seekers who identified as gay during their asylum claim later had the words from American culture to explain that they were actually trans. This can lead to yet another issue—authorities questioning the credibility of LGBTQ migrant stories.
Mychal Denzel Smith writes about the burden on Black public intellectuals to always speak to both Black and white audiences. He says that most of their time and effort is spent arguing for Black people’s humanity. This burden is illustrated by the relative lengths of the essays in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Baldwin includes a lengthy essay, “Down at the Cross,” aimed at warning white people of the consequences of racism and white supremacy, but only a short piece, “My Dungeon Shook,” written to his nephew about navigating, in Smith’s words, “a world of racism’s creation.” Smith argues that the phenomenon of having to address white audiences happens in part because the mainstream venues for intellectual discussion are controlled by white gatekeepers. “Success” often means getting to write for publications controlled by white people. Smith gives this very essay (published in Harper’s Magazine) as an example. He writes that white gatekeepers and audiences rely on a “handful of [Black] spokespeople” to “serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance.” Smith concludes that we must acknowledge the ideas and conversations that are lost when Black public intellectuals must always address white audiences in their work.