More Research on Nerds and Race

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.

5 thoughts on “More Research on Nerds and Race

  1. Having read the paper, I’m a little surprised by how she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that while the content of the both Weird Al and the Nerdcore are steeped in “whiteness”–the form that the content takes clearly suggests an impressive and informed interaction with rap. That is, Nerdcore artists didn’t just listen to a single rap song and think, I can do this but in a white nerdy way. (If they did, they are impressive musicians.) I feel like you need to acknowledge that, if you are going to talk about how the general message of this stuff is. After all, Nerdcore isn’t NerdOpera or NerdEpicPoetry…The point is something draws Nerdcore artists to HipHop as the way to express their “self narrative”. I’d be more interested in that than in talking about How Weird Al manages to parody rap videos. (Something he’s been doing for long enough that I’m slightly shocked we didn’t get some more context on Weird Al’s rap/hiphop videos as part of the piece.)

  2. I suppose that nerd status involves disposable income spent on such nerdish products as fast computers and accessories, video game systems, and the excessive merchandise involved in fandom. It becomes, therefore, a socio-economic matter, and nerdity being seen as “white” is similar to yacht racing being seen as “white.”

    Or, to put it another way, having money validates the nerd tag and image, just as poverty validates the gangsta rap image. And then it turns out that overcoming that initial validating trait is seen as the final victory, i.e. Snoop flaunting his wealth, and Bill Gates with his much-too-beautiful-for-a-guy-like-that wife.

  3. I think that there’s more going on in the interaction between gangsta rap and nerdcore than the paper’s author has hit on.

    When it comes to the people consuming the media I think the following is true of gangsta rap–at least at its conception: A specific group is underserved by mainstream media, in part because it does not really understand them and in part because they don’t have proven economic clout (ie, the mainstream hasn’t realized that they can profit from selling to these people so why do it). Also, this specific group sees its own portray in the mainstream as misunderstood. In response to these factors, the group creates an outsized image that conforms to the mistaken mainstream perception of what they are: in this case, they are uber-gangstas. The audience understands (or just responses) to this image and elevates the performers/creators. Once the tribe is big enough, the mainstream gets wind of the money in the air and suddenly hiphop is everywhere, P. Diddy makes more putting out clothes than records and Tupac, RIP, isn’t around to make money off a subculture that he created.

    Here’s the thing. Weird Al is the Tupac of Nerdcore (maybe?). The Nerdcore follows exactly the same pattern. (At this point, Jason is saying, yes Chris, there have been hundreds of explanations of this far better than what you have said.) And so, now that the economics are falling into place (clearly they are there movie/TV wise with all the comic book movies). I’m just saying that the “HyperWhite” identity of Nerdcore artists might be more of a semi-construct meant to deliver the following messages to would be NerdCore audiences (1) I’m the geekiest person you know and therefore my art is authentic and (2) I know you’re smart enough to know that this is an act that I’m doing, in the same way that you end up having to be the geekiest person around when you are in school, at the workplace, etc. therefore, you can relate to what I’m doing, we are brothers-in-arms (or computer mice or mult-side dice) and that is a connection that should flourish). (In gangsta rap, the message is “I’m black just like you and everyone else thinks I’m capable of these terrible things I sing about and if they keep treating me like that, maybe I am capable of these things).

    I dunno.

  4. “(2) I know you’re smart enough to know that this is an act that I’m doing, in the same way that you end up having to be the geekiest person around when you are in school, at the workplace, etc. therefore, you can relate to what I’m doing, we are brothers-in-arms (or computer mice or mult-side dice) and that is a connection that should flourish).”

    I like this. It’s pretty much a description of MC Frontalot’s act.

    It’s interesting that Front (who defined Nerdcore) and Chris (who has only recently, and reluctantly, embraced it) both resist branding themselves as Alpha Nerds (offstage, in Front’s case) largely out of respect to the segment of their audience who surpass them in the nerdly arts.

    *pushes up glasses* BTW, unmatched parenthesis, there.

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