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Apr 20 2012

Movie Friday: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Talented Tenth

One of things I remember learning from my father at a young age is that I was going to have to work harder to achieve what others had because of my race. That my performance would be judged alongside a whole bunch of racist baggage over which I had no control. Now that I am in the professional realm, it’s hard for me to say whether or not he was right in my own case (if my race has been a serious impediment to my achievement, I’ve never noticed), but I do know that it is generally true.

W.E.B. Dubois, one of America’s first prominent black intellectuals, espoused a concept called the “talented tenth”. His conjecture was that in a population of black folks, there were an ‘elite’ group at the top that could succeed despite racist handicapping. Dubois suggested that this elite group had a duty to ensure that, as they succeeded, they brought the other 90% along with them. That the privileges and talents afforded those at the top should be used in the advancement of the entire race, rather than put to use to benefit the oppressor. Egotist that I am, I always imagined myself being among that elite group, and (in my own way) accepting the responsibility.

Of course the problem for me is that I am largely an outsider to black communities, since I didn’t grow up among other black kids or even family members (they all lived scattered far afield – I am closer to my Italian step-cousins than I am my blood relatives). I was therefore left with a conundrum: did I try to force integrate into a black community in order to arrogantly “elevate” them to my status? If not, how could I live up to a duty that I felt was fair and important?

Neil deGrasse Tyson tells of a similar problem:

Much like Dr. Tyson, I make my peace with the fact that I am not a part of any black community by exploiting my familiarity with non-black groups. Instead of working twice as hard in order to achieve, I began working twice as hard to introduce exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance that forces people to re-examine their prejudices. I hold myself to a higher standard because I know that my success can have a ripple effect. I do not, as some have done, try to ‘pass’ or try to ‘fit in’ despite my blackness – I make sure to wear it on my sleeve, and let it be your problem if your brain struggles to wed the concept of a scientist/classical musician with the concept of ‘black guy’.

This blog, incidentally, is part of the contract I made with myself as well. I may not be a close member of a black community, but I do face many of the same issues. Because I have some talent for explaining concepts and drawing useful comparisons to things in the everyday life of those who do not necessarily have to think about race, I can serve my people by expanding the circle of people having the conversation. I think my approach is working, and I have no intention of letting up any time soon.

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8 comments

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  1. 1
    hall_of_rage

    Perhaps this would be a good time to thank you (as a white person who’s seen too much racism against black kids among others) for your anti-racist work.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    I cringe at the thought of putting my random thoughts on the internet as “work”, especially in the face of people who are actually physically protesting or making anti-racism their life’s work, but I am glad my meager efforts are appreciated. Thank you.

  3. 3
    abeille

    I really admire Neil deGrasse Tyson- I love listening to him talk.

    How long did you struggle with this before finding a way to make peace?

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Meh, it’s not something I don’t still struggle with. Hard to know when it started – I’ve been interested in racism since I was a little kid. Actually entered a speech-writing competition at age 11 with a 15-minute barn burner on racism.

  5. 5
    nm

    Instead of working twice as hard in order to achieve, I began working twice as hard to introduce exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance that forces people to re-examine their prejudices.

    Well, ya know, each time you get people to re-examine their prejudices, that is a sort of achievement itself. I’m white with some black friends who over the years have let a bunch of stupid things I’ve said slide because they knew I was just stupid, not ill-intentioned, and because we were friends. I’m oh so grateful for those among them who didn’t let me get away with that stuff, because we were friends and they wanted to see me do better.

  6. 6
    Kim

    I make sure to wear it on my sleeve, and let it be your problem if your brain struggles to wed the concept of a scientist/classical musician with the concept of ‘black guy’.

    I was wondering what you do exactly to wear it on your sleeve. I am Australian with no first hand knowledge of what being black in north america means, so it’s not a snark question. That’s why your blog is so valuable to me actually. Very educational. I just need to find one exactly the same except by an Aboriginal Australian. Know anyone?

  7. 7
    Mike Haubrich

    That is a great story, and it reminded me of the time that Greg Laden interviewed Dr. Tyson on the radio. Greg asked him a question (I was hosting the show so I was right there with Greg and Tyson was on the phone.) Before he answered the question, Tyson told Greg “That is a really good question.” Greg was thrilled to have Tyson say that.

    Yeah, Tyson was right to follow astrophysics because that is what he wants to do. And we all need him to do that, and to popularize science because he is fucking good at it. He busted a stereotype wide open and our society needed that. More, I guess, than we needed to have Pluto as a planet.

    So, I appreciate the way that you keep the circle expanding.

  8. 8
    Suido

    What Kim said.

    While at uni I spent a couple of years share-housing with African international students (one from Botswana, the other from Zimbabwe), but that’s about as much exposure to an inter-racial environment I’ve had. I’d like to think I was never unintentionally racist, but I can’t be sure.

    White colonial attitudes towards Aborigines are still rampant within Aussie culture, and usually twinned with anti-immigration stances against new non-caucasian arrivals.

    I appreciate the insights you provide, and the well thought out arguments that support each of your opinions.

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