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.
- Undoubtedly, this is class coded was well–middle and upper income whites get way more cool points than working class or poor whites. [↩]
- 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. [↩]