Jamila Akil’s interesting piece “‘Blerds’: The Rise of the Black Nerd Movement” on Beyond Black & White addresses the seemingly recent rise (recent only to the rest of society and not to the visitors of this blog) of the black nerd a.k.a “blerd” and blerd culture. As a self-proclaimed blerd who had all of the typical nerd trimmings growing up — the thick rims (and I mean glasses), the enormous hernia-inducing backpack that held 15 million books in addition to textbooks and always rolling deep with my orchestra crew (1st violin, what what!) — it is hardly surprising that I dealt with much of the usual strife that other blerds have faced. While I could handle most of the other teasing, what tended to sting the most were the accusations of “acting white” thrown at me by family, friends, random schoolkids of color — people who all looked like me.
Now, before anyone breathes another exasperated sigh of “…not THIS conversation again…” let me start by saying that my goal here is not to lament my grade school experience (that would require more wine on hand) but to ask us all to get more at the bones of this concept of “acting white” in particular. Often times, I find that when this topic comes up there are some important questions that I would like to see more fully addressed alongside it:
- What does this phrase really mean in this context?
- Being a first-generation Haitian-American, I’m curious about what the implications are of this phrase in regards to our society at large and the African Diaspora in particular?
- Why is it often used as an accusation?
- And, as I have also experienced, what does it mean when it is used as a “compliment?”
- How is it affecting both those who say it and those who get labelled by it?
Akil’s article does a good job of addressing many aspects of these points and references another piece from Ron Eglash* that goes into detail about the how history of racism and the constructed dichotomy of whiteness vs. blackness alongside perceptions of masculinity helped shape the stereotype of the white nerd and the black “anti-nerd.” These two articles are a great start, but I would definitely be interested in seeing more.
I spent a great deal of my youth puzzling over this concept but over time chose to view my blackness as not part of this suffocating binary with a set of superficial stereotypical qualifications. Instead, I view it as an all-encompassing identity that incorporates my nerd tendencies and my oddball hobbies. Being myself is me “being” black and thus, nerding out because it’s who I am is just another aspect of my blackness. I leave you with this wonderful quote by Jason Triche from Akil’s piece:
“I would venture to say that those who we call “great” and “successful” at their respective disciplines would be the nerds of their arena – and they could careless about what another thinks of their image. They are not trying to be cool; they are cool because of what they know and how they express that knowledge.”
*Note: Lots of interesting insights regarding the relationship between race, gender and the tech field gained from Eglash’s piece. I’ll have more to say on this in an upcoming post.