Black Nerds vs. Nerds Who Happen to be Black

December 18th, 2007

Awhile back, Sam Ford wrote a post questioning whether “the black nerd” could be a stereotype that “breaks” stereotypes. I dashed off a quick comment and then went on to read the post that inspired Sam’s words: filmmaker Raafi Rivero’s “Black Nerds: The Revolution No One Could Have Predicted.” (I was interested to see that Ron Eglash, whom I noted in my comment on Sam’s post, commented on the original post himself.)

Honestly, I still feel like I have some more research ahead of me before I can comment on “the black nerd” as anything other than a subset of “the nerd.” That is to say, while I have met and chatted with a number of black self-described nerds and geeks in the course of my research, I haven’t really spoken to any who have indicated to me that their blackness is a central part of their nerdiness. Most of the people I have talked to have been part of groups mixed in gender and race, too, so I’ve also never seen a group of eight to ten black kids walking together and comparing video game characters with TV characters. I suspect, though, that this means I’m just not looking in the right places if that’s what I want to find.

Interestingly, Raafi contrasts the black nerd with the black gangsta. Meanwhile, Kotaku commenters lob insults at the “gangstas” who will presumably be buying Nintendo-branded “urban” clothing. Are the black nerds Raafi describes similarly criticizing these clothes, this style? Or is the urban style now separated from the gangsta image Raafi declares near-dead, having since been remixed, as it were, with the trappings of nerd culture?

Perhaps a good place for me to start looking for answers would be in the examples Raafi offers on the web of the new black nerds. These include Andre Meadows’s Black Nerd Comedy, the Black Nerds Network, and dork magazine. So far, I’ve only checked out the third of these, which features free issues online. I was interested to see that it’s not really clear what’s supposed to be “dorky” about it—perhaps that it presents that which people “obsess” over, though this is clearly in the context of artistic passion:

Dork strives to inspire its readers by reporting on the people, places and things that embody an impassioned lifestyle. Through its unique coverage of music, design, fashion, culture, cities and artists – Dork presents the muse that encourages others to obsess about the creative process and pursue their own passions. We go beyond “celebrity-ism.” We’re interested in real people, and how they reconcile their reality to make sense of this crazy world. Dork is the voice of the creative and scribe of the passionate.

After reading this, I really don’t know what to think about how the black nerd fits into geekdom more broadly. If I hadn’t seen Dork magazine linked to in this context, I would have just written that the title is another sign of the slippage of terms like ‘geek,’ ‘nerd,’ and ‘dork’ into more hip/mainstream usage. Seeing it offered as an example of black nerdiness, I wonder if this implies that unhip, stereotypically white culture can be made more “cool” through integration of elements from urban black cultures. Mary Bucholtz seemed to argue (to some contentious responses) that white nerdiness is defined in opposition to such appropriation, though in this case it’s an example of black people finding their way into a stereotypically white culture, not white people appropriating black culture.

Clearly, I’m still thinking my way through these issues. Any and all input is welcome.


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7 Responses to “Black Nerds vs. Nerds Who Happen to be Black”

  1. Church Says:

    I think I touched upon this earlier, but black culture in America is much harsher towards nerdy behavior than white or asian culture is. One of those papers you mentioned lately even referenced (in passing, lamentably) ‘black crypto-nerds’ (which sounds like the language used for the black ‘down-low’ gay population.)

    There’s a reason that Urkel was Urkel ten years later than the “Revenge of the Nerds” crew triumphed.

  2. James Says:

    Interesting stuff. Honestly, the reasoning behind the name “Dork Magazine” isn’t that deep. I was sitting at my desk at work and the name just came to me. I did a google search and no one had taken the name – so we jumped on it. We (Taj and myself) had been putting together websites for years and we wanted to do a online magazine – the name just worked. What can I say, we’re suckers for irony (that and self-deprecation). Thanks for checking us out. Look out for a big revamp in the new year.

    Best,

    James O.

  3. Ben Says:

    I coached a chess team at the all-black high school I taught at in Chicago. A number of the players were also into Magic and YuGiOh. But other than those interests, most of them didn’t come off as typical nerds. As far as I could tell, they didn’t see much contradiction between black culture and their more cerebral interests. And contrary to Church’s comment, I don’t think they got much flack from their peers. Of course, this was just my experience at one particular school.

  4. raafi Says:

    I guess one of the things that I was trying to get at was that identities that have certain values in the culture at large occur with different sets of attached norms within black culture. Pharell Williams, for instance, considered himself a band geek in high school, but became a noted hip-hop producer who continually puts himself forth as a skateboarder. In this case the identities of “nerd” and “skateboarder,” which might not often occur within the same person in white america easily commingle because those types are not inherently black, but rather, identities that black folks have felt free to borrow or recombine in with no apparent regard to the norms of cool or outisderness from which they seem to resonate among whites. Put differently, a nerd who is black does not cease to respond to black cultural norms but for the fact that s/he digs on World of Warcraft.

  5. Robert Reed Says:

    The blog Convergence Culture seems to be down. Does anyone have, or can someone locate a copy of Sam Ford’s blog entry?

  6. Church Says:

    Very weird. That whole site seems to be serving nothing pages right now.

  7. Geek Studies » Blog Archive » Links: The State of the Geek in May, 2008 Says:

    […] You might remember Raafi Rivero’s post about black nerds from awhile back (which I discussed here). Well, Michael Hastings-Black clued me in to Raafi’s follow-up post, featuring a video of […]