“Nerd Clothes for Thugs in Training”

The title of today’s post comes from a comment on Kotaku in response to pics from the upcoming Nintendo by Torrel clothing line. (More on Torrel and the line at this article from Black Enterprise.) In the words of Kotaku writer Michael McWherter, “Torrel LLC has taken the best of Nintendo, run it through the ‘urban market’ filter with plans to provide thousands of clothes-conscious gamers with over-sized and wildly tacky Nintendo authorized gear.”

The comments on the Kotaku post offer a glimpse into what gamers think about nerd apparel moving beyond web stores and Hot Topic and targeting youth demographics not typically thought of as geeky: Fashion-conscious, urban, Black youth. The reactions range from a number of derisive comments about “gangstas” to a few genuine (if usually reserved) expressions of approval. Some examples, out of order and context:

BY OKARI AT 10/17/07 07:43 PM
Me and my homies r gonna look so kewl wearing those clothes. Any1 who don’t like that is a fool.
Ugh, do we really need more kids wearing baggy clothes thinking that it’s cool?

BY ETERNALPLAYER2345 AT 10/17/07 07:44 PM
wow i sure hope my mario shirt doesnt get me shot now!

BY IGNATIUS AT 10/17/07 07:52 PM
[…] The sad thing is, […] as long as I’m not associated with the “STREET THUG WIGGA 4 LIFE” crap that seems to be prevalent nowadays, I’d gladly buy the Bowser and Mario Bros. sweatshirts.

BY SORIYA AT 10/17/07 08:01 PM
@FrigidAir44: Gangstas are NOT cool. Gangstas think nerd gear is cool. Which makes nerds cool. So basically nerds are awesome.

BY SPARX88 AT 10/17/07 09:51 PM
Ok being white and pretty much hating anything of the sort (i.e. rap, pants half-way down the ass, and pretty much anything else “gangsta”) I’m kinda feeling the NES pad jacket.

BY JONN AT 10/17/07 11:14 PM
[…] We are talking about people who are, almost by definition, idiots. They idolize Tony Montana, and honestly think those shirts are clever.

Perhaps I’m misjudging, but from here, the negative comments suggest some serious cultural intolerance and potentially a major double standard. I can’t reliably predict anything about the musical tastes of anyone commenting here, but it’s worth noting the popularity of nerdcore hip-hop acts at gaming cons like PAX. Why is it okay for gamers – who are typically “white and nerdy,” in Weird Al’s words – to appropriate urban Black culture, but it’s ridiculous when the transfer goes in the other direction (if we can even accept to begin with that pop imagery created by a Japanese company really belonged to the white and nerdy set to begin with)?

When commenter balls187 (who happens to be Black) actually offers a completely unapologetic, positive comment – “That red bomb-omb shirt is win” – it goes mostly ignored. I strongly suspect, though, that the people offering negative comments here don’t see their denigration as related to race at all, but about related to subculture. Commenter TheIrishNinja pipes up to agree with balls187, noting, “i hate it when anything hip-hop comes up on this site, i forget how many abject haters there are of an entire genre due to its radio exposure.” And Ignatius’s above comment about the “wigga” image suggests that his main concern with the clothing is that it would make him look like a member of a White subculture he wants no part of.

Do we buy that this is not about an ignorant, retrograde, or even racist understanding of Black youth culture, but simply a vehement disagreement in taste and style? That seems too convenient from where I sit, especially considering how easy it is to read this as members one self-styled resistive subculture completely discounting another based largely on appearance. By the same token, I do suspect that the group here has been no less critical of any number of products stereotypically coded as “White” that show up on the site. And, admittedly, I have heard (apocryphal?) stories about the origin of the baggy clothing style as being from prison culture, so perhaps one could argue that this is more a Bill-Cosby-style criticism of genuinely tragic and destructive values. Still, I can’t help but bristle at the way some comments affect poor diction and equate a popular style with veneration of criminals, if not outright criminal behavior. Shouldn’t that be the kind of stereotype gamers are sick of themselves? (I wish I could find a link to the old ThinkGeek shirt: “Guns don’t kill people. Kids who play video games kill people.”) Am I simply reading too much into this as I prepare to give a lecture tomorrow on the intersection between the nerd stereotype and racial identities?

Eventually, Torrel himself shows up and thanks everyone for the input. He also directly responds to one of the most frequent early criticisms from commenters about the embedded music on his site, which he acknowledges was a terrible idea. (If you want to engage with computer geeks in their domain, you must play by their rules or face their wrath.) Some commenters throw actual pointed suggestions then, which he also responds to graciously. I suspect things quieted down a bit when commenters realized the designer was listening in. Perhaps that is polite on the commenters’ part, but I would have liked to have seen where it was going to go from there.

5 thoughts on ““Nerd Clothes for Thugs in Training”

  1. Speaking as someone who spends a great deal of his time steeped in nerdcore hip-hop, I find this fairly troubling. Often the chief criticism leveled at nerdcore is that the genre plays itself out like a minstrel show: white artists mocking black culture for the enjoyment of white audiences. This, however, begins to fall apart when one examines not merely minority “nerd artists,” but also the sheer number of legitimate, *white* hip-hop devotees who openly express their nerdy predilections in verse. How can an artist like Jesse Dangerously, who’s been an avid, active, socially conscious hip-hop head for most of his life, be accused of exploiting a culture of which he was already an adherent for his own geeky designs?

    I think the most disturbing aspect isn’t necessarily the age old white=good/black=bad mentality, or, for that matter, the misconception that nerd culture (read: intelligence) is solely a touchstone of Caucasian identity, but the false belief that one couldn’t possibly be supporter of both the gamer/geek lifestyle and black youth culture. At what point did we, meaning nerds as a group, make the decision that these two concepts were somehow mutually exclusive?

  2. So, in your estimation, are the more negative statements in the post described above not typical of the nerdcore scene? I realize that it may be unfair of me to conflate the audience attending such shows with the audience making comments on Kotaku.

  3. Honestly, Jason, I hear echoes of many of these same indictments from a segment of the nerdcore fandom quite regularly. I’d be hard-pressed to quantify the pervasiveness of such a mindset, but it definitely exists. I’d chalk it up to the common misconception that modern hip-hop itself is all about “guns, hos, and bling,” but, even in that regard, there is a definite undercurrent of racism. On a more conceptual level, however, I think we’re witnessing an almost biblical attitude; if “no servant can serve two masters,” then how can the culture of hip-hop and nerd culture – both of which require stringent adherence – co-exist within an individual? I believe the answer lies wholly in the fact that both cultures have been so inducted into the mainstream. Whether it’s a Mos Def reference in a primetime network sitcom or the fact that my tiny, southern mother suddenly knows what a router is, the sacred traditions that both groups hold dear have exploded into the collective consciousness. With that in mind, bleed-over is inevitable.

    Still, I think it is of note that criticism comes from both sides. Just as the gamers from Kotaku (and some nerdcore fans) look down their collective nose at the hip-hop element using videogame imagery, so do some hip-hop fans scoff at the notion of nerdy rap. In the end I think it’s far easier for the more narrow-minded of both groups to take potshots over these perceived incursions than to admit that there is a valid give-and-take between “geek” and “street.”

  4. ok im blk and im a nerd, but im not so far nerd that i cant function with out my xoom tablet and kick ass gaming rig , and i dress hip hop for the most part , and too see that i can kinda dress kinda how i feel , (nerd hip-hop clothing ) well then kutos! why the hell not right! and i never really been around the nerdcore fans so i didnt know there was such a fuss ! calm down, i have a harder time then you will with the clothing thing , ill might hear stuff from both sides regardless that im blk , but it comes down to confidence and not caring what shit they say , watch if enough of us nerds who are also blk start doin the whole nerd/hiphop dressing and rock it well then watch ppl fallow , if you look back you will see alot of low brow clothing ideas that become cool , really sagging? common ! not the greatest accomplishment in fashion, now they have pants that pretty much look like you are when ur not , not saying that nerd/hop is a bad idea , just that it has to catch on and gain its own swag .
    and for the whole gangsta thing ……shits gettin old quick at least for me.

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