Tariq sent me this link from a NYT article, which I later read in my backlog of post vacation newspapers.  The article discusses Dr. Mary Bucholtz’s research on the connection between nerdiness and whiteness.  The article says,

Nerdiness, she has concluded, is largely a matter of racially tinged behavior. People who are considered nerds tend to act in ways that are, as she puts it, “hyperwhite.” 

Later the author, Benjamin Nugent, makes the following argument based on Bucholtz research,

By cultivating an identity perceived as white to the point of excess, nerds deny themselves the aura of normality that is usually one of the perks of being white. Bucholtz sees something to admire here. In declining to appropriate African-American youth culture, thereby “refusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded,” she writes, nerds may even be viewed as “traitors to whiteness.” You might say they know that a culture based on theft is a culture not worth having. On the other hand, the code of conspicuous intellectualism in the nerd cliques Bucholtz observed may shut out “black students who chose not to openly display their abilities.” This is especially disturbing at a time when African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if they’re too obviously diligent about school. Even more problematic, “Nerds’ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students,” even if the nerds were involved in political activities like protesting against the dismantling of affirmative action in California schools. If nerdiness, as Bucholtz suggests, can be a rebellion against the cool white kids and their use of black culture, it’s a rebellion with a limited membership.

I personally would like to read more about the methodology of the researcher before I make too many criticisms of the actual research, but at the same time, I worry that this research and the article could be misinterpreted.  It could be misconstrued as saying “black people are hip, cool and in style.” One problem potential problem with making any generalizations from this work is that the research comes primarily from California schools, which are not representative of the US.  The reporter also doesn’t discuss the distinction between being in a predominantly white school, a mixed school, or a predominantly Black/Asian/Latino/American Indian school.  I suspect the racial make-up of the school could make a difference in how race and nerdiness or hipness is constructed.  I’m not sure exactly how nerdiness is operationally defined in this study, but it seems to me to be more a set of behaviors and images that transcend race.  Additionally, if we are talking about nerdiness, we also need to address it’s counterpart coolness/hipness. 

I’m not sure we should want any racial group to be cool or hip after all fashions come and go.  For example, a few years ago many pop culture pundits were talking about the “Latin explosion.”  According to the “Latin Explosion” proponents, Latinos were hip and cool, and they were taking over American pop culture.  This claims was based on the success of about 4 or 5 musical artists and actors.  Do 4 or 5 people really make a trend?  Not really.  In fact, just a few years later you don’t even hear about the Latino explosion, unless it’s some bigot lamenting how many Latino immigrants are entering the US.  Does this mean that Latinos aren’t hip and cool anymore?  Would we ever hear the claim that whites and whiteness are hip and cool?  Probably, not. 

One reason whites aren’t cool, hip or trendy is that we are always in style.  Cool whiteness is usually coded as the All American or Preppy style and it is epitomized by thin white people with blond hair and blue eyes1.  Perhaps hyperwhiteness, whatever that is, is not cool.  I have heard people on occasion pejoratively say–“That’s so white.” But what is most striking to me is that in American culture there are always white celebrities and pop culture icons who get to define the trends.  There are a few token blacks, Latinos, and Asians as pop culture makers, but whiteness always gets a place at the cool kids table.  In fact, it seems like many people of color aren’t really cool until they are embraced by the “mainstream,” which is usually a code word for whites.  Two artists that exemplify this are Jamie Fox or Queen Latifah, both of whom have been well established actors and musical artists for at least 15 years.  Now that they are embraced by a whiter audience; they are Hollywood A-listers.  Some would use this example to say, “Well, many Black Americans were way ahead of whites in noticing how cool these two artists are.”  I’m reluctant to make such a claim because I think cool is a moving target, and it is obviously very subjective.  Moreover, if being cool means being in style or being someone who is very popular than it is mostly whites who dictate coolness because there are more whites here in the US than other groups and whites disproportionately own and operate media outlets and other businesses that strongly influence coolness.  So, if black people get high cool points from pop culture makers, it’s because a critical mass of whites say black people are cool not because black people see themselves as cool. 

The other question I’m left asking is, “What about black nerds?”  I know some, and of course, most of us know America’s favorite black nerd Steve Urkle.  Are they labeled nerds because they allegedly “act white” or is it something else?  To me it’s something else.

Unlike Blacks, Asians don’t fair so well when it comes to the hip and cool portrayals in pop culture.  The last time I checked “the racial stereotypometer,” Asians were scoring very high on nerdiness.  I’m not sure how the Asian students fair in Dr. Bucholtz’s research, but I’m having trouble imagining that whiteness is considered less cool than Asianess, given the very common racist stereotype that Asians are nerds.  I suppose one could argue that Asians are stereotyped as both cool and nerdy, but it is clear that many portrayals of nerds and geeks include the token Asian2

I don’t know exactly what this author’s methods or study found, so I can only comment on the New York Times write-up about her research, but I personally think that most of what defines nerdiness is not racially coded–wearing thick glasses, being clumsy and nonathletic, being bookish, and being socially awkward.  To the extent that race enters our discussion of nerdiness it is more about racial stereotypes than it is about racial realities.  Thus, we need to tread lightly into this territory, focusing on how racial stereotyping creates images of hipness and nerdiness.  We also need to discuss how media and business influence pop culture, keeping in mind that most businesses and media outlets are run by whites and those arbiters of taste are catering primarily to the tastes of a predominantly white audience.  If we don’t make this clear, then many people in the audience, are going to come away from the article saying yeah blackness is hip and cool, and whiteness is not.

  1. Undoubtedly, this is class coded was well–middle and upper income whites get way more cool points than working class or poor whites. []
  2. My own sense is that Asian cultural products are considered cool, but Asian people are not as cool.  I haven’t studied this, so it is just a anecdotal observation. Perhaps the same distinction could also be made for African Americans–African American cultural products are cool, and African American people are not as cool. []
This entry posted in Media criticism, Popular (and unpopular) culture, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

51 Responses to Whiteness=Nerdiness??

  1. 1
    will shetterly says:

    But what are racial realities? Condi Rice’s racial reality was significantly different than Malcolm Little’s. Part of the charm of nerdiness is that it’s about brain, not skin. Sure, that includes a failure of intelligence, an inability to adapt to social norms–but racialization is entirely about adapting to social norms, so celebrating nerdiness as something outside whiteness makes more sense to make than claiming, as you note, that Urkel is somehow “white”, or that nerdiness is a form of hyperwhiteness. As soon as that claim’s been made, we’re in the realm of hypersilliness.

  2. 2
    Rachel S. says:

    I’m not so sure that nerds go against all social norms, but they do tend to have identities that make them outsiders in their peer groups. In many cases, older adults respect nerdy kids.

    I just got back from Atlanta, where I saw my 7 year old nephew, who is black and is already a hard core nerd. To me he’s cute, in a funny way I suppose. But my husband and I were thrilled to see his son playing with his cousin. See my husband’s son (also black) already hates school, and he got in big trouble from Daddy for saying he would be happy to go back to his Mom’s because he would not have to read books or do workbooks. We want him to be around his cousin, so he will see a good academic role model. (On the other hand, his cousin’s mother wants her son to be around my husbands son because she thinks her son needs to do more than just read books. )

    So even though this cousin is a big time nerd already, the adults like that because he’s conforming to the role of working hard in school and getting good grades. Well, they like some of it. I can see his mother being worried that he’s a wimp, but to me that’s different from a nerd.

  3. 3
    Robert says:

    I’m not sure exactly how nerdiness is operationally defined in this study, but it seems to me to be more a set of behaviors and images that transcend race.


    “Nerdiness” reflects a functionally superior* set of cultural values which emphasize intellectual attainment, academic rigor, and mental discipline. These cultural values are readily accessible by any human being of ordinary intelligence, possessed of a material culture which has progressed past the Stone Age (and they are accessible with effort by any human being who is not functionally retarded or literally engaged in a battle for survival). There are racial subgroups which have made it slightly easier for their members to embrace this culture, which is highly correlated to temporal success, and those which have made it slightly more difficult, but nerdiness knows no color.

    White nerds’ “declining to appropriate African-American youth culture” could be symptomatic of a rejection of cultural appropriation, I suppose, if it weren’t for the fact that cultural appropriation is one of the tools that nerd-dom uses to augment and maintain its functional superiority. It is more likely that this rejection is akin to the rejection of Kias by Mercedes purchasers; you don’t trade down unless you’re forced to by circumstance. Appropriation of the AA youth culture doesn’t occur because there is little worth appropriating, from the standpoint of the academically rigorous, mentally disciplined, intellectually high-achieving nerd.

    I would argue that black students’ rejection of nerdiness, however, is not driven by blacks reciprocally not seeing the benefits of the nerd cultural values. Obviously many blacks DO see those benefits, from the number and contributions of black nerds, and the early embrace of education and intellectual values by blacks in the face of death penalties and beatings and lynching. Instead, I suspect that when blacks reject nerdiness, it stems principally from the entirely legitimate fear that their attempt to adopt that culture will result in punishment from the white majority, which does not wish to share the intellectual wealth. Rejection from their black (non)peers is a secondary consideration; if your inclination is to be a nerd, then the opinion of the ignorant are not going to be genuinely powerful operative forces – for the same reason that jocks don’t care if nerds think they’re dumb oxen. If my values tell me that Reba is a bozo, then Reba’s disapproval of my choices is moot. Of course she disapproves; she’s a bozo. I’m sure there are some people so psychically fragile that the disapproval even of people they don’t care about is a crushing burden; relatively few of them, however. Any black person with that level of fragility would be a psychotic and dysfunctional trainwreck in the face of our racist culture; they couldn’t embrace the nerd ANYWAY.

    I had an interesting conversation today with one of my young cousins in Mississippi, where I am currently suffering the torments of Hell (which include 110-degree days and mosquitos genetically engineered for stealth and maximum bloodsucking capacity). He is a racist, but also someone who has his eyes open to the history of the region. He was decrying the lack of ambition and entrepreneurship in the local black population, but (astonishing me), he then blamed the situation entirely on whites in previous generations and to a lesser extent whites today – his statement was along the lines of “it’s not a damn surprise, when after the war the slaves were freed, the ones who were smart and tried to make something of themselves got shot down or just shot by us [white folks] – they tried to take opportunities but we stopped them and now they figure that they can’t win so they don’t try.”

    He didn’t know what to do about this. Neither do I.

    *If you do not believe that these cultural choices are functionally superior, then with great interest I solicit a defense of the idea that intellectual nonachievement, mental sloppiness and laziness, and academic disinterest provide functional advantages in the world.

  4. 4
    Daisy says:

    Rachel, I agree, results are skewed by California. Here in the south, there are lots of black nerds. I attribute this to a larger black population in general, and therefore a more diverse one.

    Maybe the researchers are also defining the nerdiness itself in a “white” way? Example: the black nerds tend to listen to hip-hop, not alternative rock, as the white nerds do, and many still obediently attend church with their families. (There are doubtless other details I am ignorant of, as an onlooker, but these are some differences I’ve noticed.) The black nerds prefer natural hair or dreads. Maybe this doesn’t look “nerdy” enough to the researchers?

    Nerd style/markers are “white”, in and of themselves.

  5. 5
    joe says:

    This study seems odd.
    Wouldn’t a nerd in the 80’s have rejected heavy metal and all the cool 80’s stuff? That was (afaik) all fairly white.
    Wouldn’t a nerd in 50’s-60’s have rejected sport and other cool things? I don’t think there’s a cause and effect relationship between nerds and whiteness.

  6. 6
    joe says:

    also, i want to know what they define as a nerd. I can think of a couple of ‘nerds’ that I new who did poorly at school. One could tell you everything there was to know about Dragon Ball – Z (and would whether you wanted to know or not) The other was more of a D&D type. Neither one was successful academically. Last I’d heard one was thinking about an associates degree (he was 24 at the time) and the other was a season worker at an amusement park.

  7. 7
    Meep says:

    Definitely begs the question of what is a nerd.

    Am I a nerd? I installed Ruby from source to use readline because it’s not included in Mac distros, and I refuse to buy a new iPod because I can fix my own. I have a crush on a guy who obsesses over version control systems and continued fractions. (I find it hot.)

    OH BUT WAIT I’M BROWN. lulz, I’m not a nerd!

  8. 8
    Myca says:

    also, i want to know what they define as a nerd. I can think of a couple of ‘nerds’ that I new who did poorly at school. One could tell you everything there was to know about Dragon Ball – Z (and would whether you wanted to know or not) The other was more of a D&D type. Neither one was successful academically. Last I’d heard one was thinking about an associates degree (he was 24 at the time) and the other was a season worker at an amusement park.

    Good question, Joe.

    I have always separated it thusly:

    Nerds = Academic/Technical Excellence
    Geeks = Obsessive Pop Culture/Alternative Culture knowledge and minutia.
    Dorks = Social Ineptitude.

    Thus the kids you’re thinking of would have been geeks, and possibly dorks, but not nerds.

    Also I think Joe’s comment in #5 is more or less right on. I think this has less to do with rejection of specifically African American culture, and more with a rejection of whatever the cool culture of the day happens to be.


  9. 9
    will shetterly says:

    Agreeing with Joe. Nerds are indifferent to pop culture, regardless of the racialized tropes of the time.

  10. 10
    Doug S. says:

    I wanna roll with the gangstas, but I’m just too white and nerdy.

  11. 11
    Sailorman says:

    In fact, it seems like many people of color aren’t really cool until they are embraced by the “mainstream,” which is usually a code word for whites….Now that [jamie foxx and queen latifah] are embraced by a whiter audience; they are Hollywood A-listers. Some would use this example to say, “Well, many Black Americans were way ahead of whites in noticing how cool these two artists are.”

    Those actors initially appealed to a population that represents a numerical minority and an even smaller proportion of wealth. Then they eventually appealed to a population that represents a numerical (depending on location) majority and controls the vast majority of wealth.

    That population is white. But did they appeal to whites?

    So long as whites control wealth and so long as they constitute a majority in some areas, how can you distinguish “appeal to the people with money (who are white)” from “appeal to the white people (who have money)” when looking at why actors make the Hollywood A-list?

    I have to look at the “because” reasons.

    I think “mainstream” gets used to suggest that something is successful because it has broad majority support (race less relevant.). It’s not a code word for appeal based on race (resulting in majority support) because that’s a very different thing.

  12. 12
    Sebastian Holsclaw says:

    “Nerds’ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students”

    As some other commenters have noted, this isn’t correct. Nerds pretty much don’t care what color you are as long as you exhibit traits (intellectual curiosity etc.) that they value. Any color can be a nerd. If there are color issues with nerds, I strongly suspect that it is because many black kids find even more social pressure than white people when it comes to showing intellectualism.

  13. 13
    Charles says:


    Come on. Merely stating that nerds transcend the racist culture they live in and that therefore groups of white nerds would never reject black nerds merely for being black does not make it so. Likewise, the claim that nerdiness transcends racial lines 1) is merely a definitional claim with no determining significance for the behavior of particular groups of nerds 2) a statement that there are black nerds, not that white nerds acknowledge or accept black nerds.

    I hang out in both nerd and geek circles both on and offline, and the idea that white nerd and geek circles are not exclusionary towards black geeks and nerds is laughable.

    Besides which, you are dismissing an observation from extensive research purely on the basis of platitudes, which is just sad.

  14. 14
    Dianne says:

    I beg your pardon? Nerdy=white? What about the Bronx Academy of Science? Nerdrap?
    Any one of a long list of past and current black scientists, most of whom could best be described as “nerds”?

    It is interesting that if nerdiness is on some level associated with whiteness, it is even more associated with maleness. Is the nerd stereotype in some way about needing some reason to be prejudiced against a group of people who don’t act “right” when there is no obvious reason to be prejudiced against them (ie they are the “correct” race and gender)? Is “nerdy=white, black=cool” the racial equivalent of the old sexist claims about how women are more sensitive and wise–that is, a way for the higher status race or gender to pretend that their prejudice doesn’t matter and in fact they are worse off because of the “natural” advantages of the less privileged race or gender? Is this just another stick with which to beat up black nerds, because nerds tend to get beat up (metaphorically and otherwise), no matter what their race or culture?

  15. 15
    Jeff says:

    One of the nerdiest books I’ve read in a while is From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna mistake Minister Faust for a white guy.

  16. 16
    Jeff says:

    If you do not believe that these cultural choices are functionally superior, then with great interest I solicit a defense of the idea that intellectual nonachievement, mental sloppiness and laziness, and academic disinterest provide functional advantages in the world.

    Excellent framing there, define cultural choices as evidence of intellectual superiority. I mean, everyone knows comic books are more intelligent than hip-hop, right?

  17. 17
    ataralas says:

    For the record, here is the Bucholtz paper that the NYT references. The researcher’s argument is pretty much based on linguistic claims, that self-identified nerdy high schoolers speak a superstandard English, that is, a dialect that hews closer to the “standard” (white) written English than that of their “cool” white peers.

    Also, for the record, as someone who is basically a professional nerd (I’m a grad student in hard sciences at Major Research University) and has spent most of my time around other self-identified nerds for the past several years, I have to say that both the article and the research ring very true to me. The way we speak is usually bereft of the influence of non-white speech patterns. The way we dress is usually polo shirts and jeans/khakis–the All-American look, but we don’t get it quite right.

    And I agree, setting one racial group up as cool, and placing it in opposition to another racial group as uncool is problematic. But I do think that the researcher is onto something insomuch as current cultural tropes of white coolness are black-influenced, and nerds tend to reject those influences, making it difficult for black nerds to join in to nerd culture.

    There’s also a difference, Dianne, between saying “all nerds are white, and thus nerdy=white” and saying that dominant nerd culture is very highly white influenced to the exclusion of black culture, and so that makes it difficult for PoC with roots in black culture to be accepted into those dominantly nerdy circles. The same way that dominant nerd culture is highly masculinized and so that makes it difficult for women to be accepted into those circles.

    I’m also sort of interested if there’s a difference in language, dress, & other cultural attributes between those who are self-identified nerds (particularly people like me who center it as a major component of identity and acknowledge participating in nerd culture) and those who are identified by others as nerds.

  18. 18
    nonserviam says:

    I mean, everyone knows comic books are more intelligent than hip-hop, right?

    Dunno about comic books, but hip-hop definitely is vastly inferior to the earlier black-generated/inspired/influenced music forms, such as jazz, blues, or rock’n’roll. In fact, it is almost totally devoid of artistic (or any other kind of) merit.

  19. 19
    Sailorman says:

    Nerds are always “othered” for some reason or another, mostly because (speaking from personal experience) they’re, well… not in the mainstream.

    If you spend your time programming Basic, huddled around your friend’s new Atari 3200 or Commodore 64, while most kids are watching the Red Sox on TV, then you won’t be able to talk about the Red Sox the next day. And so on.

    But I want to link to an earlier post here on Alas. I think a lot of the racially separatist area of nerdiness have to do less with race per se than with the effects of race on critical mass.

    Critical mass is the realization that you need enough people in a group to survive as minority. It’s difficult to be one of three nerds in a school; it’s not nearly as hard when you have a group of 10; it’s even simpler when nerds are common enough to have their own math club.

    And that applies to home life as well. It’s almost impossible to be the only nerd in a neighborhood unless you are very solitary; its much more pleasant (and productive) to have friends around. If you can’t get together with other nerds, then you’ve got to choose between building radios by yourself or giving up on some nerdiness potential.

    As relates to this post by Mandolin, there may be a good argument that the integration of schools fails to create enough of a critical mass for nerdy blacks. Certainly, it may create problems in the home-life aspect.
    And the home life is really more important anyway. Sure, all my friends were in the same math class as I was. But it was the out-of-school stuff that cemented our friendships and also our nerdiness.

    I imagine there were some brilliant nerdy folks who were in our classes but who I never knew. I’m sure that would include some of the POC students who were bussed in to our school. But because they left the area every day on the bus, we didn’t have any interaction with them outside of class–which is to say, not much.

    THOSE nerds would have had to find their own nerdy friends to do nerdy things with, in their own neighborhoods. But because they were bussed in from an area where there were poor schools, and a lot of poverty, the chances were much lower that they would be able to find a lot of wannabe computer designers within a 3 block radius. Or that one (or all) of their friends’ parents would own a Basic-compatible computer, or an “ultrafast” 64 bit-per-second hand-set-on-top modem that you could use to connect to a college campus somewhere.

    Things like the Bronx Academy of Science and the article I linked to suggest that the whiteness=nerd thing is connected to the difficulty that POC nerds have in finding easily available local nerds to do nerdy things with.

  20. 20
    SamChevre says:

    ataralas says,

    The way we dress is usually … the All-American look, but we don’t get it quite right

    I’m starting to think that “we don’t quite get it right” is the defining feature of nerd/geek culture.

    My experience (I’m white, but culturally “other” in most educated settings) is the other nerds care much less that “you don’t quite get it right” than the cool kids do.

    And my wife’s comment on my colleagues is a classic. “When you are yourselves, you are a little strange; when you try to act normal, you seem utterly bizarre.”

  21. 21
    Ampersand says:

    For folks who are tempted to respond to Nonserviam, keep in mind that he’s just been banned, so he won’t be responding to you here.

  22. 22
    nobody.really says:

    I’ll take a swing at this:

    Kids have a variety of social norms, cliques if you like, to which to conform or rebel. Some kids achieve status by conforming to the expectations of the authority figures and succeeding by those authority’s standards. To the extent that authority figures are white, these kids might be characterized as “hyper-white,” but generally aren’t. That is because the norms of the dominant class are understood as normal and tend to go unnoticed until they are exaggerated: think Carlton in “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire.”

    “Coolness” generally has an element of autonomy about it. Unlike conforming kids, cool kids do not acknowledge their subordination to authority figures. By demonstrating that they “live by their own rules,” cool kids set themselves up as rival authorities to the exiting authority figures. Thus, the “cool kids” have some measure of transgressiveness about them, where transgressiveness is defined in relationship to the dominant norms and authority figures.

    So, if you wanna be cool, which norms should you transgress? One way to be transgressive without requiring too much creativity is to adopt one or more attributes of whatever social group your parents warned you about. Imagine it’s 1950, and your parents warn you about working-class people. You note working-class people wear blue jeans. Bingo. Or your parents warn you about the evils of the music those darkies listen to, and they way they shake their hips. Shezam. Etc. Eventually the dominant youth culture comes to incorporate a modicum of these transgressive behaviors to demonstrate a token measure of insubordination.

    Nerds — in contrast to both conforming kids and cool kids — neither conform to the expectations of authority figures nor rebel against those norms. As introverts busy pursuing intrinsic rewards for intellectual and imaginative pursuits, they are unaware of the opportunity to receive rewards by conforming or rebelling against authority figures, or they don’t expect to receive much reward from either pursuit.

    To summarize: “Cool kids” are characterized by some measure of rebellion against authority figures. This rebellion may take to form of adopting behaviors from social groups the authorities look down on. In this sense, the cool kids may “appropriate the culture” of subordinate groups. Because nerds are indifferent to many cultural norms, they may seem “whiter” than youth culture generally. But it is actually the conforming kids that most closely reflect the behavior of the (typically white) authority figures.

  23. 23
    Dianne says:

    “Coolness” generally has an element of autonomy about it.

    Ah, but “coolness” is the ultimate conformity, ultimately. To continue to be cool your actions must conform to a very specific and narrow set of limitations. Rebellious, but not too rebellious. And only in ways that your peers approve of. No creativity or originality allowed. Except maybe for the “alpha” kid and frankly alphas are universally stupid, uncreative bullies and therefore they can not use their right to creativity. They can only parrot what society tells them is “cool”. The cool kids simply conform to the narrow demands of their peers–or, rather, to what marketing personnel and advertisers have convinced their peers are the “cool” ideas–rather than to the demands of more obvious and overt authority figures. But they don’t subvert the dominant paradigm in any meaningful way. On the contrary, they support it.

  24. 24
    nobody.really says:

    But [cool kids] don’t subvert the dominant paradigm in any meaningful way. On the contrary, they support it.

    I dunno. I don’t think of cool kids as attacking the idea of hierarchy, but I do see them as establishing their own hierarchy (in contrast with conforming kids, who strive to climb the existing hierarchy). I think of the album and film Quadrophenia in which the protagonist aspires to be like the cool kid Ace Face, leader of the Mods (the new hierarchy), only to be disillusioned when he discovers that Ace Face had taken a job as a bell boy (joined the old hierarchy).

    Continuing with my laughably dated concept of “cool,” I had to look up the history of the iconically cool leather jacket. Originally leather jackets were worn by World War II fighter pilots, and later thrill-seeking ex-pilots that formed motorcycle gangs after the war. Pilots were not a subordinate social group. In an era in which a large portion of the US was in the military, rather, pilots were an elite group. As I understand it, this symbol of elitism came to have a bad-boy image as a result of the so-called “Hollister Riot” of 1947, later dramatized in the Marlan Brando film The Wild One. Once leather jackets were associated with hooliganism, cool kids appropriated them as symbols of rebellion.

    But, as with blue jeans, ratty cloths, folk songs, etc., I’m not aware that this appropriation borrowed anything from ethnic minorities specifically.

  25. 25
    Dave says:

    My theory about why kids dress cool is that they just want to piss off their parents.
    The parents know what they wore as teenagers and will tolerate that but express dismay at anything more radical. The oldest people I know saw appropriate dress as being like Andy Hardy or the Mickey Mouse Club. Preppy would be the word if that is still a word that is used. Real rebels wore Zoot Suits but that was way too Black for the average person, even children (parenthetically this age also produced Bee Bop music which later developed into modern jazz, an era of forgotten geniuses. They were recorded so you can still hear them.)
    The next generation shocked their parents by imitating Whites who dressed like cowboy truck drivers and sang sexualized Black influenced music, while Governor Faubus tried to repel integration with the National Guard in Little Rock. Blacks were integrating the schools and already their daughters were dancing to their music, God forbid.
    The next generation put it to their parents by growing their hair long and dressing like bums or the insane, smoking dope and dodging the draft.
    What could the next generation do to piss off their parents? What could you really do to piss off former dope smoking draft dodgers? Besides by that time no one knew what parents were anyway. Kids tried tattoos, body piercing, colored hair, showed their underwear or butt cracks, dressed like lumberjacks and pimps but no one got upset. Nah, the end of the line had already come and it had all been commercialized. When my story began it was predicted that we would now all now be dressed like the Jetsons (see old science fiction movies) , but it never happened. So much for predicting the future. Ironically the word cool, which as I understand , was first used in the modern sense in 1940s to describe a new, original form of jazz some Black musicians had invented has remained a linguistically stable slang term for over sixty years.

  26. 26
    Robert says:

    What could you really do to piss off former dope smoking draft dodgers?

    Get a job selling insurance and vote a straight Republican ticket. When racial minorities or the poor are brought up in family discussions, wrinkle your brow and say “well, if they want a better life, why don’t they just work harder and get a better job?”

  27. 27
    Dianne says:

    What could the next generation do to piss off their parents? What could you really do to piss off former dope smoking draft dodgers?

    Smoke dope. It drives the parents nuts because they feel obliged to send an anti-drug message even if they remember their own dope smoking days fondly. Perhaps especially if they remember their own dope smoking days fondly, because that means they have no good argument against their kids doing the same.

  28. 28
    Mandolin says:

    I’ve heard more than one black person in the science fiction community say that they felt their geekiness excluded them from blackness. For instance, I think it was Nora of The Angry Black Woman who told of joining a black writers group that was willing to take writers from any number of genre backgrounds — except science fiction, with its connotation of whiteness.

  29. 29
    RonF says:

    Unlike Blacks, Asians don’t fair so well when it comes to the hip and cool portrayals in pop culture. The last time I checked “the racial stereotypometer,” Asians were scoring very high on nerdiness. I’m not sure how the Asian students fair in Dr. Bucholtz’s research, but I’m having trouble imagining that whiteness is considered less cool than Asianess, given the very common racist stereotype that Asians are nerds. I suppose one could argue that Asians are stereotyped as both cool and nerdy, but it is clear that many portrayals of nerds and geeks include the token Asian.

    As I’ve noted previously, I participate as an Educational Counselor for MIT; my main duty is to interview applicants to MIT and report my impressions of them to the Admissions Office. I live in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, so that’s where the kids I talk to live.

    I talk to a whole lot of Asian kids, mostly Chinese. Way, way out of proportion to the proportion of the SW Chicago suburban population as a whole. I’d say that the reason that Asian kids don’t show up in the hip and cool portrayals in pop culture is because (again, disproportionately to the overall population) their parents actively discourage their participation in pop culture and go to great trouble and expense to immerse them in other culture. These kids go to school on Saturday to “Chinese school” to learn about their ancestral culture and language. They take violin and piano lessons. They generally spend numerous hours in community service. They almost never particpate in sports, and in the rare occasions they do it’ll be an individual non-contact sport (tennis or golf). Unlike the Caucasian kids I talk to, they don’t mention video games when I ask how they spend their lesiure time; my guess is that the parents don’t allow them in the house. I generally do the interviews in the kids’ homes, BTW.

    Causasian kids do community service in about the same proportion. But I’ve never had one talk about learning Irish dance or music or how to speak Gaelic or Polish (and opportunities to do so abound in the Chicago area). It’s standard for them to participate in interscholastic sports, and even spend time on taking lessons and/or participate on a travelling team with the concomitant time committment. Youth sports in this area are such that you pretty much have to do one or the other if you expect to play on the local high school varsity team, except for maybe football. They are also much more likely to mention video games when discussing how they spend their lesiure time. And they are more likely to mention listening to music, as opposed to taking lessons in and performing it.

    Talk about “racist stereotypes” if you wish. But what I see of the top of the “nerd class” is that in fact it’s Asian component is quite disproportionate. My observation is that this appears to be due to a deliberate effort by the parents to keep their kids out of the mainstream of pop culture by both minimizing it’s influence on them and by substituting culture that they believe to be superior.

  30. 30
    RonF says:

    My theory about why kids dress cool is that they just want to piss off their parents.

    See, I’ve never understood parents’ complaints in this matter. When parents talk to me about the way their kids dress, I ask one question; “Then why did you buy those clothes?” It’s not like the kids are going out, getting jobs, and buying all their clothes themselves. They’re using Mom and Dad’s money.

    Neither I nor my wife ever gave our children a wad or cash or a credit card, dropped them off at the mall and said “go buy some clothes”. We took them into stores (and refused to take them into other stores) and only bought those clothes we approved of. There was no way in hell that my daughter was going to be bought jeans that stopped just north of her pubic hair and tops that left 50% of her upper torso exposed, nor were we about to buy my son pants that were 2 sizes too big and hung half-way down his ass. On what basis can any parent complain about the clothes their kids wear when they were the ones that paid for them?

  31. 31
    Dave says:

    “I’ve heard more than one black person in the science fiction community say that they felt their geekiness excluded them from blackness.”

    I have heard it said that science fiction is racist. Even the Jetsons predicts a world that is all white. Since robots do all the work no blacks are needed. Even the maid is a robot. There were no predictions that the work place would improve. Things were still run by pompous windbags like Mr.Spacely.

  32. 32
    Mandolin says:

    “I have heard it said that science fiction is racist. ”

    I’ve heard it said society is racist.

  33. 33
    SamChevre says:

    But Mandolin–that misses the point rather thoroughly.

    If society is racist, why is sci-fi perceived as “more racist” than romance novels, or military adventure novels?

  34. 34
    Mandolin says:

    Popular misunderstanding of the genre, much in line with the concept of intelectualness=whiteness.

    Science fiction, of course, has been and often is racist. So is the romance genre, in which there’s a big schism in publishing.

    In any case, science fiction culture is correlated with the culture of nerdiness and geekiness. It is also perceived as being a bastion of whiteness, as apparently are nerdiness and geekiness. My point in posting was to support that this perception has basis in something other than a shared geek culture. There are schisms in geek culture based on race, and denying that they exist by saying it’s all about whether or not people wear geeky clothes, is buying into one of the two dominant mythologies about race in geek culture both of which are evident here.


    2) That geek culture is A PERFECT BASTION OF UTOPIA wherein people care about clothes but not color.

    Both are false.

  35. 35
    Sailorman says:

    Those are the dominant mythologies? they seem pretty polarized to me.

    Why do you think it’s

    That geek culture is A PERFECT BASTION OF UTOPIA wherein people care about clothes but not color.


    First, geekiness is less about clothes and more about brains.

    Second, “perfect” is always wrong–no surprise there–but so what? It’s possble that geeks and/or nerds are vastly more (or less) accepting of other races, without being either perfectly racist or perfectly utopian, is it not?

  36. 36
    Myca says:

    Not to put words into her mouth, but I think Mandolin’s point is that Science Fiction exists within and as a reflection of our culture, and as such, it will contain racist, anti-racist, racially inclusive, and racially exclusive components, (probably in roughly the same kinds of proportions as society as a whole).

    This seems so obviously true to me that I’m surprised that there seems to be debate.


  37. 37
    Mandolin says:

    Possible, but false. There is a self-perception within some geek communities that geeks are more progressive and race-blind (and non-sexist) than non-geeks. It’s a false perception.

    Equally false is the perception that they are exceptionally racist (or misogynist).

  38. 38
    Sailorman says:

    OK, you’ve switched to “geek” but we started with “nerd.” I assume you’re using them as synonyms; this may not make sense otherwise.

    With that assumption, I don’t understand why you would simply state “that is false” without, you know, some support? Especially since you now seem to be claiming not that the utopia is false, but that there is no improvement at all.

    I’ll submit this: People who are seriously attached to almost ANY activity (fencing, programming, Warcraft, Shakespeare, touring with the Dead)* are, when dealing with others who share their love of the activity, less exclusionary based on other factors. Including race.

    They may be just like the rest of the population in other situations. But they’d rather discuss Voltaire with a person of another race, than hear about American Idol with a person of their own race. The more “non-standard” that the activity is, the more the activity “wins” over other factors. And the more of an extreme advocate the person is, the more they care about sharing it, rather than who they share it with.

    Nerdiness is a non-standard activity. It is outside the mainstream. It represents a limited lifestyle, though admittedly less limited than others. The ‘uber-nerds’ will always be limited though. (there are only so many people who are or can be electrical engineering majors at CalTech or MIT. And not everyone there is a nerd at all. My dad went to MIT… as an architect. He’s certainly not an ubernerd.)

    As a result, nerds are more likely to value “nerdiness” e.g. intelligence, skill, and ability, over other characteristics.

    Why do you think that is obviously false?

    *Obviously, not including activities grounded in exclusion. This provides a lot of the balance.

  39. 39
    RonF says:

    Sailorman, a lot of kids who go to MIT as nerds get it smacked out of them (figuratively) when they find themselves a) at the group academic average for the first time in their lives instead of at the top, b) mixed in with a group of kids that for once they can communicate with because they have the same interests they do and where being good at academics is socially acceptable, and c) that they are in fact expected to interact with the rest of the world.

    I went through a lot of changes at the Institute.

  40. 40
    Mandolin says:

    I think it’s obviously false due to the fact that I work in one of those communities, and racism and sexism are just as present as they are outside.

    (and btw, i think you actually will agree it’s obviously false if you pause for a second. Take myself and Tekanji, both of whom have posted on this blog — we both spend a lot of time talking about the role of women/minorities in geek cultures, she in gaming, I in science fiction. Take a bit of a broader look and you’ll look at the Feminist Science Fiction Blog, the Angry Black Woman — any number of places where the issues of representation, race, and sex are enumerated daily. Trust me. There’s a lot of shit to deal with.

    Personally, I work in literature. I sell my fiction primarily in SF circles, and I participate in that community as a professional writer. I attend the most prestigious literary MFA program in the world, which is in effect my “day job”. I’m intimately familiar with both worlds of publishing. The issues are shaded differently, but extremely similar in terms of amount.

    I don’t actually mean they’re identical. I can’t support that. But there are extremely strong memes in both directions that SF in particular is either MUCH MORE or MUCH LESS sexist than average. Many geeks/nerds who read and enjoy SF are progressive, and therefore think that there are no problems in the field. Many outsiders think that referencing the Jetsons is somehow a relevant critique of the entire genre. I’ve had experiences arguing that YES, sexism exists in one forum while at the same time arguing at NO, the genre is not irretrievably tainted in another.

    Academia is another example of a place where racism and sexism remain as systemic barriers to women and minorities, despite an overall culture that feels more supportive to me personally than the outside world.)

    Anyway, my big point here is that I see a lot of people dismissing Rachel’s article by saying that they don’t think there are conflicts between race and nerd identity. I hear otherwise from black people I know in my field. I think it’s problematic to dismiss those voices based on our own sense (as most of us probably feel like nerds, geeks, and dorks) of struggling to be anti-racists. I hear this conversation within the SF community when people are saying there’s no racism there; there is. In this case, I think we want to deny that there are any cultural conflicts around color and nerd identity, but in doing so, we end up drowning out the voices of those who say there are.

  41. 41
    defenestrated says:

    Oh, what a nerdy conversation!
    :) [I mean this in a good way]

    I have to say, I’m really interested in RonF’s MIT stories – I’ve heard a lot of interesting things from former students there that run along the same lines (good changes, bad changes…).

  42. 42
    Rachel S. says:

    on sci fi–I don’t think sci fi as a genre (can’t comment on the sci fi community per se) is much more or less racist than the rest of society. However, it does seem to be “very white” and definitely whiter than average or perhaps less black friendly than average is what I’m thinking.

    Now I can’t speak much for the sci-fi community. My husband is a black sci-fi fan, but I don’t think he would feel comfortable all in the sci-fi community. I haven’t asked him, but I know he doesn’t go to anything sci fi related. He goes to movies, watches TV shows, and reads books and on line stuff, but I get the distinct impression that he feels quite alone in his love of sci fi. He’s the only one of his friends, who are mostly people of color, who likes sci-fi related stuff.

    I’m rambling, but this reminds me of the conversation my dude :) and I have had over and over again.

  43. 43
    A.J. Luxton says:

    (Most of this, by the way, is about geekiness, which is similar to nerdiness but different…)

    On blackness and nerdiness, the one I keep going back to… is Pam Noles’ essay Shame, which is about growing up black and a nerd. It deals with racism in science fiction, the fact that science fiction *specifically* doesn’t *have* to be racist but often is through the laziness of adopting the tropes of a racist culture.

    The Benjamin Nugent thing: My first thought is that there’s some very good theory in there and some not-quite-right conclusions. On the one hand, the act of mining my influences and examining my surroundings means acknowledging my whiteness and my experience of whiteness and trying to own it, delving into the ways that’s influenced my life. As several have said above, though, the conclusion that nerdiness is solely a white phenomenon ignores the existence of nerdy people of color.

    There’s a very personal, self-devoted strand to geek culture. It’s a tendency to seek what’s dearest to you and what you like — you might stumble across it when it’s in style, or five years later. It might be a piece of rap music or a Shakespearean sonnet or a roleplaying game that went out of print in 1988. It might be a song your immigrant parents taught you, or a programming language, or a series of graphic novels, or a cartoon recaptioned from Japanese to English with some hilarious errors.

    And part of the geek aesthetic is ownership of the experience of your obsessions and influences, regardless of whether they correspond to the matching set of your cultural heritage. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t.

    It’s easiest when they do, especially for anyone aware of the issues surrounding appropriation, or anyone encouraged by their environment to avoid ‘crossing race boundaries’ in either direction. But it doesn’t always line up so neatly.

    I own the experience of singing Rock of Ages in Hebrew way back when, and I have a lineage on it, so I can brag about it. If I fell in love with a Mexican dialect of Spanish I wouldn’t have a lineage on it, only the experience of falling in love with it. But the experience of a thing inside the thing’s context is a different experience than the experience of a thing in your own context; I’d say that geek culture inclines toward cultural insensitivity when it ignores the fact that personal context is subjective.

    (I’ve been struggling for a long time to articulate the difference between appropriation and thoughtcrime. I think I’ve just gotten a little closer…)

    I might hazard that self-devotion is encouraged in white culture more than in minority cultures; though I know white people, too, who’ve been socialized into “work, earn a living, worry about yourself later”. I think the perspective that places external value on communicating about a busy inner life is encouraged more by a privileged background, whatever that privilege is; hence the slant towards male and the slant towards white in geek culture, by numbers. And anywhere where there is a slant towards male and a slant towards white, there will be a proportionate slant towards racism and sexism, for reasons fairly obvious.

  44. 44
    Mandolin says:

    “I get the distinct impression that he feels quite alone in his love of sci fi. ”


    At Wiscon this year, a black woman was relating one of her stories of Octavia Butler’s death. At the memorial in NYC, hundreds of black people showed up to mourn the end of her life and celebrate her work.

    Octavia had an identity as a sci-fi writer specifically, but that’s not an identity that many black people feel comfortable with. I don’t put an onus on them as a community to fix that problem, but it’s still a problem that has ramifications on the business end of science fiction. Black writers and fans feel isolated; they tend not to partake of the community offerings. White editors and writers don’t see black people at events, and underestimate the number of black fans who are interested in futures that are progressive and representative.

    And of course you get Octavia’s response to the whole thing which is that black people need science fiction, because black people need to imagine a better future.

    Some black authors, like Tempest Bradford and Nalo Hopkinson and N. K. Jemison, are following in the footsteps of the older generations black science fiction gurus like Octavia and Samuel Delany, in trying to find ways to make the white SF community less homogeneous and racist. There’s a lot of emphasis now on marketing; that’s hitting editors where they live as the aging white audiences of golden age SF die off.

    There are lots of really fantastic black sf writers, and it’s painful to see them marginalized.

    Anyway, check this out. It’s called the Carl Brandon society and it exists to deal with some of these race related problems in SF. The origin of the name is an exemplar of the problem that SF is often considered incompatible with a black identity. When black people ventured into the predominately white space of SF conventions, they would find each other in covert pairs, and they joked about the absent fan — Carl Brandon. Have you seen Carl Brandon? Now the society works to counter some of the race problems in the genre with awards and scholarships. I’m a member, but I’ve been lazy and not joined their mailing list, so I don’t know the full range of their activities. Mea culpa.

  45. 45
    RonF says:

    defenestrated, there is no way to be more greatly exposed to the inner workings of nerds and geeks than to spend a few years at the Institute. We come from all over the U.S. (and 40 other countries in the current classes, I believe). The incidence of having taken a drink, smoked a joint, had sex, or in general having been socially acceptable to more than a handful of fellow classmates is far, far lower than in the general H.S. population. I’m told that the incidence of Asperger’s syndrome is a lot higher at MIT than the general population. There’s a lot of social awkwardness.

    Now they are dumped into a city where there are 100’s of thousands of college students or college-age people. Most are from rural or suburban backgrounds; few have lived in an urban setting, never mind part of one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Lots of different activities and different ways of thinking that they’ve never been exposed to are available. Their academic abilities are something that is celebrated, not deprecated. The projects they can get involved in are cutting-edge research (paid for by your tax money, BTW, and thanks!). They’re surrounded by people like themselves in school. For the first time in many of their lives, they actually get to feel “normal”. Out of school they get some pretty interesting reactions when they’re talking to a bunch of random college students from BU or BC or Tufts (or even Hahvhud) and answer the question “where do you go to school” with “MIT”.

    They’re usually a looooong way from home ….

    When I was there I joined a fraternity. They (and all the other living groups at MIT) have specific methods and processes they use to socialize their freshmen and get them more involved in the social mileu (instead of sitting up in their rooms studying all the time) and in the community in general.

  46. 46
    defenestrated says:

    Uh-oh, Ron – you got me. I went to BU and lived across a little alley from an MIT frat house (near Kenmore Sq.)…you guys were indeed much, much more interesting than I expected…

    [I always heard this one story about the washing machine catapult, but that might’ve been a little Cambridge urban legend]

    It sounds like you got a lot out of your time there (I know some people who dropped out pretty quickly, for various reasons: more ambition than they could fit into four years, perhaps a bit of the Asperger’s Syndrome you mention). Thanks for elaborating! :D

  47. 47
    Original Lee says:

    Oh, Mandolin, thank you for mentioning Octavia Butler and Carl Brandon. I just re-read “The Parable of the Sower” last week, and I kept thinking over and over again “Why on earth does the library not have any Octavia Butler books?” So I went to the library last night and asked, and they poked around a little bit, and then they produced “The Parable of the Talents” – but not from the SciFi/Fantasy section or even the Young Adult section. It was in the literature section, and I wasn’t sure how to take that. Did they shelve it over there because her writing is so amazing, or because she was a black author and blacks don’t write SciFi? (I should say at this point that the library does have an online catalog, but not all paperbacks are in it because they didn’t put the paperbacks in at first – they are working on the backlog now, but for many many years they didn’t want to “waste” money on cataloging paperbacks, so often the only way to find a paperback was to check out the shelf you thought it ought to be on until it showed up – or not.)

    Anyway, back to Octavia Butler. Now that I’m older, her stories have so many layers of resonance for me that I keep going back and re-reading bits over and over and savoring them and digging deeper every time. She was brilliant, dammit.

    Sorry if this is kinda OT – I intended to emphasize the weirdness of where her book was in the library as opposed to her magnificent storytelling ability and use of language.

  48. 48
    RonF says:

    My cousin was at BU. I’d go visit her every so often. When she introduced me as an MIT student they all looked at me like she’d said “Meet my cousin, he’s from Mars.”

    I did get a lot out of my time there, and from being in the fraternity. It helped me be able to at least fake “normal” when absolutely necessary. I got pulled out of my shell some. And being able to spend hours in a lab was just heaven.

  49. 49
    defenestrated says:

    RonF, I think that maybe (just maybe; I don’t mean to overdistill the conversation here) your phrase ‘fake “normal”‘ is the key to this nerd/geek conundrum. Nobody’s actually “normal” (I don’t think), but some groups of people have more incentive than others to pretend.

    As far as the racial aspect here, I think that others (ex: I’m interested in where Original.Lee is going) are covering it much better than I could…but it seems like there’s far less incentive for white folks to feel like we/they need to “act” in any way in particular in regards to book learnin’ than for other races in America.

    Hmm. That didn’t seem to go anywhere
    ::wanders back off into lurking-land.

  50. 50
    donna darko says:

    APIAs who aspire to go to MIT are not representative of APIAs overall. Many APIA parents in the southwest suburbs are already tech and science oriented and Asian parents of kids gunning for MIT are not representative of Asians overall. Perhaps it’s a working class area and the kids weren’t born here. I didn’t know anyone who went to Chinese school until I went to college.

  51. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » The 16th Erase Racism Carnival!