Laurie and Debbie say:
We waited until we could blog together (in the short window before Laurie goes to Japan) to do this one.
According to this article in the New York Times, “Nerdiness … is largely a matter of racially tinged behavior. People who are considered nerds tend to act in ways that are, as [linguist Mary Bucholtz] puts it, ‘hyperwhite.'”
“The nerds she has interviewed, mostly white kids, punctiliously adhere to Standard English. They often favor Greco-Latinate words over Germanic ones (“my observation”instead of “I think”), a preference that lends an air of scientific detachment. They]re aware they speak distinctively, and they use language as a badge of membership in their cliques.”
We have plenty to say about this, but first, here’s some of a letter that our friends in the Carl Brandon Society, as well as several other groups, wrote in response. This letter is from science fiction fans of color (and what could be more stereotypically nerdy than science fiction?). The Times chose to print a very different letter (from a white man):
In response to University of California linguist Mary Bucholtz]s assertion that nerdiness is a “hyperwhite” phenomenon, we must respectfully disagree.
Since the article notes that most of the nerds Bucholtz interviewed were white, we feel the need to balance out some glaring holes in her research: namely, that Nerds Of Color (or NOCs, as some of us call ourselves) do exist, and that our numbers are multiplying.
We would also like to assure your readership that our goal is not to join the ranks of the “hyperwhite” nerds, but rather, to create our own, particular culture, one rooted in the intersection of critical race theory and our emerging technocracy.
At the CONvergence conference in Minneapolis this summer, Nerds Of Color organized a series of workshops on everything from representations of Asians and Asian Americans in sci-fi, to racially hybrid characters, to future frontiers for GLBT characters of color. All workshops were better attended than the majority at the conference, and the response was phenomenal. Other Nerds Of Color have been contacting us ever since, asking about our other programming and events.
A similar phenomenon started several years ago at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention held annually in Madison. This resulted in the formation of the Carl Brandon Society, which sponsors two awards given annually, readings, an active list-serv, and also administers the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. The Butler Scholarship provides support for speculative fiction writers of color.
Think Galactic, a Chicago-based group, embraces nerds of many colors and backgrounds. The first Think GalactiCon — a convention on reading speculative fiction from a radical left perspective — had a very strong people of color presence, and given the small size of the con, was probably tipping towards even representation.
In short, nerdiness is becoming more brown, and therefore, more radical, every day. Nerds Of Color reject the mainstream notion that nerdiness = whiteness, and are proving it by writing pieces that celebrate (instead of erase) our racial backgrounds, offering critiques of White representations of us as “Other” in movies and television, and creating our own groups and events to celebrate our nascent culture. Researchers, mainstream publications and mainstream society may not be aware of us, but we are here, and here to stay.
The Carl Brandon Society, Think Galactic, Twin Cities Nerds Of Color, and brown nerds everywhere.
We wish the Times had printed that one, so we’re doing our part.
But wait, there’s more … Some of this is alluded to in the letter above, but it also needs to be stated directly:
1) Any argument that starts from the assumption that our culture has exactly two races is a racist argument: the article never mentions Asians, Latinos, people of mixed race, Native Americans, or anyone except African-Americans and white kids. This allows the linguist and the journalist to gloss silently over the stereotypical Asian nerd of exactly the sort they are discussing as “hyperwhite”: embracing “the code of conspicuous intellectualism.” Of course, people of all races embrace that code, and at the same time, Asians and whites are the two groups for whom it can be a stereotype.
2) The article presents an extremely narrow definition of “nerd,” useful only to serve its own point. A black teenager who can name every rap and hip-hop artist, and all their albums, which year each one was produced, and the order of the songs, and who will correct you if you get any of that wrong, is a nerd by any useful definition. The same is true of a white kid who knows everything about car trims and rims, or a Latino expert in hand-painted sneaker graffiti. In fact, that last one is exactly the same kind of art nerd as the kid who can discourse endlessly on the differences between Duccio and Caravaggio. The language and the specifics are different, but the motivation and the passion are the same: and it’s motivation and passion that make a nerd.
3) Finally, never trust any theorizing about race in the 21st (or 20th) century which doesn’t address class. Many if not most of the nerds Bucholtz is describing, regardless of skin color, are from the middle class, though the article never mentions the term. Conflating race and class is one way that this culture stereotypes both black and white people, and ignores everyone else. While sneaker-graffiti experts and Lord of the Rings fans can come from any class, it’s harder to be the former if you’re middle-class and harder to be the latter if you’re not. Class is a defining factor coloring what people around you judge as worthy of your interest. You have to be especially passionate about something to keep caring about it in the face of ridicule … and ridicule is one of the ways all classes try to keep their people in line.
So, no. Nerdiness is no more hyperwhite than standing on street corners is hyperblack.