Revenge of the Feminerd: Nerd “Hyperwhiteness”

Jarrah E Hodge
View profile »

Weird Al dressed as a typical nered-white with glasses, a tucked in white shirt. He is balancing two symbols of two computer programs on each of his fingers

Reading Benjamin Nugent’s book American Nerd in preparation for writing this column I came across a reference to research by UC Santa Barbara linguistics professor Mary Bucholtz, which argues that nerd culture manifests “hyperwhiteness” in its language. Nugent didn’t elaborate on this much in his book but he’d also written a review of her research for the New York Times, and I thought the whole idea of how nerd culture is racialized was really interesting…and pretty problematic.

So Bucholtz’ basic argument can be summed up as follows, though we should keep in mind that she’s basing her conclusions on small-scale ethnographic research with US college and high school students and I don’t believe she’s trying to generalize about whiteness or blackness but rather delineate social relations at particular schools:

First, she argues nerds use “hyperwhite” language (i.e. extreme grammatical correctness, diction, strict phrasing, over-explaining). Think Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They purposefully make themselves less cool and emphasize intelligence through language.

Second, Bucholtz observed that nerds deliberately avoid slang, especially hip hop- or black-associated slang. Thereby they refuse to exercise a type of white privilege by not co-opting black culture.

Finally, nerds’ scorn of black hip hop culture as unintelligent sometimes leads them to refuse to consider the possibility of including blacks as friends in their groups.

Here’s a quote from Nugent’s article:

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 “refusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded,” she writes, nerds may even be viewed as “traitors to whiteness.” 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 “black students who chose not to openly display their abilities.”

Bucholtz’ arguments reminded me of the Weird Al song “White and Nerdy” in how they distinguish nerd culture as white and uncool and and hip hop culture as black and cool:

(lyrics to “White and Nerdy”)

I want to use this blog post as a basis for discussion, for two reasons. The first reason is that I went to a rural Canadian high school where we had 2% visible minority population, so I don’t feel I can speak to my own experience compared to Bucholtz’s findings. The second reason is that I’m white and it shouldn’t ultimately be up to me to say whether or not nerd culture is inclusive.

But here are some observations I have and some concerns I have with Bucholtz’s research being applied on a larger scale. I don’t have answers and I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on these.

  1. Nerds are defined by similar behavior in countries around the world, even where there is less of a stereotyped cultural delineation between black and white. Can you still call it “hyperwhiteness” and a rejection of hip-hop culture in these places?
  2. Bucholtz states that in the schools she visited, Asians were seen as “honorary whites” in nerd circles. But there’s a huge sub-section of nerd culture that revolves around appropriated Asian (esp. Japanese) cultural phenomena, like manga, anime, and Lolita. If white people are into these areas and/or use terms like “otaku” are they “honorary Asians”?
  3. Nerds do have their own set of slang terms, especially in particular nerd sub-cultures. Consider “pwned”, “noob”, “flame war” or “w00t”. And what about LOLCatz-type language, which clearly breaks with strict grammatical rules. Is this slang racialized white because it’s nerd slang?
  4. Is it problematic to define strict grammatical English as white and hip hop slang as black? I’m concerned that it wrongly implies a racial intelligence gap.

When I started this column, I argued that the stereotype of nerdiness is one that tends not to allow room for certain people of color, but that fundamentally nerdiness is about being obsessive about something, and about being intellectually driven. I don’t believe those are characteristics unique to whites.

But nerd culture may tend to be exclusive, and I don’t agree with Bucholtz’s assertion that white nerds’ refusal to appropriate “black” slang is a refusal of privilege. If language does prevent black kids from joining nerd cliques, maybe that’s just a manifestation of racism–intentional and unintentional.

When this article came out, Nora at Twin Cities Nerds of Color responded by calling out the overt racism she’s experienced as a nerd of color:

So I think Mary Bucholtz is giving her nerds too broad a pass. I agree with her that many white nerds practice this “hyperwhiteness”. But I think many of them use it as a means of deliberately excluding people of color from their preferred spaces. I also think that in addition to the subtle exclusion of hyperwhiteness, quite a few of these nerds practice the overt exclusions of racist verbal assaults, rejection of race-related topics, and dismissal of nerds of color as worthy of respect or attention.

So what has your experience been, particularly if you’re a feminerd of color? Is nerd culture and language used as a way to further exclude people who aren’t white? Is it more complex than that? How can nerd communities be more anti-racist?

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

53 Comments Have Been Posted


<p>"...nerds’ scorn of black hip-hop culture as unintelligent sometimes leads them to refuse to consider the possibility of including blacks as friends in their groups." this true? I am genuinely curious, because as a white nerdy dude myself, I have an appreciation of a lot of Hip Hop culture, and its existence as a genre. I listen to hip hop, like most white guys, and have never come across some nerdy person say they sound 'unintelligent, lets not listen to this.' There is white privilege, and I certainly have it being a white male. I am not denying my privilege or retreating into it, but asserting that nerdy white guys disdain Hip Hop culture without citation or example to prove a point makes this a really unfortunate straw man to otherwise interesting article. I think this *attempt* to examine racial connections to subcultures (Hippies? Hipsters? Rednecks?) without context isn't helpful in actually analyzing and understanding the nature (and ultimately, the basis of its material power) of white supremacy. Lets have *that* discussion and leave this silly and marginal discussions for another time.</p>

I don't believe for a second

I don't believe for a second that white nerds think "that a culture based on theft is a culture not worth having." It sounds like Plain Old Racism to me. And I appreciate you bringing up the appropriation of Japanese culture as a counter-point.

I glanced BRIEFLY at the New York Times article, and I'm just surprised on how IRL-focused Bucholtz's research was. Isn't nerd culture blossoming online now? I think there'd be far more over racism in those arenas.

Yeah - in the post I cited by

Yeah - in the post I cited by Nora she outlines a lot of examples of overt racism against her and other black gamers online, where maybe people feel they can get away with more overt racism because of the greater degree of anonymity. Bucholtz' research was all on IRL (or RLT - Real Life, Too) so it makes sense that that's where Nugent was focused. But the online vs RLT thing would be an interesting area to explore.

And I agree - even following Harry's comment that not all white nerds eschew hiphop culture, I've never met one who does who consciously does it to avoid racial appropriation.

Well I'm a white feminerd and

Well I'm a white feminerd and I have always had a problem expressing it because it seemed like some of my peers were a bit on the racist side. I associate the "hyperwhiteness" you speak of with the racist, elitist, white rich kids who shunned me because I was "weird" and had a lesbian mother. I really don't like to be associated with nerd culture for this reason. That and i feel as though the boys have the upper hand in this culture as well. No matter how much i can out-geek a white male nerd, i rarely feel like i am being taken seriously. But this is only MY experience.


Growing up in the North East, Tri-State Area, my school had nerds of every color, ethnicity, and gender. If anything, my school experience was that kids who were smart but a little socially akward wound up sticking together early on. By the time we hit high school strong cliques had formed based on those early relationships, and our Nerd clique was composed of kids who were White, Black, Indian, Asian, and Hispanic. It would be safe to say that none of them embraced hip hop culture, but then again, they didn't embrace Britney Spears or Rancid either. They were too preoccupied with things like robots, video games, and scifi. It seems to me that Bucholtz work is a little off target.

There is a British programme

There is a British programme called 'The IT Crowd' its about 2 nerds one white one black

I'll check that out. Another

I'll check that out. Another example is the scientist due on Better off Ted of Phil (white) and Lem (black) - but overall black nerds on TV are a rarity, especially black or hispanic women nerds.

Nerds in the Media

I'd say that one of the top hacker-nerds on TV today is the African-American character Hardison on the show Leverage. You might also want to consider Astrid Farnsworth, the lab assistant on Fringe.

TV nerds of color

Black and nerdy TV characters

Steven Irkel from Family Matters
Mike Cannon from Las Vegas
Jordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation
Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager
Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel Air

off the top of my head, and that's not mentioning the various other actors of color, both male and female, who portray scientists, hackers, gamers, and nerds of various other varieties on science fiction, criminology, and sit com television.

I don't know if it's because

I don't know if it's because I'm in a large urban area, but I know people who are both black and Latino who would be regarded as/identify themselves as nerds, or having nerdy type interests (comics, Star Wars, Renn Faires, pretending to be vampires, etc.)

I also take anything with a grain of salt that equates having a handle on language or displays of intelligence as "hyperwhiteness". I think she should spend some time researching the poetry, literature and art by non-white creators around the world before she equates erudition with whiteness.

a feminerd of color...

I'm not sure that I can even really call myself that, though, as a hip-hop fan who grew up in the Bronx but has made my living as a feminist nerd writer. Part of the problem with the language is that it begins from places of assumption -- not yours, per se, but what people mean when they talk about what a nerd is.

For instance, in the 'hood and inner-city where hip hop originated once upon a time, if a black or Latino poor or working class kid called another black/Latino poor working class kid a nerd, it was assumed in that language that said nerd was "acting white." Implicit in that self-hating understanding was that anyone who was smart and excelling at school was a nerd, even if by white definitions -- pocket protectors? wearing the wrong clothes? -- nerds in the 'hood weren't really "true nerds" in the universal sense.

So I'm not sure that nerd culture is universal. It's a little like feminism/womanism in that way. I'm proudly a nerd now, because it's associated with model minorities (even though my blackness is decidedly not, which is frustrating) and it's been the way that I've supported myself all my life. But I do feel separated from white nerd culture (or whatever the majority narrative of white nerd culture is). Interestingly, I think the whole conversation around black people on Twitter is annoying (to say nothing of its repetitiveness) because it assumes that it's super shocking that black people are cyber literate (nerdy in their own right? In a non-culturally appropriated space?) enough to define a certain kind of evolving and updated nerd culture.

Thanks for sharing that

Thanks for sharing that perspective. It's interesting to talk about the distinction between how "nerd" has been used to signify "acting white". I also like your point about the whole idea of black people not being able to access technology/nerd culture being a problem and reinforcing the idea that black people are cyber or nerd-illiterate. I kind of feel like that's where the extrapolation of Bucholtz' argument ends up, even if that wasn't her intent.

I'm a white writing teacher

I'm a white writing teacher at a historically black college in the deep South, and every semester I hold a discussion with my students about the use of "formal English" (i.e. the hyper-grammatical style generally expected in college-level research essays) and how the enforcement of formal English relates to race. So I'm interested in the implication that "hyper-grammatical" is the same thing as "hyperwhite." When I ask my students whether they equate proper grammar with whiteness, they tell me that "regular" white kids (their peers in age and region, those who aren't hyper-educated or part of the academic elite) can "talk white" without using proper grammar at all. When I ask them what they think of someone who uses formal English, they say that they assume the person is "educated" or "likes school" or "wants to sound smart." I myself used to equate grammatical correctness with whiteness, the way that Bucholtz does. But these discussions with my students have taught me that such an equation is actually part of the even more racist notion that "educated" = "white". If we presume that formal English is a white language,* we assume that educated POCs (particularly educated black or Latino students) are an anomaly.

*I do recognize that the enforcement of a single linguistic standard is in itself a part of institutional racism, and that the origins of formal English are, indeed, Euro-centric and "white." My students understand this, also. What many of them resist in our discussions is the notion that formal discourse belongs solely to a single population. Rather, they reserve the right to shift effortlessly between formal English and other versions of English that serve as cultural markers of their identity - and to own each one equally.


Nerdiness crosses all races.

Nerdiness crosses all races. I think it's hard to pin down a racial cohort that doesn't like the internet, gaming, cartoons, etc. Perhaps these have become so mainstream now as to fall outside of the realm of "nerdiness," but it seems to me that making the claim that "hyperwhiteness" exists as a form of privileged nerditude where other groups cannot participate unless they become honorarily white is just re-branding racism.
The culture of exclusivity, or wanting to preserve a label - even that of "nerd" - seems to be reflected more in this research claim than real concrete studies. Asians (East, South, all over), as you've mentioned, have become a large part of nerd culture, both because of white fascination with their culture and because of the rise of Asians in science and tech fields. If those people are honorarily "white" by embracing nerdiness entering those fields, then it becomes a slippery slope argument that sci/tech is a white person's domain.

Phew. I like that you bring this up because it allows me to get out some of my rage as a woman of color feminerd. I encourage everyone to watch <a href="">Black Nerd Comedy</a> and <a href="">Awkward Black Girl</a> videos to show that nerdiness transcends all.
Jordan A.
<a href="">My blog: The Cowation</a>

Awesome & thanks for the

Awesome & thanks for the links!

"Is it problematic to define

"Is it problematic to define strict grammatical English as white and hip-hop slang as black? Does it wrongly imply a stereotypical racial intelligence gap?"


I don't doubt that racism exists in nerd culture, just as sexism does (as any feminerd who has ever frequented a comic book store can tell you) but I have a problem with identifying certain ~language or forms of behavior as "white" or "black." What lies underneath this is the assertion that all white people = Data, and all black people = Dr. Dre. Isn't that racist in and of itself?



Very interesting topic! From

Very interesting topic! From my pov, to be a 'proud nerd' means that I have made peace with everything about me that is ridiculous. I guess there's a danger if someone were to equate being white with being ridiculous, and start embracing that sense of acceptance towards their own 'ridiculous' whiteness too much, viewing it as a badge of nerd honour, along with their level 60 WoW character, or their Magic: the Gathering prizes, science fair prizes, what have you.

When I poke fun at myself for being white, my intention is to extend my friendship outwards by taking myself down a peg; it is an attempt at being amiable. I associate MY whiteness with nerdiness, but not all nerds with whiteness. And not all whites with nerdiness. All it takes is one comic convention visit to see that nerds are made up of all shapes, sizes, colours and genders.

Generally, I get the impression that nerds are more inclusionary than most 'social scenes.' I've never felt accepted by my local music scene, but I do feel accepted at my local comic and gaming shops. But then again, I'm straight, white and male; I could see having a completely different viewpoint if I wasn't.

The comic blogs I read generally call out bone-headed moves by Marvel or DC regarding sexist/racist/homophobic plot twists and/or characters, which is the only time I see 'cyber-nerds' ever bother to identify their race/gender/sexuality. And reactions can rarely be divided up by race or gender; I've seen comments from users self-identifying as female nerds that strike me as misogynist, that sort of thing. As a rule, nerds know how it feels to be left out, and I think there's an earnest attempt by some nerds to avoid giving others that feeling. Some, not all; some can be jerks, too.

Hip-hop slang and culture has become so widespread that it's hard to think of as a black thing; it's today's Poison/Motley Crue/Warrant etc. For that matter, I thought hip-hop slang *was* interwoven with 'nerdspeak.' I feel no conflict by joking around and saying things like "Word, that's how I roll, n00bz. Y'all just got pwned." My use of both hip-hop and nerd slang both sound ridiculous when I hear myself say them, and again, are attempts at amiability. I normally don't think of hip-hop slang as 'black,' or nerd-slang as 'white.' I think of the former as trying to be cool, and the latter as celebrating the lack of a need to feel cool.

All this being said: nerd-culture still has a ways to go to being completely inclusionary, and it does have some ugly sides. However, I do feel as though nerds handle race much better than sexism. Just some thoughts.


Nerd speak IS interwoven with hip-hop speak. I've always seen it as a celebration of the magic of language. Even online speak has its grammar rules and syntax. It doesn't exist in a vacuum.

Another Feminerd of color

I'm a Chicana. I grew up in Los Angeles in a very diverse community. Almost my entire class was made up of nerds, and we never excluded anyone racially. In fact, the only people I experienced criticism from were my Chican@ friends, and even then they would accuse me of trying to be "Asian". White was never really seen as the "nerd" culture in my experience growing up.

I think that when discussing current nerd culture, it is imperative to include online culture. A lot of the evidence of nerd culture that we have in real life are tangents of the heavier, more active online nerd culture. It's very difficult to make a good assessment of our implicit prejudices online, especially since a lot of our identity can be either manufactured or concealed. A lot of my nerdish tendencies are expressed online, and usually in an androgynous, race-less fashion. If anything, I would argue that online nerd culture can be more inclusive than IRL culture, because we're already together in our common interest in calculus or programming.

On the topic of rejecting hip-hop because it's "unintelligent", I firmly disagree. Look on any nerd's ipod and you will find pop music and hip-hop, mainstream or not. Nerds have a penchant for researching things. If a nerd doesn't like the lyrics in the hip-hop on the radio, she will take to the internet to find a musically similar artist with better lyrics. Research: It's what nerds do.

It's really interesting that

It's really interesting that you've found online culture more inclusive - I speculated in a response above that maybe it'd be worse because racist people can hide behind handles and avatars, but maybe it ends up being more inclusive partly because there are so many different groups to choose from that it's easier to get away from really racist ones?

Also - I should've mentioned <a href="">Nerdcore Hiphop</a> which clearly challenges the dichotomy Bucholtz has set up.

And I love: "Research: It's what nerds do." I want it on a T-Shirt.

race and avatars

I attended a really interesting panel on race and avatars online at SXSW Interactive this year and did a little write-up of it on the Bitch blogs. this of course is not everyone's experience but I thought it was relevant enough to share. Racism, online communities, and nerdery is obviously a huge topic that can only <em>begin</em> to be explored in a blog post.

I really like your point

I really like your point about the research; I will not listen to 50-Cent, but I love Arrested Development's new album so hard :D And Deltron 3030? A concept hip-hop album set in the future about mechs and cybertechnology, created by a racially diverse crew of artists and guest stars? And this is to say nothing of nerdcore acts like MC Front-a-lot or Adam WarRock. Music hipster-ism has a HUGE nerd component to it :)

Really interesting questions here

<P>I did a lot of applied linguistics work about "communities of speech" and "multiple Englishes," and one thing that might allow us to move past defining a type of spoken English by racial terms would be to instead describe it by cultural terms, and then identify the stereotypes associated with it. For example, US Nerd English is often *associated* with: "whiteness," the socio-economic elite, educational privilege, and rule-focused behavior, but is not associated with "coolness," subversion of culture, minority communities, or "blackness" (I use quotes for racial designations because there is no single set of "white" or "black" characteristics). And then the question is whether these stereotypes are there because they're accurate, in terms of who is associated with each speech community, or for other reasons. For example, the rejection of the "cool" kids' co-opted use of hip-hop language may well represent USNE speakers' refusal to essentially colonialize a separate culture of speech that cannot be seen as their own, as is noted here.</P>
<P>As a side note, I think the character Toofer on 30 Rock is a really interesting critique of this issue. Nerd English is, whether fairly or not, associated with whiteness, and as a black, Ivy-educated nerd, Toofer is constantly 1) chastised for being too white by his black colleagues (in one episode he's accused of being "afraid of black people") or 2) tokenized by his white colleagues as "a two-fer," an African-American who went to Harvard. So his choices are basically outsider or token. A lot of what makes it good social critique is that the issues discussed in the post above are very much at play.</P>

It's funny you mention that...

Toofer is exactly who I thought of when I read this article. It's funny how such an all around goofy show makes such a thought provoking statement with that character.

The US seems a bit obsessed

The US seems a bit obsessed with people "acting their race", something that it's been noted can confuse for example contemporary black immigrants to the US ("I never realised before that I had to act a certain way because I was black").
I think its a bit worrying if a white person talks about something not being inclusive of blacks because, y'know, all them blacks are the same, can't speak properly, all like hip-hop of the most sexist kind et cetera, and unless a subculture has got that, black people wont be interested. It does feel like an attempt to lock black people into a certain... role. Know your place, kinda.
There's much that could be said about how nerd culture is white & asian, and not very hispanic & black, but I'm not convinced complaining about using very correct language and not liking Hip-hop is it.
(And I'm not sure appropriation is the right word when it comes to westerners appreciating manga/anime. The relationship between Japan and the west is considerably more equal nowadays than the relationship between whites and blacks in the US).

Thanks for pointing out the

Thanks for pointing out the use of "appropriation" - you're right I don't see it in the same sense as, say, wearing faux Native American clothing .

And I agree about white people making judgments on what's inclusive or exclusive or what it even means to say something is "black culture" - that's why I said I couldn't say but would be interested to hear more from people. So far in the comments some people have shared interesting experiences - some feeling there is a stereotype of white nerd culture that is difficult to identify with as a person of colour, while others felt race was never an issue or definitely not something related to nerd culture.

The big thing on the

The big thing on the anime/manga front is not that nerds are appropriating Japanese culture; they are appropriating anime/manga specifically, which is itself a syncretic medium borrowing largely from Western sources. Anime/manga (and I suppose one could say hip-hop, as well, though to a much lesser extent) is an exercise not in culture, but in hyperreality. It has always seemed strange to me that one would consider the source of anime/manga as relevant when the content is so divorced from reality that's hard to actually consider it reflective of anything other than fantasy or psychosis (as Superflat does).

A general reflection.

I read the original study for a graduate seminar recently, and it's important to remember the context in which Bucholtz completed her work. It's interesting that you say that you went to a primarily white school, Jarrah, because that's such a sharp contrast to the school in question, which had a high level of diversity, with a majority (over 50%) of the students identifying as people of color. (IIRC, the school was in an urban area of California.) The label of hyperwhiteness, rather than something assigned because intelligence and articulation are somehow inherently white qualities, was inferred from the values of the nerds. It's definitely a troublesome distinction, but it was made by the students of the high school, both nerds and non-nerds.

Also, keep in mind that there's an important distinction to make between "nerd" and geek, otaku, etc. A lot of the kids in the study were adamant about the differences between these groups, and were "nerds" in the sense that they read a lot, studied a lot, had great marks at school, used Standard English pronunciation, and took a great deal of pride in their intellectual abilities. So while I think these questions are very important to ask, there are still a lot of distinctions between these groups which are often lumped together in their awkwardness, outcast status, etc.

Thanks for giving some

Thanks for giving some context, Lindsay. I only read one of her shorter papers and I did get the distinction you make above between her inscribing qualities vs. reporting what she heard from students in nerd and non-nerd groups - but I think you helped clarify it better than I did.

And also thanks for reminding about distinctions between nerd types. As Kjerstin pointed out, there's way too much to be discussed on race and nerd culture in one blog post, but this is another area that deserves more exploration.

I'm curious what Dr. Bucholtz

I'm curious what Dr. Bucholtz would have to say about nerdcore: "nerdy" people adopting outlandish and almost farcical hip-hop personae. MC Chris is the example I always think of but for something a little more mainstream Artie from Glee is a milder example. It's supposed to be a sort of satire with uncool people using cool culture for uncool things like songs about Star Wars, but when you're co-opting a bit of pop-culture that was already co-opted from a marginalized group are you punking the mainstream or continuing to participate in the appropriation?

I'm interested in the idea of

I'm interested in the idea of "nerd culture," as seen in terms of this article and Bucholtz's piece, itself. While it's certainly a subculture, I would argue that it's also an umbrella term for sub-categories. The nerdiness that Bucholtz is describing is, in reality, a very narrow one, and does not take into consideration the fluidity of the term "nerd." I fully believe, for example, that there can be a person who could be called a "hip hop nerd," someone who is fascinated with hip hop, its culture, its nuances, etc. Being a "nerd" does not mean that a person is limited to the traditional areas of academia and eschews everything else, and I think the insistence on using this stereotype to represent all nerds is damaging to people who consider themselves nerds but who do not fit the white, straight, male mold. I also feel that this extends to other subcultures as well, which often come color-coded.

Furthermore, Bucholtz also seems to classify "black" and "white" people into broad stereotypes as well, positing all white people as academic, playing by the rules, and using correct grammar, while all black people listen to hip hop, do not use correct grammar, and are associated with rule-breaking and subversive behavior. This is problematic in itself when you consider the many cultures that exist within these racial boundaries, as well as, of course, the cultures that transcend those boundaries and include other ethnicities and mixtures of ethnicities. It's also problematic when you consider the racist implications of these kinds of ideas. There are, in short, lots of different kinds of white people, black people, and nerds.

Some thoughts...

I don't read a lot of online articles where I feel compelled to weigh in, but this one qualifies :-) I have too much to say on this subject for one post, but I will pick out the most salient points. (I would point out that this is just my own life experience, and is in no way intended to be seen as universal.) To start with, I will go back to grammar school, and how 'nerd' was perceived in my particular context. I went to a school in an Asian majority neighborhood in San Francisco, and my class reflected that fact. In a class of 35 students, only 5 of us were white, 6 were black, and the rest were Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino. In this setting, I experienced nerd as what my class and school saw it as: Mostly Asian and super smart. (I should also mention that I did not grow up with a TV, and did not start watching TV till I was 12). While very intelligent myself, I was never included in the nerd category; I was delegated to an 'other' category for my fascination with Star Trek and my very 'un-girly' obsession with action films/television. No one else in my class understood/shared my obsessions, but my best friend's dad (they were Thai) did, and he encouraged my early forays into Hong Kong action cinema (I was about 13/14 at the time). Since this article seeks to look at race in the context of nerd-dom, I should point out that for most of my life all my friends were Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai and Indian), and most of the white friends I made are from when I lived in England (which was during my late 20s). The word 'nerd' was rarely used in my group of friends, as they tended to feel that it was an insult carrying the implication that we were socially awkward losers. It is only recently that we started to identify ourselves as geeks, which does not always carry the 'social inability' stigma. We are all intelligent people who happen to have sci-fi/fantasy/academic/action film/graphic novel/other pop culture obsessions.

The hip-hop culture/language part fascinated me, though I have to admit that most of my friends and I have never had much interest in hip-hop or rap, not in strictly English anyway. I studied Hindi and Urdu for years, and even lived in India in order to become fluent. I have been obsessed with Bollywood for years, and actually mostly listen to Bollywood film music now (I rarely listen to music in English anymore). India has Bhangra, which started out as music during Punjabi harvest festivals, but now is what would be called 'fusion,' as it incorporates a lot of rap/hip-hop elements; while I do not listen to American rap/hip-hop, I often listen to Bhangra. I would stress that the reasons for not listening to rap/hip-hop have nothing whatsoever to do with perceived intelligence or any lack thereof, but rather an avoidance of the often misogynist lyrics (though I realize not all of rap and hip-hop contain misogynist lyrics). I listen to Bhangra because, unlike so much American music, it tends to celebrate life and is very uplifting (though I realize there is music in English that does that as well).

I especially liked this bit: 'Nerds are defined by similar behavior in countries around the world, even where there is less of a stereotyped cultural delineation between black and white. Can you still call it “hyperwhiteness” and a rejection of hip-hop culture in these places?' This brings me back to Bollywood, which has A LOT of 'nerds' featured in their films of the last 15 years, and all of them are Indian. I would say that it is difficult to make that argument when the dialogue is in Hindi and there are a couple of Bhangra musical numbers in the film. Context is one of the trickiest things in analysis, and too many people make the fallacious mistake of taking something which may be true of a very narrow portion of the population (say high-schoolers in LA), and trying to make it true of everyone everywhere (though to be fair to the author of the book mentioned, it doesn't seem she was doing that). The fallacy at work when people do that though is termed 'hasty generalization,' a fallacy in inductive statistical reasoning whereby something true of a small group is applied to a much larger group (like the NYT writer that stupidly argued that because she did not know any women who read sci-fi/fantasy fiction, therefore NO women read sci-fi/fantasy fiction).

Lastly, I would like to approach the question posed: 'Is it problematic to define strict grammatical English as white and hip-hop slang as black?' I believe the concept that 'whiteness,' 'blackness,' (as a series of behaviours, manners of speaking, etc) or any other such classification as innate, to be ridiculous. The way we mediate language is socialized. Foucault argued for the existence of 'rules or regularities in what is said at a given time and place, and that these rules govern not just the kind of things that are talked about, but also the roles and positions of those talking about them.' Additionally, 'historical regularities in utterance cannot be explained by innate structures or indeed by any innate predetermination...they instead condition and constrain the actual use or exercise of our minds across a series of practices, at once material and institutional.' Often when writers argue about the usages of language by given groups, they slip into the comfortable but highly problematic tendency to deem language usages in some way 'inherent' to said groups. So a focus on grammar is 'white' and 'hip-hop' slang is 'black' is terribly reductionist and delimiting, and does little to expand an understanding about how language operates in a diverse variety of contexts.

A few thoughts on nerds, rap and whatever

I think it's worth mentioning that nerd culture makes its way into hip hop and rap by ways other than bad white rappers talking about a villain from Star Wars or whatever. Wu-Tang was influenced by comic books and martial arts flicks while Lupe Fiasco is a big fan of anime. The relationship between black audiences and Asian cinema is one probably worth examining; I recall reading an interview with Melvin Van Peebles where it's mentioned that black viewers made up the majority of the audience for martial arts imports in the '70s. I think it depends on your definition of a nerd but an interest in Asian popular culture always seemed to me to be a definitive aspect. I don't know if martial arts movies got more associated with nerds as the years went by but I think it's safe to say that by the time Wu-Tang was on the scene, the connection was cemented. I also have a theory that comic books and martial arts movies positions as "low art" can offer another reason as to why The Clan took to them but that's just a theory at this point. It helps that most comic books and martial arts flicks are empowerment and revenge fantasies.

The view of nerds as being largely white is perhaps also influenced by socio-economic factors. Let's face it, your typical nerd attractions such as video games, technology, whatever--all that stuff costs money. You can kind of see where I'm going with this.

Excellent points, Anony. I

Excellent points, Anony. I always liked Wu Tang's "nerdy" references! I also think your theory of the movies and comics as "low art" is really interesting.

Wu Tangs nerdery

I once read an interview with the RZA (on AV Club, perhaps?) where he said part of the attraction to comics and oversized characters was that the comics they read as kids were about projects gone awry. Sort of like the housing projects they all came up in. When the government tries experiments like these "projects", super-heroes and villains invariably emerge. I think someone should put that in their Neo-Marxist pipe and smoke it.

Ah so the appealing nature of

Ah so the appealing nature of comics, at least to the RZA, is that they're all about chaos emerging from what appears to be good intentions. And he compares this to how crime flourishes in poverty. Yeah nothing political about that. Smokin' it.

Great point - the

Great point - the intersections between nerd culture and hip-hop run a few ways. Great example of Wu-Tang & comics.

I think the idea of the white nerd is starting to change

As a black nerd, I fill that there is starting to become an acceptance of other nerds of color, particularly black nerds . Some of the examples are Donald Glover from Community, the blacknerdcomedy show that one of the comments mentioned above, and Theophilus London. Even Kanye is starting to adapt a nerd persona through his sense of clothes. Also, I find it funny that the article says that most white nerds see "Hip Hop" as being for the dumb, when some of my friends who are white nerds, are obsessed with Hip Hop.

Is it problematic to define

Is it problematic to define strict grammatical English as white and hip-hop slang as black? I'm concerned that it wrongly implies a racial intelligence gap.

I think that it is very problematic to define the English language by race. It does have to do with racial intelligence gap but with how accepting a group is that creates this problem. If a white person, let alone a nerd, tries to speak with hip-hop slang, s/he will be ridiculed for trying to "act black". For the purpose of this, I will just say she. She will be ridiculed not only by people of color, but by people of her own race. In that sense, it is safer for her to just "stick to what she knows", which might be "hyperwhite" language. On the flip side, if a person of color tries to speak like a nerd, they will also be ridiculed by everyone, and that's why there is this persona that there is a racial intelligence gap. There is no gap, but the fact that English is divided to be "white" or "black" makes it hard for a person to truly talk and speak as they wish. I don't think this problem will ever be fixed though because this division of language traces too deeply in our roots. This division of language is what this country was built on, and it is hard to erase the past.

Steve Urkel

[Yes, I go by The Nerd everywhere on the internets.] I sincerely hope that nerds everywhere don't forget one of our greatest role models, Steve Urkel, is decidedly black. He paved the way that enabled nerdiness to be accepted in mainstream society. Do we then claim that his nerd aspects trump his black aspects, and deny him wholeness of character? If that's where things are headed, count me out.

The "nerd attitude"

There's a certain subset of nerd culture which explicitly refuses to examine the possibility of racism or sexism within its ranks. It might be part of the association of hard science or rationality with nerd identity, but a lot of white male nerds believe that all of their moral/political beliefs/positions have been logically derived from "first principles" and balk, loudly and angrily, at the idea of subconscious biases or privilege-checking. Examples: defense of some particularly myopic sexist (and heterosexist) conclusions in evo-psych because they make "biological sense," or the white male atheist who argues that Muslim women will be unquestionably well-served by a burqua ban. It manifests itself primarily online, with the collective assumptions that everyone involved must be "too smart to be (racist/classist/sexist)" and that adoption of a naively Modernist philosophical framework is the "only rational way to think."

This is the sort of attitude that's bugged me for a long time, but (especially as a hard science student who doesn't study this stuff regularly) it's been really hard to put a finger on it or find any related writing. The "epistemic egalitarianism" criticized by Larry Sanger in this article ( is kind of similar to the attitude I'm trying to describe, but his critique is coming from a very different perspective.

Is anyone else talking about this?

I'm wondering this, too.

Laura, I was skimming through the comments of this thought-provoking post, and I think you hit the nail on the head. The important question and concern I have is the extent of the power people with the "nerd attitude" hold in our world, whatever their actual prevalence in the global community of nerds (there's a LOT of different flavors of nerds).

This attitude is characterized by an inherent naivete and aversion to productive conversations about power, gender, race, class, governance -- basically, politics and culture. To quote Eric Gunderson (@ericg), a thought leader in the online mapping world, "it is shocking how much open data will fix things." Really? Open data from who? About what? Presented how, funded by whom? Is that simply naive? Is it willful ignorance of the law of unintended consequences?

Whatever it is, it scares me when I start considering myself a citizen of Google, and I wonder what kind of spells these modernist magicians are casting up there in the cloud.

Your characterization of balking at privilege checks and the deeply held assumptions about the rationality of this dominant perspective is SO spot-on. I see it all the time in the open source communities I work in. The idea that "X open source project is a do-ocracy" is a little shallow when the educated, privileged do-ers don't work to be inclusive and accessible.

I don't know who else is talking about this. I want to talk about this. FreeGeek Chicago wants to talk about this. We wrote a piece last summer about funding. It was a critique of foundations and a framework for organizational decision-making. We'd like to do something similar about inclusion in our community, as a compass to help guide us away from reflexive nerdery, but we've struggled a bit to get the inclusion piece off the ground. So I'm VERY curious who is talking about this in a thoughtful way. Most of the conversations I have about these issues are face-to-face or in back channels.

I'm a white guy, fwiw. Also, this site won't allow links past the spam filter -- search for "freegeek chicago funding statement", you'll find us.

>Is it problematic to define

>Is it problematic to define strict grammatical English as white and hip hop slang as black? I'm concerned that it wrongly implies a racial intelligence gap.

Uh, excuse me if I'm wrong, but it sounds here like you're implying an intelligence gap between "strict grammatical English" and hip hop slang.

Which I don't think necessarily exists.

I see no reason why a person can't be intelligent and use stereotypically black language.

That's exactly what I was

That's exactly what I was trying to say with that point. That seems to be what Bucholtz argues, and I don't agree with it. That's what I meant by it creating a false intelligence gap, because language use isn't a measure of intelligence. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

White nerd hip-hop references

Am I remembering wrong, or don't the nerds who are the protagonists in movies like "SuperBad" throw around a lot of hip-hop lingo and references? I think there are a lot of white nerds who are into hip-hop and that nerd culture in general supports it, in my experience. (Or at least parts of nerd culture support it. I'm sure you can find places where they don't.)

Thank you! In fact, there's a

Thank you! In fact, there's a whole burgeoning subgenre of nerdy hip-hop:

When people ask me if my glasses are prescription, I want to slap them.

It's complicated

White nerds may often appropriate Asian pop culture, but so much of that pop culture is based on an Anglo-American cultural template. For instance, Japanese video games and comic books are common fixations of Western "otaku", but both art forms originated in Euro-American cultures and were transplanted to Japan through cultural exchange. Where do you draw the line between cultural theft and cultural diffusion? For that matter, the internet is spreading previously niche cultural symbols like leetspeak to a much broader "hip" youth culture, and Hollywood can't get enough of turning nerdy subjects like comic superheroes and sci-fi franchises (see the hip Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica reboots) into summer blockbusters; are these examples of nerd culture being appropriated?



There is a somewhat important

There is a somewhat important dimension to Bucholtz's work you appear to have neglected, which is that it relies on "markedness"; she separates the linguistic threads into "unmarked" and "marked" using tone of voice; her conclusions about the rejection of aspects of culture are not based on her observations but on the comments of her experimental subjects, sometimes even directly; in other instances, it's things like air-quoting common slang words.

The other dimension to be aware of is that "cool" is african-american. We're not just talking hip-hop culture; Bucholtz speaks about how african-american music has given birth to rock and jazz, various such analyses that attempt to argue that the rejection of cool culture is, and this is very important, UNCONSCIOUSLY a rejection of black culture.

So; the analysis sorts three groups on objective linguistic basis; the "unmarked" group, who don't distinguish themselves clearly as a group and see themselves as the default. In her sample, this is white, non-nerds (nerd, for reference, is entirely a self-identifier in her paper). Then, there are two marked groups; one is marked only with reference to the unmarked group, and is made up of the african-american children, the hip-hop enthusiasts and a few others. There is a third group that is marked with reference to both groups; that is, they self-distinguish, sometimes explicitly, as different from both groups. These are nerds.

On this basis, she goes on to argue the hyperwhiteness of nerd culture as being positioned on the other side of white from the black group, using the distinctions between the markedness features the nerds used (which are more pronounced with regards to black culture).

Two final points; first, her research explicitly uses a specific school with a fairly stratifed racial dynamic and is not generalisable to other populations. This is both a standing assumption of social science AND called out in her paper.

Second, any implication you're drawing of a racial intelligence gap comes from the pupils themselves; they make several remarks to that effect. Bucholtz doesn't, and probably wouldn't - because that whole notion of intelligence across dialects is ridiculous to a linguist - prestige dialects are extremely basic parts of the study of the field. Further, the nerds do display "strict grammatical English", but that's not the right phrase to convey Bucholtz's point, which is to do with things like multiple instances of what linguists call hypercorrectness, the use of inappropriate formality in speech (like rejecting contractions, or attempting "academicised" definitions when asked for a quick definition of a word). This is falsely percieved as "more grammatical" by many speakers, but is as much a deviation from the grammar of standard english as any other error. Her paper is therefore about "superstandard" varieties - that are deviating from the "standard dialect" within her population, not about absolute values of intelligence, "correctness" or white/blackness.

I should also add that her

I should also add that her definition of "hyperwhite" is founded on the distinctions that are used to mark the non-nerd group of students being on a straight continuum; the difference from the black students to the "unmarked" group is of similar enough character to the difference from the unmarked group to the nerd group.

Add new comment