A little while ago, I wrote a post entitled “The Blerd and the ‘Acting White’ Conversation” which examined the concept of the black nerd a.k.a “blerd” and its association with “acting white.” As promised, here is a continuation of that post where I will dive into a deeper discussion of Ron Eglash’s piece “Race, Sex and Nerds: from Black Geeks to Asian-American Hipsters.”
Eglash’s piece provides a brief history of the nerd identity and deconstructs the nerd stereotype within the context of race, gender and class. One of the points he makes in the piece that I find most interesting is in regards to hybrid techno-gender and techno-cultural identities, as he calls them: he cites groups such as GeekGrrrls and Black Geeks Online and claims that they are problematic because
“these figures of technological and cultural hybridity often reproduce the very boundaries they attempt to overcome: not surprising since they are focused on attaching the “wrong” race to the “right” identity. While the figure of the black nerd contradicts the normative opposition between African American identity and technology, it does so only by affirming the uncool attributes of technological expertise.”
I strongly disagree with this statement: I believe it over-simplifies the purpose of these groups. As I see it, these hybrid techno-gender and techno-cultural groups are not about “attaching the ‘wrong’ race to the ‘right’ identity” but instead they focus on highlighting a subgroup that has historically been rendered invisible by the identity generalized to the entire group. The phrase black nerd is not merely pointing out a contradiction—frankly, to interpret it as such only further reinforces the problematic stereotypes and institutional structures that have caused it to be perceived that way in the first place. I view the phrase as an attempt to reconcile two different cultural experiences: connecting one’s experience of being black in America (limiting it to America here for the sake of this discussion) with the general experience of possessing nerd-like qualities and interests. In doing so, the phrase black nerd is not simply “revers[ing] the semiotic values” as Eglash quotes but actually closing the perceived gap between the two identities of “nerd” and “black” by showing that they are not in fact mutually exclusive. Claiming the black nerd identity is a way of saying “we exist and we will no longer allow ourselves to be rendered invisible, neither by the ‘cool’ stereotype attributed to blackness nor by the ‘anti-cool’ stereotype associated with nerdiness.”
While I see his argument, spaces like Black Geeks Online, Girl Geeks and BlackFemaleCoders should continue to claim these identities because in doing so they are actively pushing against the boundaries imposed upon them by society, not playing into them as Eglash may suggest.
Overall, Eglash’s piece proves to be an interesting and refreshing read, as I find the development of the nerd identity tends to be a topic that is hardly ever addressed from the perspective of both race and gender. I’ve seen the black nerd concept addressed in some books on nerd culture like this one from Benjamin Nugent; however, much to my dismay, the topic is usually only briefly mentioned and the history of its development is often left unexplored.
Why am I so adamant about further exploring this area? Well, for one, I view it as a wonderful intersection of identities that forces society to think outside of the limited box of predetermined stereotypes. Similar to the concept of the black indie hipster (a.k.a “blipster”), the black nerd identity shines a bright spotlight on the individuals who find themselves in a role that was once not deemed appropriate for them. It crosses lines and breaks boundaries in a way that society is often too afraid to acknowledge, as evidenced by the noticeable lack of discussion in this area. Recently, more organizations have started to help address it (Black Girl Nerds, Black Girls Code, GirlDevelopIt, Blacks In Technology, Girls Who Code, etc.) but we are still far from where we want to be when it comes to numbers of women and minorities in STEM. And while it is important to look back and analyze how history has led to the way these statistics have developed, I believe it is just as important and more fascinating to think about what this means for the present and future development of the nerd identity. By encouraging society to acknowledge a more three-dimensional view of blackness, could we possibly help to render the phrase “acting white” obsolete? Could the terms blerd and geek girl help replace the quintessential image of the emasculated, socially-inept white male nerd with something more universal and less exclusive?
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