Monthly Archives: August 2007

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.


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.

racism, nerds, nerdiness, class, stereotypes, Body Impolitic


Neil Gaiman’s Stardust: Evil Crones, Decorative Maidens, and One Shackled Mother

Debbie says:

I went to see Stardust yesterday. Neil Gaiman, who wrote the underlying book and produced the movie, is a friend of many friends, and I admire a lot of his work. Before I take apart the gender politics of this movie, I do want to say that Gaiman has done a lot of good political work in his fiction: the famous Sandman comics handle all kinds of gender and race material well, including very early positive transgender characters. His novels have also featured strong women (including the strong, and likable, old women in Anansi Boys.

Maybe that’s why I was so disappointed in the gender and age politics of Stardust. On its own terms, it’s an excellent movie: a perfect fairy tale, beautifully directed and acted, superb pacing, lots of wonderful visuals, a great combination of funny and serious.

Looking beneath the surface, we find another story. I haven’t read the book, but my understanding is that the movie is generally faithful to the book.

The basic story concerns young Tristan Thorn, who goes off to bring a fallen star to the woman of his dreams. The star turns out to be a beautiful young woman. Tristan is not the only person who wants the star. Killing her and eating her heart will confer new youth and extended life, the dream of three ancient and quite strikingly ugly witch sisters. Their ugliness is very significantly underscored with clothing and make-up, so that it is almost impossible to see them as anything but repulsive. They use the last shreds of the heart from the last start they killed to grant one sister youth and beauty, and she sets off in search of the newly fallen star.

As they say in the fiction trade, trouble ensues. Whenever the young and beautiful witch uses magic, she ages, so that by the end of the tale she is perhaps even older (and uglier) than she was at the beginning. She, of course, is completely infuriated by the signs of aging, and her sisters repeatedly warn her not to forfeit her beauty to unnecessary magic use. The message is old equals ugly equals evil, and the underlying motivation is “anything, however morally repulsive, is better than aging.” You could say, “Well, they’re the villains, you can’t claim that the storytellers support their position,” however, the only other old woman (or old person of any consequence) in the film is a cameo character who is also a witch, and also ugly and evil. Putting in a counterexample to your stereotyped villains is enough of a time-honored device that the lack of it here is striking. Among other things, Tristan’s mother does not age even an apparent day between his birth and his teenage experiences … because she’s a good character.

If that weren’t enough of a body-image/feminist critique of the movie, the treatment of younger women is also problematic. The two main young female characters are 1) Tristan’s love in the village, who is pretty, blonde, selfish, and shallow, and 2) the star, who is pretty, blonde, helpless, and not too smart. (Okay, she’s a star; she’s not good at being human.) Tristan’s mother is handsome, dark-haired, and clever, but controlled by other forces for most of the story.

In the end, the star saves the day, and it would seem for a moment that women’s agency has been recovered and the gender story of the movie has been somewhat redeemed. But then Tristan asks her why she didn’t use her special powers earlier in the story. Her answer, “I can’t shine without you.”

To recap: old women are ugly, evil, self-hating, and amoral. Young women are stunningly conventionally beautiful, but either selfish or helpless without male support. Unsurprisingly, the male characters are much more varied: heroic, evil, stupid, kind, and so forth.

Lots of fairy tales are like that: 21st century ones don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be.

P.S. A different flavor of gender politics can be found in the way Robert DeNiro’s character follows in the campy pirate tradition of Captain Hook, Dread Pirate Roberts, and Jack Sparrow. Those sequences are delightful.

gender, feminism, movies, Stardust, Neil Gaiman, fairytales, body image, age, ugliness, Body Impolitic