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Racism: Thinly Disguised as Studying Nerds

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.

Sincerely,

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.

Thanks to Betsy for being first with the link, and Shannon Gibney for the unpublished letter.

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16 Responses to “Racism: Thinly Disguised as Studying Nerds”

  1. betsyl Says:

    i would still really like to have a panel at wiscon about this paper. not about the nyt article, about the paper. because you can make anything sound really really stupid in 500 words.

    you have a very good point about class, though. i hadn’t thought of that.

  2. Lynn Kendall Says:

    I hadn’t realized that the research is being done in California. Given the racial and ethnic diversity here, the binary view of race is even less forgivable.

  3. Steven S. Says:

    Thank you!

    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.

    There had been something bugging me about the initial research that I couldn’t quite put a finger on, but this makes it clearest.

    We define “nerd” in this culture not only by behavior, but by ‘interests’. Which is reflected almost precisely by the result of the study. But I’ve seen exactly the sort of behavior you describe here in co-workers, acquaintances, and so forth, and you’re dead on. Methinks before we can get any further with this, we need to work on our definition of “nerd”.

  4. Shannon Gibney Says:

    Thanks so much for publishing our letter, and for providing an alternative space for Nerds Of Color and others outside the mainstream to express our views and experiences. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of blogs like yours!

    Also, I’d like to give a shout-out to all other NOCs out there to check out the Carl Brandon Society, at http://www.carlbrandon.org/, and the Twin Cities Nerds Of Color blog, http://tcnoc.blogspot.com/

  5. Debbie Says:

    Betsy, yes of course, WisCon panel!

    Lynn and Steven, complete agreement.

    littlem, motivation and passion are the core of so many things; it’s unbelievably upsetting when any group tries to own them. As for grammar and spelling, I’m with you all the way.

    Shannon, our pleasure. Among other things, having your letter made it more than two ally-white-folks commenting on the issue.

  6. ronn Says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I hadn’t really connected class to this discussion, yet it needs to be added.

  7. Lynn Kendall Says:

    One more thought: I’m not sure how anyone can get more “hyperwhite” in this researcher’s terms than an alcoholic WASP millionaire preppy/Yalie descended from New England aristocrats.

    Dubya. Is. Not. A. Nerd.

  8. AJAX Says:

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  9. Debbie Says:

    Lynn, yes.

    Ronn, you’re most welcome. Always look for class in a discussion about race.

    Ajax’s post has been disemvowelled. “… the net effect is to mark the original text as deprecated, while at the same time not suppressing freedom of speech; after disemvowelling text is still legible, but only through significant cognitive effort, and disemvowelled text has the advantage that it will not cause offence to anyone who does not stop and invest that effort in reconstructing their message.”

  10. Philip Says:

    Well well well….. it seems that bigotry in so called para intellectual comments made by the classical neo-liberal whites of the internet has found a new champion in this person who calls nerdyness a hyperwhite
    phenomenon. It is so sad that desperate semi literate human beings will do anything to use race as a quantifier for intellect. Poor and pitiful indeed.

  11. Kat Tanaka Okopnik Says:

    I took a class with Mary Bucholtz, back when she was a grad student – I remember her being politically aware and savvy to racial and gender issues. I wonder what her actually study said, vs. how it’s being presented. I find it hard to believe that in the intervening 15 years, she’s gone to being some blind white-privileged ivory tower type.

    (I do concur with the objections to the NYT article.)

  12. Lynne Murray Says:

    Debbie, re disenvowelling–thank for the explanation! I wondered if it was one of those new-fangled text message abbreviation thingies that I never can figure out! Lynne

  13. pc Says:

    I would also like to second Kat’s comment. I appreciate the criticism of the NYT article, but the article itself is not Bucholtz’s work. The article lacks context that might make you at least not jump to calling her racist (which, why isn’t anyone questioning whether the NYT author is racist?). For starters, she is not claiming that ALL “nerds” are enacting “hyperwhiteness.” The 2001 article Nugent referenced is an attempt to understand what “nerd” means in the context of the school where she did ethnography (the environment from which her conclusions are based, and to which her analysis is applicable – I think it’s important not to extrapolate out from this, which unfortunately the NYT article doesn’t convey), and how it’s tied up with linguistic practices that are racially marked in THAT social context. And she uses a black/white racial binary in her analysis because those are the terms by which the students she studied perceived/referenced identity and divisions in the school.

    Just because the NYT article doesn’t mention Bucholtz having an interest in non-white nerds doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know that they exist, or that she isn’t aware of the implications of that for her work. I quote:
    “Although, as I discuss below, nerds and similar identities exist in other racialized groups, in this article my focus is solely on white nerds.”
    and
    “The ideological erasure of subordinated groups also occurs at Bay City High, as for example in the racial ideology of a black-white binary, which erases the presence of Asian Americans, Latinos, and other students.” (Bucholtz 2001, p. 97)

    I’m just suggesting that you read the original work and not rely on what some NYT article tells you is the case, or doesn’t tell you is the case, before making conclusions. To assume that what was said about the research is what the research said, is very unjust to the researcher.

    (I know I’m not a regular commenter or reader of this blog, so sorry if it seems like I’m popping up out of nowhere and getting on a soapbox – but there has been a LOT of jumping to conclusions in the blogosphere about this research, largely unfair to Bucholtz. Since your blog takes particularly serious and thoughtful offense to the material, I wanted to urge a little more investigation before taking that offense. And I’m sorry if your post/comments DO follow from a thorough reading of Bucholtz’s work, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.)

  14. Fey Says:

    I’d like those who did this study to pop in to my house where I live with three nerds – one is Inuit, one is East Indian, and one is Hungarian. The Indian was raised in India. The Inuit was raised in part in the southern part of Canada, and in part the far North, among people of his culture, and the Hungarian entirely in the Southern part of Canada. Of the three, the Hungarian is the least nerdy.

    As an aside, I love me some nerds. :) I love intelligence. I love precise use of language.

  15. Debbie Says:

    Philip, okay. I don’t feel quite that critical myself.

    Kat and pc, thanks for the info. I’m always ready to assume that a scientist is being misquoted or oversimplified, and will look at Bucholtz more carefully. Note Betsyl’s comment way up thread.

    Fey, love it!

  16. Lizzie Says:

    Thanks for your post on this – I’d read the article but couldn’t put my finger on what was dumb about it.

    On the other hand, I disagree with “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.”

    To me, by definition, nerds are interested in un-cool things like math or classical music. Nerds are, by definition, un-cool. I’m not usually fond of nerds, at least as I define the term, because of their intense focus on things that don’t interest me and distain for people who aren’t interested in those things.

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