Nerd culture has hit a cultural high point. More than ever, people are going out of their way to self-identify as ‘nerdy’ as kind of an ironic way to put an affable twist on parts of their personalities that they might otherwise be ashamed of.
Take, Chris Hardwick, the television personality that hosts The Nerdist podcast. Or the characters of one my favorite sitcoms, “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s based around a group of scientists that are so socially inept that they become loveable on their own.
And while listening to NPR the other day (public radio nerd!) I came across something new to me: the black nerd. In the story, journalist Eric Deggans described how he felt like his existence in this ‘blerd’ world was a shame to him, prior to recently. The rise of the black nerd is upon us. Unite!
He cites Steve Urkel as the first black TV nerd, which is frankly, absurd. If you want to even play this game (which I’ll get to later) at least be real about it. J.J. on Good Times. After that, Raj from What’s Happening is also on the list
In a certain sense, you could call me a nerd. I volunteered in high school at a Star Wars (sci-fi nerd) Smithsonian exhibit. I have a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks nerd?) movie lines. And I read Wired (nerd nerd!). But, if I was Asian, would I be a nerd? Or just another guy? It’s not unusual to embrace stereotypes sometimes if used as a term of self-empowerment, but in this case, I think it’s a step backwards.
I realize that for large part, most of these labels are harmless fun. But as a matter of course, it would be nice if we could look at ourselves as a little more than just a collection of cool cats and tech dorks. The ‘blerd’ label unfortunately reinforces both the ridiculous stereotypes that black folks have nothing but cool to offer and that anything else is a departure from blackness.
Look at Baratunde Thurston for example. The author of ‘How to be Black’, who blows up the theory of postracialism in his book. Or Issa Rae, who created the Awkward Black Girl series. Both of them are highly accomplished and admirable individuals. But they’re thrown right in to that ‘black nerd’ cubbie, seemingly just because they don’t say, make music.
I also hope the rise of the black nerd stereotype doesn’t make kids/young people feel like they suddenly have to start fitting in with black nerds to feel like they’re allowed to enjoy so-called nerd things. Part of the reason why the rise of the nerd culture has become so annoying is that they are highly exclusionary when it comes to allowing ‘their kind’ in. So when something ‘nerdy’ gets ‘normal’ popular, you’ve got an entire group of people looking down on anyone late to the game. That would be an unfortunate bi-product, if applied racially, to this social rubrique.
Which brings me to the apparent ringleader of the black nerd movement: Donald Glover. To be clear, I’m a big fan of this guy. He’s almost the uber-black nerd, a renaissance man within this incredible subset. He’s a rapper, actor, comedian, music producer, he does it all and does it well.
When the actor on NBC’s “Community,” started rapping under the name Childish Gambino, which he admittedly got from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator (hip hop nerd!), apparently people didn’t take him seriously. This is a frequent topic of his raps. Now he rocks stages at music festivals all over the country and has a huge following.
But he still self-identifies as a “black nerd” in standup, which is weird to me. Is that the best adjective we can come up for one of the most talented guys in the game right now? Or really for anyone.
Personally, I’d never call Glover a nerd. Why? Because he’s a lot cooler than me.
Yates is a columnist for The RootDC.