Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: ‘Reflections on the Color of My Skin’

Neil deGrasse Tyson, writing on the Hayden Planetarium’s website:1

In 1991, Rodney King (age 25) was struck dozens of times, while on the ground, by four LAPD officers, with their batons, after being tased. The grainy 1990s video of that went media-viral, inducing shock and dismay to any viewer.

But I wasn’t shocked at all.

Based on what I already knew of the world, my first thought was, “We finally got one of those on tape.” Followed by, “Maybe justice will be served this time.” Yes, that’s precisely my first thought. Why? Since childhood my parents instilled in me and my siblings, via monthly, sometimes weekly lessons, rules of conduct to avoid getting shot by the police. “Make sure that when you get stopped, the officer can always see both of your hands.” “No sudden movements.” “Don’t reach into your pockets for anything without announcing this in advance.” “When you move at all, tell the officer what you are about to do.” At the time, I am a budding scientist in middle school, just trying to learn all I can about the universe. I hardly ever think about the color of my skin — it never comes up when contemplating the universe. Yet when I exit my front door, I’m a crime suspect. Add to this the recently coined “White Caller Crime,” where scared white people call the police because they think an innocent black person is doing something non-innocent, and it’s a marvel that any of us achieve at all.

The rate of abuse? Between one and five skin-color-instigated incidents per week, for every week of my life. White people must have known explicitly if not implicitly of this struggle. Why else would the infamous phrase, “I’m free, white, and 21” even exist? Here is a compilation of that line used in films across the decades. Yes, it’s offensive. But in America, it’s also truthful. Today’s often-denied “white privilege” accusation was, back then, openly declared.

Marques Brownlee used Tyson’s essay as a jumping-off point for his own video essay based on his experiences in sports and tech:

You know, I remember several instances where I would accomplish a goal, or I’d make a high-end team, and I was super proud of it. But then that spotlight would appear again and I’d sort of second-guess that, where I’m like “did I make this team because I’m good enough, or did I make this team because I have this platform and they want to take advantage of that, or did I make this team because I’m black and they just want to make sure they have a black person?” I’m looking around like “well, they got one” but suddenly I’m second-guessing myself, like “am I good enough to make this team?”

[…]

Not only is racism obviously unacceptable, but we actually have to actively work against it. And there’s always, somehow, people twisting that, making it political, making it, like, a two-sided thing. I don’t understand how being anti-racist can possibly be controversial in any way.

We must be active participants in correcting the ills of our society.


  1. I am somewhat conflicted about linking to this after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were made against Tyson in late 2018. Those accusations were apparently resolved last year, but I do not know whether the outcome was satisfactory for the women who accused him. With that caveat in mind, I believe his voice is vital in this context. ↩︎