Illustrations by Shannon Wright
From Scooby-Doo’s Velma to Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nerd girls have always been white by default. Even well-known Black nerds, a.k.a. blerds—from Steve Urkel to Neil deGrasse Tyson—are men. But finally, Black women who also happen to be nerds are having their moment. Writer and showrunner Shonda Rhimes and filmmaker Ava DuVernay have led the charge to create more complex Black women characters onscreen; in the STEM world, Black women are pioneering; and online, Black nerds are connecting like never before and seeking inclusion and agency in science, comics, gaming, and elsewhere in pop culture, where we are still too rarely represented. We have certainly made progress from the days when Black women were practically invisible—save for the fabulous Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on Star Trek. The following writers on Black female nerddom are as visionary as their predecessors and take comfort in knowing they are not as lonely as before, even if we still have a long way to go. —Joshunda Sanders
by Stephani Page
Black. Woman. Nerd. Scientist. What does that even look like? I would say that it looks like any Black woman you would pass on the street. When I started the weekly Twitter discussion #BLACKandSTEM, I was astounded by the diverse picture that developed—from the types of households we grew up in and the schools we were educated in to our favorite books and music to the way we styled our hair. On top of that, the breadth of specialties and expertise of folks is truly amazing. We are aerospace engineers, ecologists, astrophysicists, computer scientists, and neurobiologists. We design vaccines and computer applications. We image brains and the remote landscapes of the Earth. We map genomes and the universe. And we began to speak.
For one #BLACKandSTEM chat, I asked what it is like to be Black, in STEM fields, and a woman. The conversation was so nuanced that it is difficult to condense the perspectives and experiences of all of the women who participated. Many women felt invisible in their workplaces that went beyond the isolation that comes from working in a lab; instead, their very existence was not acknowledged. When they weren’t rendered invisible, Black women felt pigeonholed into stereotypical roles—the nurturing mammy, the loud and sassy “sista,” or the object of “exotic” sexualized fantasies—none of whom were taken seriously. We contended with being considered less capable and of lower intelligence before we even opened our mouths. Often we were the only Black women around, or one of few.
Some women just read and related. Others shared to the extent to which they were comfortable. There was space to vent and offer advice and support. The experiences can be suffocating to the point that, to some, having an open space, being recognized, and having their words respected was like a sigh of relief. All too often in STEM spaces—regardless of degrees, titles, or experience—Black women get shifted to the bottom of the totem pole, even when they operate in leadership roles.
In that particular chat, there was a consensus that dialogue, decision making, and execution that affect us are too often done without input of one Black woman, let alone multiple. We are women who have been on the outside so often, deemed undeserving of respect, made to feel unwelcome, or expected to “fit” some kind of precast mold.
The two themes that stood out to me, however, were themes of inclusion and agency. We are more than a face for some corporation or institution’s diversity agenda. We no longer wish to bear the burden of the limited perspectives of Black women—that we are not smart enough, that we are not natural leaders, or that the world has nothing to learn from us. We do not accept the options to either assimilate or fit into stereotypes.
Maybe that is the power of #BLACKandSTEM. As a community, we reduce the isolation—someone in Orlando, Florida, can connect with someone in Portland, Oregon. Someone having an issue specific to being a Black woman in academia can connect with other Black women who have been there and who understand the nuances of the experience. We have been on the periphery so long that when you find a place where you can admit your daydreams of discovery were inspired by Mae Jamison and Dana Scully, where you can find normalcy in your experience without losing your individuality, and/or where you can rally the troops to action around social justice—that relief of being invited, included and in control is energizing and affirming.
I often say that, whether we choose to be or not, Black women in STEM are trailblazers. After all, Black women are often a part of mere fractions of percentages of individuals who make up professionals in STEM careers. So the honor of being associated with other Black women nerd scientists—such as Danielle Lee, Ainissa Ramirez, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and Raychelle Burks—wasn’t just embodied in finding a supportive, inclusive collective of Black women who get it. It was embodied in joining Black women activists on matters around social justice, feminism, inclusion—all of the topics that come together at the intersection of being a Black woman, a nerd, and a scientist.
by Vanessa Willoughby
When it was announced that Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o had been cast in the next J.J. Abrams Star Wars installment, Black fans were ecstatic. Yet when early sketches of her character hit the web, these same fans were a little ruffled by the drawing. Instead of an elegant, otherworldly humanoid or lightsaber-wielding Jedi, Nyong’o’s character was a CGI, bandana-wearing, green-skinned alien.
Nyong’o’s Star Wars role exemplifies how Hollywood superficially honors diversity without having to actually show it onscreen. Black sci-fi fans have realized there’s a fine line between visibility and tokenism, that many “diversity” attempts are often conditional, and that casting Black women is viewed as an inconvenient afterthought.
Star Wars joins other popular franchises for a sloppy treatment of race and racial identity that feeds into the alienation of Black fans. When Marvel Comics announced that instead of Peter Parker, Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic teenager, would serve as Spider-Man’s alter ego, fans generally embraced it. Yet documents from the Sony e-mail leaks show that gatekeepers were adamant that Spider-Man could not be a Black actor. In the Hunger Games series, Katniss has “olive skin” and black hair, and many readers hoped the Girl on Fire could be a woman of color. Not only was the movie part given to a brunette Jennifer Lawrence, but racist moviegoers complained about the casting of Black actors in the film, including Rue, the small, quick-witted girl character explicitly written as having “dark brown skin.”
Actress Zoe Saldana has carved out a space in sci-fi—but with the exception of her role as Lieutenant Uhura in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot, she voices alien or other nonhuman characters (blue skin in Avatar, green in Guardians of the Galaxy). To some, it’s a sign of progress that Saldana is now a go-to actress for female sci-fi roles. Saldana herself told Time, “Eighty percent of what’s out there is told through the point of view of a male. I can sit down with so many filmmakers for so many projects and play so many actors’ girlfriends or wives. But in sci-fi, I can play Gamora.” It’s great that Saldana is breaking through glass ceilings, but that doesn’t mean her success is necessarily opening the floodgates for a plethora of Black actresses seeking sci-fi roles—and relying on one actress to fill a diversity quotient is not only lazy but dangerously counterproductive.
On television, viewers were delighted to see Black actress Nicole Beharie in an autonomous, intelligent, kick-ass leading role on FOX’s Sleepy Hollow. Yet as the seasons went on, writers sidelined Beharie’s leading lady in favor of Ichabod’s wife, a white woman named Katrina. For sci-fi viewers, this sent the message that even when a Black woman is an integral part of a show, her white counterpart will always outrank her.
Even sci-fi that’s considered more “feminist” falls flat. Joss Whedon, routinely cited as a sci-fi/fantasy director who consciously writes well-rounded women characters, typically filters narratives through the perspective of a white woman. The majority of his shows—such as Buffy, Dollhouse, and even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—do not have Black women as the main protagonists. Black girls and women who watch these shows may enjoy the refreshingly multidimensional female characters, but rarely do they see themselves reflected back, instead treated to familiar stereotypes like the Token Black Friend or the Sassy, Strong Black Woman.
If one were to go solely on prime-time shows like The Big Bang Theory, a viewer might believe that nerds and/or geeks are still embodied by the same tired stereotypes: white, male, socially awkward yet intellectually brilliant. But if you look elsewhere you’ll see a different story. Online, Black girl nerds have used social media not only to find community but to achieve the sort of validation and visibility mainstream media denies them. Harry Potter fans have used racebending as a way to reimage the beloved trio into characters that look more like them, namely with Hermione, whose physical descriptions in the book are limited to her big, bushy hair and oversize teeth. Black cosplayers routinely racebend by dressing up as characters canonically written as white.
Characters like Storm from X-Men, Martha Jones from Doctor Who, and Kendra Young from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are loved and remembered so fiercely because they are some of the few—but they are not the norm in sci-fi and fantasy casting. Black female fans want to see an accurate and nuanced portrayal of characters that look like them. By using social media and the free-flowing exchange of ideas within fandoms, these fans are fighting back against the one-note offerings of Hollywood. Black characters in these genres have gone from nonexistent to a rare commodity, mainly included to provide the illusion of an equal playing field. The community of Black girl nerds relentlessly and continuously challenges the status quo by carving out their own space at the table, refusing to settle for the notion of “good enough.”
a Q&A with Jamie Broadnax
It was 2 a.m., a February night in 2012. Jamie Broadnax had recently started a community page on Facebook devoted to nerdy Black women and wondered what else was out there. Out of boredom she typed its name—Black Girl Nerds—into Google and was surprised when nothing came up.
These days, if you even start typing Black Girl Nerds into Google, you’ll immediately be offered suggestions pointing to the community Broadnax has built—a roster of blog contributors, tens of thousands of followers across social media, and perhaps most notably, her popular podcast. We asked Broadnax about the comics industry and pop culture trailblazers, and for a little advice on putting yourself out there.
What was the first comic you read that you felt represented Black women as fully realized characters?
X-Men. I read Storm’s origin story and saw her as a little kid trapped in a box. Ororo Munroe is claustrophobic, and in this comic she had nightmares about being in closed spaces. To see a powerful mutant and leader like Storm tackle that kind of vulnerability was very profound for me as a Black girl nerd.
Do you feel that independent comics offer more opportunities for Black women creatives?
I run a blog and connect with many artists who are employed by both indie publishers and mainstreams like DC and Marvel, but I don’t know enough about the business to give you an accurate answer. What I do know is this—the comics industry is very white and very male. There are more characters of color inside the panels of comic books than on the teams responsible for distributing the comics. There are women of color in the industry, but some of them wish to remain silent and not advertise that they work in comics for various reasons. I’m currently working on a series featuring more women of color in comics and hopefully BGN can be a safe space where they can tell their stories and share their content with our audience.
If you’re interested in comics, listen to the BGN episodes with Regine Sawyer, a Black woman with her own publishing company, or the one with Ariell Johnson, a Black woman opening up her own comic-book store.
Who are some Black women at the forefront of online visibility in gaming, genre fiction, comics, coding, and film?
In gaming? Aisha Tyler. She’s become a force and a face for Black female gamers. In horror, the biggest online force to be reckoned with is Ashlee Blackwell’s Graveyard Shift Sisters. Her online impact is phenomenal, and she is one of the few Black women out there providing pop culture and academic perspectives on Black women in horror. In coding, I would give it to Kimberly Bryant, who leads Black Girls Code, an organization encouraging young girls to code, and Kathryn Finney, who leads Digital Undivided, which helps bridge the divide among women and men of color in coding. Screenwriting and directing has to go to Shonda Rhimes—full disclosure, I am a bit partial to Shonda since she named me as a Twitter favorite of hers a while back in Marie Claire—but no one can disagree that she is a TV powerhouse and rules Thursday-night prime time.
What tips would you give to Black women who want to self-publish their fiction or comics?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. I know it’s difficult to be in a space where you rarely see yourself reflected, but you have to be bold and get your work out. Even if you think it sucks, who cares? Just do it. There are a plethora of comic-book creators who started out as mediocre and worked their way up to being masters of their craft. You can only get better by doing the work and keeping it consistent. With so many intersectional spaces growing on the web, now is the time to do it too, and you will have the support that you need; bloggers, podcasters, and vloggers are all willing to interview you and review your work.
What’s been the most surprising response to Black Girl Nerds?
I never expected the space to appeal to so many different kinds of fans. It’s not just Black girls who celebrate this space but everyone! I’ve had so much support and loyalty throughout the years from men and women of all nationalities and backgrounds. It’s a beautiful thing to see how universal this online community has become.
Also, I never thought I would be lucky enough to be asked to speak publicly on panels or be sponsored to fly out to attend various events. It’s an honor and a privilege to do what I do. To be rewarded for it is the icing on the cake.
by Nyasha Junior
I was a little Black girl in the 1970s. Back then, media representations of Black women, nerdy or not, were scarce. Films like Claudine and Foxy Brown featured Black women, but I was too young to see those. On television, I saw Black women like Florence (Marla Gibbs) on The Jeffersons or Willona (Ja’net DuBois) on Good Times. I didn’t even find Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) nerdy—she was just another Black woman doing her job.
In print media I saw Black women doing amazing things in Ebony and Jet magazines, proudly displayed on the coffee table. Some of these women were scientists and engineers, while others were doctors and lawyers. Some were musicians, dancers, or artists in various fields. They were often extraordinary—the “first” or “only” Black woman to hold a particular position in her field or to receive a prestigious award. In my mind, there was no collective name for what they were doing. To me, they were creative, industrious, capable Black women. In other words, they were ordinary.
In my everyday life, I saw Black women who could “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.” (You’re probably not going to get that reference. It was an old Jean Naté commercial. Look it up on YouTube.) To me, these women weren’t role models or women doing miraculous things. I assumed that any Black woman who had achieved some feat—feeding a family of four on a budget or becoming ceo of a major corporation—had faced numerous challenges to get where she was. My family preached to me the same message that Poppa Pope (Joe Morton) instilled in Olivia (Kerry Washington) on Scandal: “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I thought that Black women in whatever station or position worked hard to get where they were and were likely overqualified for the positions that they held. I never doubted their ability or my own.
In terms of my own “nerddom,” my family was proud of me for getting straight As, but it was not an accomplishment worthy of effusive praise. It was acknowledged but also expected. I didn’t receive gifts or cash for grades. Getting into my first-choice college was unsurprising. My family was proud of me, but no one was turning cartwheels. Blackness combined with smarts, passion, and enthusiasm was just…normal. Well, maybe a little strange. But not a thing. That is, there was no category for it and certainly no marketing demographic. It was one of the many points along a spectrum of Blackness. I liked reading, and I was smart. My family called me “egghead” and “little professor.” (This was especially apt because I used to carry around a Little Professor. It was a small, handheld device…oh, just Google it.) I read my World Book Encyclopedias for fun. I imagined solving mysteries with Encyclopedia Brown. I was different than other kids, but I wasn’t abnormal. I certainly wasn’t “acting white” because of my academic achievement. Black intelligence is only atypical if one presumes Black inferiority. Black girls who are readers are only atypical if you don’t know any Black girls in real life. I was in the spelling bee, the science fair, and the gifted and talented program. I was a regular Black girl. But I wasn’t part of a community of people who shared my interests. So, none of my nerdy activities became a central part of my identity.
The presumed competence of Black women is reflected in section two of Alice Walker’s four-part definition of “womanist.” In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker writes, “Traditionally capable, as in: ‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’” The mother is completely unsurprised about her daughter’s bold plan. Her daughter is ordinary in the way that Black women are ordinarily extraordinary.
Although I don’t identify as a blerd, if there’s a committee that decides such things, I could probably get my application approved with strong letters of recommendation. But to me, blerding is a young person’s game. Like the terms “feminist” and “womanist,” people have been doing it for a lot longer than there has been a name for it. I’m a garden-variety Black woman. No special term needed. Maybe you just haven’t seen enough of us bloom.
Nyasha Junior is an assistant professor of the Hebrew Bible in the department of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Follow her work at nyashajunior.com.