Journalista links to a recent New York Times Magazine article by Benjamin Nugent, “Who’s a nerd, anyway?” The author has a book coming out next spring titled American Nerd: The Story of My People, though this piece focuses on the core thesis of Mary Bucholtz’s nerd research, who has a book of her own on this topic in progress. Bucholtz’s thesis is that nerd identity can be understood through linguistic practice, and it is a “hyperwhite” identity, rejecting the slang of Black culture.
This rejection may be both laudable and problematic, as the NYT article explains:
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 â€œrefusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded,â€ she writes, nerds may even be viewed as â€œtraitors to whiteness.â€ 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 â€œblack students who chose not to openly display their abilities.â€ This is especially disturbing at a time when African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if theyâ€™re too obviously diligent about school. Even more problematic, â€œNerdsâ€™ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students,â€ 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, itâ€™s a rebellion with a limited membership.
This is an interesting argument, but I’m going to have to agree with Journalista’s Dirk Deppey in most of his response:
Of course, nerdiness is also an absence of redneck culture, Jewish culture, Hispanic culture, Native-American culture, old-money culture and any of hundreds of other kinds of culture. Likewise, â€” though Iâ€™m sure this is something of a stretch for cultural-studies types â€” one shouldnâ€™t discount the possibility that nerd culture is pro-something, rather than anti-black culture, or that it may in fact have nothing whatsoever to do with race. And come on, statements like â€œa culture based on theft is a culture not worth havingâ€ are, if anything, antithetical to practical nerdishness: Just ask the Japanese. (Isnâ€™t Quentin Tarantinoâ€™s worship of 1970s blacksploitation films part of what makes him a nerd?) Still, donâ€™t let any of this stop you from seeing life exclusively through a simple black/white dichotomy, Ms. Bucholtz!
Dirk calls out Mary for being narrow in her scope, though in her defense, a cultural phenomenon this big needs to be reined in somehow. She’s writing about nerd identity with a prevailing focus on race; Lori Kendall writes about nerd identity with a focus on gender and computing; I’m writing about nerd identity with a broader focus on media use; and we all refer to one another’s areas of focus. Nobody that I’m aware of has attempted to focus on age, though there’s a huge gap in the academic literature between those writing about geek/nerd identity among young students and those writing about the same terms as applied to adults. (I’m going to touch upon this somewhat in my dissertation by asking people how they got into their media interests and whether they were nerds as kids, but I won’t be doing comparative research among children.) Arguably, the whole point of academic research is in the accumulation and triangulation of knowledge, so it’s not like any one of us is going to get it completely right in a single book.
I do agree that race figures somehow into nerd identityâ€”how can you argue otherwise, after viewing the trailer for a documentary about white geeks semi-ironically appropriating hip-hop culture? I also think that it’s good that Mary Bucholtz is exploring the race angle further, as most peer reviewed literature on nerds/geeks has focused on gender to the exclusion of race. Nevertheless, I’d argue that race is not the defining aspect of nerd culture among most adult members, and it may not even be as central among kids as the NYT article implies. It’s true that “African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if theyâ€™re too obviously diligent about school,” but most recent literature on this topic that I’m aware of suggests that this is the case for kids of all racial and ethnic groups.
This is why it’s very hard for me to answer people who ask me what “geek culture” is, or how to define what a “nerd” is. I think that “whiteness” and “masculinity” are two of the more important concepts that shape how we think about and perform nerd identity/geek culture, but each is only part of large picture. The part of that picture that interests me the most (at present) is seeing which aspects make it to the products and events that are explicitly or implicitly marketed to self-identified geeks and nerds: clothing at ThinkGeek and J!NX, events like Comic Con (“nerd prom”) and the Penny Arcade Expo (with musical acts about “the geek experience”), and music like nerdcore hip-hop and lab nerd rock.
These things implicate media use above all else as the one common denominator, though it’s important to read between the lines regarding who doesn’t make the cut as a legitimate geek. There’s stuff in here for women, but it’s the minority; maybe even less explicitly for nonwhite groups; and surprisingly little for those whose geekiness doesn’t fit neatly into a media market. Someone asked me at Comic Con last weekend where “biology nerds” fit into my study, and to be honest, they don’t make much of an appearance. I took a photo of a guy in a shirt that said “Plant Geek” this past weekend because it’s so atypical (and also because I happen to be dating a plant geek who I think will be excited to see it). The shirt was homemade by his school’s local horticulture club, not sold through any of the major nerd sites. There’s just not the same kind of market for that sort of geekiness.
Between the two forthcoming books mentioned in the above article, the dissertation I’m working on (which I hope to turn into a book eventually), and any other upcoming works on geek/nerd identity, it sounds like this topic is going to see some attention from a variety of perspectives in the near future. Over time, I’m hoping to see an even broader range of focus than what we see now: discussions of how geek identity develops with age, consideration of personality and psychology (taboo though these may be among some cultural researchers), intercultural/international conceptions of geek/nerd identities, and more. I’m not proposing an entire subfield of “geek studies”â€”but if you write a book or article on this, I do expect that it will have an audience, and I’ll be among those readers.