November 4, 2007
The Black Nerd: A Stereotype to Break Stereotypes?

No one knows about nerd culture quite like MIT, right? After all, as legendary WWE play-by-play announcer put it so succinctly when he visited the Program in Comparative Media Studies last spring to speak to my class on pro wrestling and in a colloquium, we're supposed to be a school full of math nerds.

That mentality has given us all sorts of references in popular culture, from Beauty and the Geek to The Big Bang Theory to Weird Al Yankovic's "White and Nerdy", as I wrote about last October. This was perhaps best captured for a generation by Revenge of the Nerds and its subsequent sequels.

But Raafi Rivero at Desedo Films recently provided an interesting account of the ways in which the black nerd was an important part of our culture yet not particularly well marketed to, in favor of the stereotypes most generally associated with hip-hop culture. We're a culture that trades on stereotypes, to be sure, but Rivero's piece emphasizes that there are many types of archetypes to play on, and black culture is sprinkled with plenty of "black nerds."

The poster-child that he looks at is Theo, from Die Hard, a computer ace who is a supporting villain in the film. He eventually mentions the king of all black nerds, perhaps, and one of the most well-known cultural figures of the early 1990s, Steve Urkel, from Family Matters. There are a range of other characters not mentioned here, such as Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Rivero even points out LaVar Burton in the comments section.

He writes, "Verily, the proliferation of media voices and sources enabled by the internet has allowed (surprise!) a more nuanced and (bing!) less gangster voice of young black America to emerge, untempered by market concerns and sensationalism." Rivero even provides links of various examples of the "black nerd" online.

Culture is built on stereotypes, and as much as we often rally against them, stereotypes are also useful distillers of information, particularly useful for comedy, often in parody form. It seems odd to talk about providing a more nuanced view of a culture through creating a stereotypical figure, but it certainly does rally against prevailing prejudices if the rise of a new stereotype comes into direct conflict with many of the hallmarks of other stereotypes about a group of people.

As many scholars, critics, industry insiders, and fans know and write about, the media is a powerful tool in both perpetuating and breaking cultural myths. This piece stretches across user-generated content, television, film, advertising, and beyond to look at the various ways in which the "black nerd" character has risen. That we might be seeing the stereotype becoming more accepted in our culture might be an indication of the rise of a market for which this stereotype appeals to.

Some of the tensions brought up here reminds me of discussions about The Cosby Show that I've been privy to many times, and whether the show challenged many of the stereotypes of African-Americans or just created a black-skinned version of a white family. Perhaps those debates rage on today in discussions of the "black nerd." My major question, and I would love some input from others here, is what makes the "black nerd" decidedly different from the "white nerd," "Asian nerd," or any other racially stereotyped nerd?

Thanks to Michael Hastings-Black for pointing my attention to the piece.



When this came up at my blog, people really resisted the idea that there's any difference between a black nerd and a white nerd. At the same time, I think that was largely coming from white folks.

In Ron Elgash's academic article, "Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian American Hipsters," the author argues that simple race reversal isn't good enough as a black nerd identity if you want to establish gateways into tech culture more broadly. He proposes Afrofuturism as an alternative, but that seems pretty esoteric even by nerd standards.

Along these lines, at least, it might be worth noting that some black nerds may make their blackness part of their nerdiness, while others adopt the stereotypically white and Asian variant (which I think we typically treat as overlapping in this country, perhaps even operating under the assumption that Asian nerdiness is just white nerdiness to the extreme). I think we see some "black nerdiness" that takes the form of pop culture figures from gaming, comics, and sci-fi interpreted through the filter of urban fashion (see the new "Nintendo by Torrel" line, for example). This approach is probably presumed to make such imagery more palatable to subcultures that might be more predisposed to reject it for its preexisting uncool/whitebread associations. Outside of Malcolm X, however (discussed in Eglash's paper), I'm not sure I can think of an analogous strain of "black nerdiness" offhand that is as tuned in on intellectualism/bookishness as on geeky pop culture.

But then, I haven't even read the article you linked yet, so I may be back yet..!