At Media in Transition 5, I had the good fortune to be placed on a panel alongside Lori Kendall, associate professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She’s one of very few academics devoting significant attention to the cultural role of the nerd. Her MiT5 presentation was called “White and Nerdy: Current Meanings of the Nerd Stereotype” (conference abstract here). A version of that paper has recently been accepted to Journal of Popular Culture. The journal has a long backlog, though, so she’s given permission to link to a prepublication version now titled “White and Nerdy: Computers, Race, and the Nerd Stereotype” (which is pretty close to what you’ll see in the journal).
The Times article on Mary Bucholtz’s research seemed to get people pretty interested in talking about nerds and race (both here and elsewhere, including Journalista, Newsarama, Power Word: Blog, Angriest Rice Cooker—which has a comment thread worth checking out—and others), so I thought it might be worth reviving that conversation through another person’s take on the matter. Overall, I got the impression from the commentary on Mary’s research that people denied (maybe even resented) the implication that nerdity is a “hyperwhite” identity, as it implies an oversimplified black/white duality. People also seemed to think it hurt her credibility to claim that nerd identity is always actively chosen, as opposed to some combination between actively taking on a role and having a role assigned by school hierarchies or culture at large.
I’m interested to see how people respond to Lori’s paper, then, considering that she’s analyzing cultural forms created by nerds and geeks themselves, who quite clearly invoke a black/white duality—namely, nerdcore hip-hop and Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” rap video. You can argue that hip-hop is mainstream enough that it’s no longer a “Black” phenomenon, but let’s be honest with ourselves here: Nerdcore artists frequently rap in an affected “gangsta” persona, and the overwhelming majority are White. Why should nerdity be connected to whiteness in this way, and is this connection problematic? Please feel free to check out the the paper and let us know what you think.