As seen on Madame Noire
The term nerd has evolved materially over an extended period of time. It has somehow cultivated into several meanings that has become one of those elusive terms that makes it somewhat difficult to define. The TBS reality show King of the Nerds which airs Thursday nights at 10pm, is an example of yet another reality TV show exploiting stereotypes that are not all encompassing of what a large majority of nerds are. The show depicts the archetypal nerd. On King of the Nerds, some of the contestants include the neuroscientist, the NASA engineer, the mathematician, and the geophysicist. There are also the comic book nerds, video gamers, and a guy who describes himself as a “professional hacker” (scary). In any event, albeit these contestants represent a myriad of personalities and talents, I believe that being a nerd is far more than a high degree of intelligence. I will give the show the benefit of the doubt that it is only in its first season, and perhaps next season they will work to show a more well-rounded group of nerds.
For example take a look at the Venn diagram below:
This diagram provides a simplistic illustration of what makes someone a nerd and echoes the notion that the personalities of a nerd or the components that make someone ‘nerdy’ are not just a specific thing. Historically, intelligence and social ineptitude as seen in the diagram were the major components of what constitutes being a nerd. Think about every movie or TV show you have watched that depicted nerds. Usually they are socially awkward, extremely intelligent, and have an obsession with a specific (usually non-social) activity. I think being a nerd is a lot more than what you do for a living, how many degrees you hold, and how many dates you've been on in the past few years. I would like to give credit to a commenter on my Facebook page for Black Girl Nerds who so beautifully articulated this statement and I quote:
“To me a nerd has many underlining definitions; nerds are people who go against social norms, out of the box thinkers, knowledge seekers. Black nerds are all those things but also open minded and embrace black and non-black culture. Other blacks consider us Nerds because we exhibit those things which they themselves do not value. I love this new found appreciation for Nerds. It's cool to be yourself; it's cool to be artistic, intelligent, knowledgeable, and well spoken. A lot of people feel like Nerd is the new cool, but I have always thought it was "hip to be square". - By Mustbe TheLibrarian Harris
The definition of a nerd is exactly what was stated above. This permeates in all communities not just African Americans. However, it is especially important for us as black people to not adhere to stereotypes of the past (and present) that paint a broad brush over the definition of what a nerd is. I agree that nerds are people who are alternative thinkers and individuals who are not built for conformity. It is our idiosyncratic quirks and behaviors that can make us nerdy. The term nerd in the past had a negative connotation. Just like the other ‘n’ word in the black community. What we do best in our society is take a word that was once meant for harm, and turn it around and use it to benefit and empower our people. I’m not exactly a fan of the other ‘n’ word, but I am a fan of the concept and idea of the power of reversal and using that to help lift and inspire others.
I am personally a mixture of a nerd, dweeb, dork, and geek. Yes I beset every part of that Venn diagram. I don’t measure up very well in social situations, I am definitely the wallflower of every party, and I loathe networking conferences and events where you are forced to socialize with people. Small talk is like kryptonite to me, and I dare you to wait for me to be the first one to strike up a conversation with you, believe me it is a battle that you will not win. These qualities define my lack of social skills that I admire in personality A types. I also have an obsessive compulsion with non-social activities. I converse more through social media than I do in person, I spend hours watching TV and/or reading, and I love to write…it’s kind of my thing. I can easily spend most of my day doing any of those activities and feel completely comfortable in my moments of solitude without the distraction of personal interaction.
An obsession of non-social activities however does not always make one a nerd. One can be well-versed in a sport, is a political pundit, a manager of a team, or any other number of social activities and still be considered nerdy or geeky. A nerd also does not have to be fashionably-challenged. I know several fashion geeks who are trendy and ‘hipster’ in their fashion-forward looks, but still considers that they are in fact nerdy. There are also people who may not necessarily have a high-level of intelligence, who are nerdy and geeky in nature. The point to clarify here is that nerdiness is not a monolith. We cannot be placed inside of a box with a label slapped on the outside of it in a plain package. We are innovators, designers, creators, executives, leaders, thinkers, and masters in our crafts. We don’t understand the terms conformity, standard, and status quo. We refuse to be in compliance with what everyone else is doing and what is considered to be “cool”. Therefore society deems us uncool and uses terms to isolate themselves from us like nerd, geek, dork, and dweeb. These terms separate us from a group of individuals who choose to think the same, adhere to archaic methods, or simply choose to dissimulate who they are to satisfy the acceptance of others. Nerds simply do not do that. That is why you won’t see us at the cool kid’s table nor will you see us joining the cheerleader squad simply to fit in with the popular girls.
You will more than likely see us sitting in a library alone reading an Octavia Butler novel or creating code on a computer because these are activities we relish in and enjoy doing. We don’t know how to be like everyone else, we just live our best life the way we know how. Therefore, what makes someone a nerd is someone who understands their own identity is willing to step outside of the conventional box.
How does this relate to Black men and women? We have heard of the portmanteau term “Blerd” which has become quite controversial within the last few years. There are the hopelessly optimistic people like me, who think it is an empowering word that strengthens black nerds and helps to facilitate more positive imagery into our community. Then there are those who will always choose to be critical of anything outside of conventional thinking and will use words like “divisive” and “exclusive”. There are critics who believe that the term separates black nerds from “regular nerds” and therefore we are somehow different from nerds in general. It’s time to get honest and talk about the elephant in the room here. Close your eyes and think of an image of your typical nerd. I mean it. Think of your stereotypical nerd that you have seen in every movie, photographed in every magazine, and described in every book. What image do you see? Is your nerd black? If you’re nerd turns out to be black congratulations you live in a world that most of us don’t get to live in! However, if your nerd looked like this guy, then more than likely you can see where I am going with this argument.
I want you to try another experiment. Go to Google images and type the term “Nerd”. You may see a small sprinkle of us in there, but not that much. In fact, the only reason you may see a sprinkle of black folks in those very images is because of the Blerd conversation that has taken place among media types like Eric Deggans and other online publications that have brought this new term out publicly. I will personally share with you that when I started the blog Black Girl Nerds, and googled the term ‘Black Girl Nerds’ nothing came up in Google. The terms “Black Nerd”, “Black Girl”, and “Girl Nerd” came up yes, but the words Black, Girl, and Nerd in the same phrase was nowhere to be found. After some digging (and I mean an extensive night of Google searching) a few blogs and articles written with those terms came up. I thought it was ridiculous and quite surprising that there was little to no content in cyberspace that spoke to women of my ilk. It was that very night that the BGN blog was born.
The lack of representation of nerdy black people always bothered me. This has happened long before the term Blerd came into existence and long before people like Pharrell Williams and Lupe Fiasco made nerdiness the new cool. What bothered me more was the lack of representation of nerdy black women. I've seen a barrage of TV shows, movies, and even cartoon characters that feature nerdy white girl characters. We can be just as quirky, awkward, and eccentric as any other nerdy girl out there. The images of black women we see on TV represent a small sample of black women as a whole. A substantial amount of white characters on TV have a large variance of eccentricities compared to that of black characters on TV.
I am proud to say on King of The Nerds there is a black girl nerd contestant named Moogega Cooper who is a NASA engineer. The hit web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl depict a character named J who is quirky, funny, and at most times dorky in her approach to dealing with life’s challenges. Slowly but surely nerdy black women are coming into the fold and we are making our presence known. We’ve always been around; it’s just that society has dismissed us for many decades because being black and nerdy was somewhat of an anomaly. In our community we have the cultural advantage of being well-rounded and diverse in our tastes in music, food, and fashion. We can own and embrace our blackness while also enjoying the fruits of other cultures outside of our own. This makes us more than the one-dimensional depiction that you are accustomed to seeing in the media.
Black nerds sometimes feel threatened to stay in the closet for fear they will be labeled white by their black peers. I know black women who feel that because they are steampunks, that they are somehow separating themselves from their blackness. I know black women who feel ashamed to share their tastes in music because it doesn't derive from black culture. I know women who feel because they have a penchant for dating men outside of their race that somehow that makes them less black or the dreaded term, “sell-out”.
Nerdiness does not constitute a lack of blackness. If you are a nerd, then the idea that you have less melanin in your skin than your black friends is not only an absurdity, but it’s an antiquated way of thinking that has got to stop. Especially in the black community. No one should ever feel ashamed of who they are and what they like simply because a small group of people disagree. Black nerds wear what they want to wear, speak how they want to speak, date who they want to date, and be who they were always born to be. Our nerdiness is what makes up a large part of who we are and we refuse to apologize for it. As a nerdy black girl blogger I am always asked the question, what makes someone a nerd?
I believe what makes someone a nerd is what translates to others as your personal authenticity. That may convey to others as someone who is an intellectual, a geek, a dweeb, or an introvert. In the end, you are who you are and it’s finally okay to be down with that.