Black History Month is coming to a close. Because of this, I thought it only fitting for me to write an article for Nerd Caliber about black nerds. I consider myself a nerd because I enjoy what society has deemed nerdy, such as playing video games, watching animes, and reading novels. And yet for some reason instead of just being a nerd, I have often been put into a separate category: the black nerd. A subculture within a subculture.
I wonder if all black (male) nerds would agree.
I do realize that there are many different types of nerds around the world from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but for the sake of argument – and the fact that I know more about being black than anything else – I’ve decided to focus on the black nerd (growing up, oftentimes, I’ve heard it called “blerd” for short). I remember as a child I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons with my brothers and what stood out to me were Sailor Moon, Ronin Warriors, and Dragon Ball Z. Not only did I enjoy anime, but in my youth I was both a gamer and a serious reader. I didn’t realize it then, but these things became the foundation of my future nerdy tendencies.
I later learned in middle school that I was not only a nerd, but a really weird combination of one. Because I was quiet and to myself, my peers thought I was extremely knowledgable in our school subjects. Little did my classmates know, I knew about as much as they did and when they looked to me for help and I didn’t have the answers. I became pretty useless as a nerd. But I digress. Now, at the age of 25, I see myself as a young woman who just happens to enjoy going to anime conventions and reading manga. But that is hardly what some of my peers around me see. After a lot of soul searching, I began to wonder if I was the only person dealing with these types of labels. I soon found out I wasn’t.
It has nothing to do with race. Most black nerds I know consider themselves blerds. But why do we put ourselves in such an unnecessary category? I myself never really used it until recently. I’ve always considered myself a nerdy girl first and foremost. But even that itself is a category. To get a better census of what it means to be a blerd, I interviewed eleven black adults about what it means to be nerdy and why they consider themselves to be nerds. I got a lot of interesting answers, and a few I never thought of before. So let’s begin:
Me: What is your definition of a nerd?
Jannae: My definition of a nerd would be a person who enjoys academic and/or mentally taxing activities. I’ve always enjoyed school, and I’m as happy curled up in my room with a book or playing video games as I am being social. Gaming, reading and learning in general. I haven’t gotten flack for any of the activities specifically, but I have gotten flack for some of the results of the activities, such as proper grammar and gaming lingo. My closest friends do.
Me: Why do you think that is a nerdy thing to do? Does being black have anything to do with it?
Jannae: I think that there are only a handful of ways to attain proper grammar. Being raised with it, lots of reading or teaching yourself. The latter two are in line with nerd status for me. I don’t believe being black has anything to do with my concept of proper grammar being nerdy.
Me: Reading is a great way to build a person’s vocabulary and use one’s imagination. You wrote earlier that you read often and your grammar was self taught. What about reading do you find appealing?
Jannae: Well, I picked up my grammar from reading. I have been doing that for as long as I can remember. What I love about reading is my ability to travel to different worlds and times, meeting all variety of people and culture without more than a flick of the hand. I have always had an overactive imagination, and it serves me well when I read.
Rusty: A nerd is anybody who regularly engages in or enjoys activities which are seen as something which is outside of the mainstream, or something that folks engage in simply because they’re social misfits. I don’t consider myself a nerd per say, but I’ve been told that I am several times, so I guess by certain peoples standards I am. One of the nerdiest activities that I’ve enjoyed all my life has been playing video games, and I’ve also been a politics junky since high school. I do enjoy video games and politics, and I use to get a lot of flack for it but not as much anymore. Some of my friends enjoy videos games and others enjoy politics and some enjoy neither.
Me: The friends who do not enjoy either of your vices, when you talk about politics and video games, what do they say to you?
Rusty: Depends on the friend really. Some friends I don’t talk about that kinda stuff to. If they don’t know anything about it and I’ll mention it, I get sort of a Kanye shrug from them.
Me: Does being black make being nerdy any more difficult?
Rusty: Being black makes everything difficult, but especially being nerdy. One of the main issues is the issue of hypermasculinity, and because a lot of nerdy activities may be seen as not really embracing that motto of hypermasculinity, a person can often times have their blackness questioned because of this and be seen as “not black enough” by black people and even non-black people.
Tiffany: A nerd is someone who does things different from the norm. They don’t do things or watch certain television shows/movies because it’s mainstream but because they genuinely like them. To me, nerds can be pretty awkward socially and have a unique sense of humor. I find that nerds get picked on a lot by their peers or misunderstood quite often, even by their own friends.
I consider myself a nerd because I definitely don’t fit the average, in terms of being an African American woman. I have a bizarre sense of humor and I have the tendency to correct people’s grammar very often.
I love to listen to rock music while playing the Sims or watching old animes (subtitled version only, lol) on Youtube.
I have definitely gotten flack for it. I’m not very outgoing and I kept to myself a lot in high school. I also didn’t care much to wear the latest fashion and I genuinely enjoyed speaking proper English but because I was so different from my peers, I was usually accused of trying to “act white.”
I have a few friends who do enjoy being nerdy. I’ve been introduced to new animes I should watch. They’re comfortable in their (nerdy) skin which helped me to be comfortable in mine.
Me: Does being black make being nerdy any more difficult?
Tiffany: Being black definitely makes being nerdy more difficult. I get strange looks from people who are the same ethnicity as me and it used to bother me a lot. Most times, stemming from what I’m wearing (black, square-frame glasses) and non-brand name jeans with non-brand sneakers. It bothered me to a point that I didn’t even like calling myself, “Black.” However, I’ve grown more into myself as a person and those feelings and thoughts that I had seven years ago are not as strong. Every now and then, I don’t feel comfortable in my race but the feelings are much more fleeting. And I’m a huge lover of grammar which is looked down upon for acting “white” and making the whole being black thing difficult as well.
Me: You’re the second interviewee to say that correcting grammar makes them nerdy. If you were any other ethnicity, do you think that would still be associated with being nerdy?
Tiffany: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure considering I don’t know too many generalizations and stereotypes associated with certain races. I’m sure if I was Caucasian though, it would be a lot easier.
Me: What makes you think that?
Tiffany: It’s just something I’ve always believed. I wouldn’t be called out by my peers as acting a certain way i.e., “acting white.” However, the more I think about this, the more I realize that even if I was a different ethnicity, someway, somehow, I’d probably still be made fun of for being “different.”
Nathaniel: You know, I’ve never really thought of “what a nerd is” in my own terms. I could say its one with a powerful obsession with something they appreciate. I consider myself both a nerd & geek, because I proudly display my appreciation for my obsessions. My main nerdy activity would be watching anime, reading manga, and writing my own potential manga. I’ve never gotten flack for my activities, I haven’t really put myself out there to be noticed. The majority of everyone I know and hang with enjoys the same hobbies I’m into. Hopefully that’s concise enough.
Me: So being nerdy is no different than being popular? Meaning you have a clique and you enjoy spending time with them doing certain activities? Elaborate on this statement.
Nathaniel: Well, I’m not really popular myself, but I am rather nerdy or geeky. And that mentality attracts a lot of people with the same interests. I guess you could say I’m “well remembered” within the group of individuals I do associate with. I’ve only lived in Florida for a year now and I don’t have that many friends I see on a daily/weekly bases outside of work or the house. Mostly the people I associate with are a lot of convention goers.
Me: Are nerdy and geeky interchangeable? I have another interviewee who wrote that there is a clear difference between the two.
Nathaniel: Maybe I should have said “and” because I agree that there are difference.
Me: What is the difference?
Nathaniel: I would say a Geek is someone that has a specific interest or lifestyle they become an expert on. For example, I know this guy that knows everything about the Zelda series. That’s a Geek. A Nerd has sort of a diverse skill due to multiple interests.
Me: Does being black affect your nerdiness at all?
Nathaniel: The only affect it has are on other people who do not understand my lifestyle or my mindset. I’ve been through high school ridicule and that hasn’t stopped me from giving up what I enjoyed the most.
Mike: What is a nerd? A nerd is a neck beard that lives in his mother’s basement and loves Star Wars. Sometimes with bad grooming. They also tend to do well in school. Someone that plays excessive amounts of video games and card games like Yu-gi-oh/Magic.
Me: Why do you consider yourself a nerd?
Mike: I am a nerd because I still live with my mother : ((((((( and still play vidiya games/watch cartoons/read despite being 25.
Me: Have you gotten flack for it?
Mike: No, mostly respect. Cause I’m confident and crazy so people don’t challenge me on it. It’s also more mainstream nowadays.
Me: You are the first person to write that watching cartoons is nerdy. Why do you believe so?
Mike: Cause they’re for kids, but thats what the lames say about them. I watch the s*** out of them.
Me: Another interviewee said that being really into sports doesn’t make you a nerd. I gave the example term “sports fanatic.” Is it possible to be a “cartoon fanatic” in this society instead of a nerd??
Mike: No. Sports are considered for all ages and mainstream. Cartoons are only for kids. If you’re older and watching cartoons, you’re out of the demographic, therefore a nerd.
Brandon: A nerd is someone who’s deeply interested in certain things. I consider myself a nerd because I am deeply interested in a few things. The nerdy activities I am into are: Anime and Manga, Video gaming, retro gaming and video game collecting, and I’m an avid sports fan (I consider avid sports fans nerds, too). I’ve gotten flack in HS and from family at times. Most of my friends are into nerdy things, as well.
Me: I find it interesting that you say you like video game and sports. Sports stereotypically are a jock-ish sport. does that make a jock a nerd? Elaborate.
Brandon: I wouldn’t say being a jock would make you a nerd. But I would say that some of the things sports fan who go beyond just attending games/watching them on Tv while wearing their favorite teams jersey makes them nerds. ie: Collecting memorabilia, painting their faces and/or bodies, memorizing stats and key moments in team history. I mean what’s the difference between this: I wouldn’t say being a jock would make you a nerd. I mean what’s the difference a cosplayer you see at a comic or anime convention and the picture you see below?
Me: Interesting point. Do you think it’s fair that society has given such labels? For example, if you like Zelda and dress as Link one day out of the year, every year, for a video game convention, you may be considered a nerd. But if you are a Raider’s fan and dress as such you are just a ‘sports fanatic.’
Brandon: I don’t think it’s fair. It’s kind of hypocritical, in my opinion.
Justin: Nerd: the ultimate fan of something tragically niche. I’m a nerd because I know the ends and outs of characters, movies, and games that the mainstream doesn’t know or care about (although that’s changing to a degree, because lately “geek is chic”). My biggest nerdy activity is “uberizing” (maxing out characters’ stats) in Final Fantasy from the 1990′s, so I can see how indestructible they become while they destroy bosses in one attack.
My friends have played most of these games, and I get flack (mostly from my friends) for quoting from the games or making analogies from real life to Final Fantasy (I’m the same way with movies, but they tend to be more mainstream).
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was filmed for people like me. We grew up on a diet of Nintendo and didn’t get computers until freshman year of college, back when there was “nothing” on the Internet.
Me: I loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I find it interesting that you added that to your list of nerdy things. Do you believe the main character (Scott) of the movie was portraying a nerd?
Justin: Oh hell yeah! Only a nerd would name his band after an enemy from Super Mario 2 and learn how to play the battle theme from Final Fantasy 6 on guitar.
Me: You said previously that you make analogies from games to real life and your friends give you flack about it. Can you imagine why they would be annoyed (please, if annoyed is not the right word for this statement, tell me what is.).
Justin: They’re annoyed because they don’t think about the games after they’ve played them. Plus, they usually rush through the games to “win” them, while I uncover every secret there is. They probably feel immature talking about games around certain girls who aren’t as likely to have played them. I’ve met a few girls that are into the games and characters as I am, but I like the storylines and battle systems most of all.
Me: Does being both black and nerdy come with any difficulties? Do you think it would be looked upon differently if you were another ethnicity?
Justin: It is very difficult being both because you have less people to talk about the subject matter with. In my experience, black girls seem to be the least likely to be into RPG’S, and black nerds don’t fit the Ebony/Jet/Essence paradigm of black manhood. In other cultures, it’s just pop culture, but in black culture, being into non-sports/cars and video games really makes you stand out in the wrong way. Going back to cosplay, which is sometimes based on video game characters, there are so few black characters (only 3 in Final Fantasy) that limits who you could dress up as without looking weird. Plus, even now, the few black characters are stereotypical and/or very minor characters (some non-human characters may be veiled references to blacks, simply so the characters won’t stand out as much, since most of these games are made in Japan).
Me: Last question. I once read a comment on a post of a black guy dressed as Goku which read, “Why can’t you cosplay black characters.” it sparked quite a discussion. Us nerds all know that outside of aliens (cough cough star trek) that there are few black characters to cosplay as. With this being said, what does this comment say about what nerd society thinks of black cosplayers? If another ethnicity wanted to cosplay as Afro Samurai, do you think they would get just as much flack??
Justin: Cosplaying is all about accuracy, but there’s some built-in inequality since there are so few well-known black characters in the first place.
Me: What is a nerd?
Ike: There seems to be a lot of overlap between nerds and geeks. Nerds these days are just your average smart guy. Geeks on the other hand can also be nerdy, but they tend to have a strong interest in a specific area. Not all nerds are geeks, but geeks are typically nerds.
Me: Why do you consider yourself a nerd?
Ike: Growing up, I tended to be more attentive in school, so I was considered smarter than most of my peers. That’s changed dramatically over the last few years but some of the basic tendencies have remained since.
Me: What nerdy activity do you enjoy?
Ike: I read manga, watch anime, and play World of Warcraft. I used to be rather obsessed with my nerdy/geeky hobbies, but I’ve toned it back considerably over the years. Mainly because it’s very expensive to indulge in it. I write and illustrate my own web comic nowadays and that’s sufficient for the time being.
Me: Have you ever gotten flack for it?
Ike: That’s a trick question, isn’t it?
Me: Do your friends also enjoy it?
Ike: Depends on the friends. I’ve slowly been learning that a lot of my female friends have been closet gamers and anime fans for years, apparently. My male friends tend to be staunchly on either side of the fence.
Me: You create your own web comics, cool! To go back to your first answer; being a nerd means being smart, but being a geek means you are extremely interested in things. Other people have been saying it’s the opposite. Why do you think that they have?
Ike: Well, “nerd” has more positive connotations these days. If someone calls you a nerd, it’s almost a term of endearment, reflecting that you have great intelligence. Being called a “geek” on the other hand, people tend to associate that with being very obsessive. Again, it’s probably the overlap that confuses people, but like I said, not all nerds are geeks, but all geeks are nerds.
Character Maurice Moss of the hit british comedy "The IT Crowd"
To clarify, you wouldn’t really call your school’s valedictorian a geek if he or she just happened to get excellent grades. They just have a great deal of intelligence, which they’ve ascertained from all the studying they’ve done.
Conversely, if that same valedictorian happened to also be a closet Star Trek fan, you may be dealing with a geek.
Jeanelle: A nerd to me is someone who is different from what society deems as “typical.” Someone who enjoys things outside of popular culture or who enjoys different hobbies outside the norm. Nerds see different perspectives on life. They sometimes have obsessive hobbies or activities. Things that “normal” people would consider strange or weird. I consider myself a nerd because of my obsession with Harry Potter, Disney movies, and reading about witchcraft.
I consistently read the history of Harry Potter. I always read anything that comes out that involves Harry Potter. I have a dictionary of the created words. I also do the same with Disney movies and witchcraft. I try to always find new things each time I watch. Tie together the links and create spells. I don’t think I get much slack from it because its not something that I tell people about very often. Only people who know is my boyfriend and my sister. And my sister and I enjoy the same things. I don’t have friends that I know enjoy it, just me and my sister.
Me: It sounds like you really enjoy your hobbies. Do you think being a nerd is any more difficult because you are black?
Jeanelle: I think i do get more slack because I’m black. All my life I’ve been called a white girl because of how I speak or dress and what I like. It’s like being forced into a mold that says, “When you’re black, you have to do black things.”
Me: What are some of those “black things?” Can any other ethnicity do them and it be okay?
Jeanelle: ”Black things…” I guess like listening to black artists, or seeing black movies, and using certain terms. I think when other ethnicities do them, you’ll hear some black people say, “Oh, that person is trying to be black or something.”
Sanjo-chan: What is a nerd? To me, a nerd is someone who takes their favorite interest a step further. Some also favor using the word “geek” rather than “nerd.” “Nerd” is more vulgar than the other, but it makes sense when you consider this: a “geek” is someone who loves every interest that appeals to them, but “nerd” is when they really into it, even if it looks silly to normal geeks.
Me: Why do you consider yourself a nerd?
Sanjo-chan: I consider it because it changes life. For example, Pokemon, which I thought at the time was just another imported fad that would die in a few years. But look at it now. It’s a part of our everyday lives. I grew up playing video games, actually. And this was at the age of 3. I think it was destiny when I think back of playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat on my Sega Genesis. I also think my view of nerdism is different from others since I never had a Nintendo system until the N64. I still consider myself a Sega fangirl though things have changed in the last 12 years, haha!
On the subject of anime, it was a major game changer. When I saw an episode of Dragonball Z, I just wanted to yell. Though Pokemon was my first anime series, I cherish DBZ more than Gundam, tied at the top of my favorite anime. I cried for an anime character, or two. I cried for a series. I told myself it was just fantasy… a very well told fantasy.
Me: What nerdy activity do you enjoy?
Sanjo-chan: I own and operate the blog, CEN.TAKU.ME. I started it 5 years ago after running two other blogs on online games: one on Final Fantasy XI and one on anime. When I came up with the name, I wanted it to mean something that everyone can enjoy–an Otaku, someone who enjoys one thing, not necessarily about anime: “The [Cen]ter of O[taku] and Ani[me].” Talk about nerdy, huh? Of course, the topics includes Japanese-style gaming, as per my original focus with Ragnarok Online and FFXI. Though I don’t play those games much anymore, I still make it an effort to spread the word of my old interests to a new generation of players and fans.
Me: Have you ever gotten flack for it?
Sanjo-chan: I’ve possibly gotten cold stares for being a nerd in public. I found myself wearing shirts of my favorite franchises everyday. It’s pretty much half of my wardrobe, haha! Since I’m getting older, I find my taste in fashion evolving, but that doesn’t mean I’m selling them! Hahaha!
There is one little incident relating to my nerdiness with a relative who brushed off some of my game collection, mumbling “oh, a Japanese video game…” I think they were turned off by the posters and wallscrolls covering my wall and suggested that I needed some friends if I decided to move again–when I do have a few, anyway.
Me: Do your friends also enjoy it?
Sanjo-chan: The few friends I had was into anime was when I was younger when Pokemon was at the height of its popularity. We had no idea that it was anime at the time. Getting older, we went our separate ways, moving 700 miles away, so we didn’t have the chance to do anything nerdy like cosplaying. Several years later, I’m a member of an anime club here in Chattanooga, TN called Scenic City Anime & More. It was the first time meeting so many people at once who shared my interest as much as I do maybe more than my old friends did.
This experience also encouraged me to do other things that I didn’t think I would be doing, like cosplaying in public. Everyone participates in an interest that would be strange to a simple geek: fighting games, visual novels, soundtrack and dorama fanatics… there are even local weapon Otaku. It all told me that I can be good at what I do, or make me better at what I do, especially writing about my experiences on CEN.TAKU.ME.
Percy: A nerd is someone who is highly educated in one or many fields of particular subject matter. I consider myself a nerd because in some cases I allow to endow myself with knowledge that I deem useful to myself or towards life. Facts that may not interest my peers or people of my generation. I enjoy learning about anything tech-wise. I like to take my computer apart at times and put it back together. I try different software that deal with programming (altering internal files used to run programs such as games to my personal liking). At times I could stay home all day and be entertained through this activity. Just a select few partake in this interest.
Me: This is a very different explanation of a nerd. The other interviewees often said a nerd to be eccentric and into things that would be considered hobbies of outsiders. But what you have said is you like technology which some of the greatest rocket scientist and computer builders use every day in their field. Does this make them nerds as well?
Percy: Well, it depends on your personal perspective. If you think about it, these professional and great minds all had hobbies and crafts that people do deem to find weird or outside the norm. Rockets building or toin-house lab experiments all classified as hobbies. But yet these to to continue their practice in to which great breakthroughs were made to help advance our civilization. So yes it may seem like it is something they use in daily job duties but before came that they were all nerds, alienated themselves to their craft of choice and was able to advance their hobbies and practices to something extraordinary.
Me: Do you consider this a strange hobby for a black person to have?
Percy: At this time and generation no. The reason being is you now have many people, especially African Americans, expand their likes and interest throughout the years. At first, we were scared to venture into different fields due to lack of education opportunities and discrimination which still goes on today. But as you can surely see we have been able to obtain most jobs not available to us previously.
Me: What about technology peaks your interest?
Percy: I’ts about the creative aspect of it. Being able to see the inventor’s vision come to life. Everything we see here was thought up by someone. It’s just going about the means to bring it into fruition.There are so many automotons that practically can do every job.
Robots that do most things we do and able to use light as a secondary power source, and in some cases primary. It’s cool sitting here wondering if maybe one day I would be able to experience and see these advancements helping out mankind. Some are just for the sole purpose of having fun; from anti-gravity vacuums to driving simulations. I get tinkles thinking about how close we are to virtual reality.