Hi Damon: Is it okay to let my White kids listen to and sing “Weird Al” ’s “White & Nerdy?” For context, they love the song, and whenever we hear it, they end up humming it for days. I’m worried that my little White 6-year-old is going to sing it to their little Black friends on the playground, and inadvertently reinforce the “White and nerdy go together, you can’t be Black and nerdy” stereotype. If all the kids involved were older, I’d be less worried, but I’m not sure 6-year-olds understand satire, parody and reading the room/context enough for the song to be the harmless fun I want it to be.
What do you think? Am I being a humorless worrywart, or is this a legit concern?
— White and Nerdy Mom
White and Nerdy Mom: A conversation this week with my wife, who is in a PhD program:
Me: What are you doing?
Her: Some research on quantitative methods and linear regression analyses. You?
Me: I’m researching too!
Her: On what?
Me: I’m listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “White & Nerdy”
I forgot that this song, a parody of Chamillionaire’s 2005 hit “Ridin,’ ” exists. When I think of “Weird Al,” I think of “Smells Like Nirvana” and “Fat” — both of which I loved as a kid, and both of which aged like milk in the sun. Thank you for reminding me.
So, I will admit that while I found “White & Nerdy” to be clever at times, I cringed much of the way through. Now, I watched the video on YouTube instead of just listening to it, and so my cringing is somewhat due to some of the visual and casting choices he made instead of just the song. But the lyrics fit the aesthetic, and neither have aged well. That’s not the worst thing in the world, though. Most comedy doesn’t. Along with being funny, jokes are mostly meant to be snapshots of moments in time. The humor comes when established cultural norms and expectations are exaggerated or subverted.
When the zeitgeist shifts, comedy does too. (Well, comedy should.) This has been a sore subject with some comedians and fans of comedy, who seem to believe that, um, all jokes matter. But some more conscientious comics say otherwise. While on the subject of “cancel culture” during a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Patton Oswalt said “ … pushing the envelope doesn’t mean digging your feet in while the envelope moves forward — you should be ahead of that envelope, that’s how you should be pushing it.”
Anyway, while “White & Nerdy” positions White guys as awkward and oblivious try-hard geeks, that’s not the only cringeworthy stereotype. They are “White and nerdy” in comparison to the Black guys, who are depicted as thuggish, hypermasculine, and preternaturally cool. A grown-up knows that these are inaccurate representations of race. (Well, a grown-up should know.) A 6-year-old probably doesn’t.
Unless, the next time you listen to the song, you want to have a very complex conversation with your child about satire, the arbitrarily shifting rules of comedy, racial microaggressions, and the sartorial choices of mid-aughts Houstonian rappers, I think the best option here is to just find some new fun songs that don’t find humor in stale stereotypes. I’m not as concerned about him mindlessly humming the song around a Black friend, and the friend feeling weird, as much as his taking the message at face value. (Also, for his own sake, if he wants to have friends, the Baby Shark theme or “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” might be better choices than him singing “I’m White and nerdy” at school and on playgrounds.)
You still should have the race conversation, though, if you haven’t yet. It’s never too early for kids to know that while some people look or talk or walk in a different way than they do, it’s just because they’re different. Not because who they are or how they look is better or worse. (Just imagine how boring the world would be if everyone looked the same?) And, also, he should know that race doesn’t dictate behavior. White kids can be cool, Black kids can be nerdy, and White and Black and Latino and Asian kids can be cool and nerdy at the same time.