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:
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.
- 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?
- 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”?
- 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?
- 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?