Hyperwhite or Ultrabrown?

As brown blog folks, we know a thing or two about nerdiness. I was surprised therefore to see this NYT article about the research of Mary Bucholtz, a linguist at UCSB who has been studying nerds for the past dozen years. According to the article, Bucholtz argues that nerdiness is essentially exaggerated whiteness:

Nerds – not just white people any more

Nerdiness, she has concluded, is largely a matter of racially tinged behavior. People who are considered nerds tend to act in ways that are, as she puts it, “hyperwhite.”

As a linguist, Bucholtz understands nerdiness first and foremost as a way of using language… Bucholtz notes that the “hegemonic” “cool white” kids use a limited amount of African-American vernacular English … But the nerds she has interviewed, mostly white kids, punctiliously adhere to Standard English… By cultivating an identity perceived as white to the point of excess, nerds deny themselves the aura of normality that is usually one of the perks of being white. [Link]


p>I’m willing to concede part of her point – that “cool” culture in America has to do with black culture, and that nerds define themselves self-consciously against it. That’s why (as she points out) black nerd figures, like Urkel, are so amusing. It’s worth reading her whole argument, but I’m not going to quote it at greater length here because I’m more interested in what she leaves out, namely immigrant nerds or FOB nerds.


p>Growing up in New York City, we had nerds of all colors, sizes, shapes and flavors, but the median nerd was probably an immigrant kid of some sort. It didn’t matter where your parents came from, just that they weren’t born here and that you yourself may have emigrated as a kid.


p>Since I went to a geek high school, I grew up with Eastern European nerds, tons and tons of east Asian nerds, and yes, brown nerds. And it wasn’t about people defining themselves against blackness — African nerds with their white short-sleeve shirts, slacks and ramrod straight posture were just as nerdy as an IITian or MITian around. [Which is precisely why “blackness” gets tricky when talking about immigrants – are you going to call African immigrants Oreos just because they don’t fit stereotypes of “black Americans”?]


p>As a matter of fact, I would go as far as to argue that brown nerds aren’t hyperwhite but ultrabrown. They weren’t trying to emulate the squarer parts of American culture, in fact they were uberdesi . They wore polyester short-sleeve shirts, coke bottle glasses, were very earnest and spoke grammatical english. And yes, before somebody brings up the distinction, they were not just geeks but pukka nerds.


p>However, brown nerds (and immigrant nerds in general) fall outside of the black-white dichotomy that Bucholtz sees at the heart of nerdiness. They’re not trying to “deny themselves the aura of normality that is usually one of the perks of being white,” they’re simply not white. Sure, that means that they don’t acquire the popular culture markers of being cool, many of which have to do with African-American culture, but that didn’t make them any closer to white culture either.

I know that American culture, and American cultural history has largely been dominated by the binary opposition between “Black” and “White”. But I’m mystified as to how Dr. Bucholtz could spend 12 years of studying nerds in California and still think of nerd culture that way. Squareness is global and was appropriated a long time ago.

UPDATE: Readitfirst has read Bucholtz’s work directly, and explains her research thusly:

You can’t rely on a blippy NYT description to present arguments in their full complexity; as much as you seem to care about the details, you don’t seem to have looked for them! First of all, her work is based on ethnographic research, which is a) a form of social scientific research [contra razib, who seems to have a very narrow idea of ‘science’], b) empirical, and c) local. I don’t think she claims to be uncovering what “nerd” (or for that matter “whiteness”) means globally, or even in all parts of the US or among all age groups. Her work is based on intense participant-observation in one high school (or at least the part that resulted in the 2001 paper mentioned in the NYT) in California; she gives a fairly detailed description of the school in the paper. One aspect of the school is how race figures into social groups, and she explains that in this particular school, the white students typically identify themselves in terms of a black-white binary, where Asians and others are deemed invisible by erasure (this is a common term in linguistic anthropology; it refers to a semiotic process whereby groups or practices are basically “disappeared” from a field of discourse):

In spite of the school’s tremendous racial and ethnic diversity, resulting in the visibility of whiteness as a racial category, white students at Bay City High frequently operated according to an ideological dichotomy between African Americans and European Americans, the two largest racialized groups at the school.

Readitfirst actually says more than that, it’s worth clicking through and reading the comment. As for the charge, mea culpa. I should, at the very least, have been more careful in terms of characterizing Bucholtz’s work based on a single NYT article. At the very least, I should have said I was responding to the argument in the article if I didn’t have the time to read the original research.

113 thoughts on “Hyperwhite or Ultrabrown?

  1. Rajesh, would it help you to conceptualize race differently if I tried to explain it this way? That ‘biologists’, as all humans do, categorize the variability in individuals at convenient cut-off points. And that these cut-off points may vary with the period and place the biologists live in, similar to the cut-off points decided when using screening tests in health care (which is influenced by what sensitivity and specificity society is willing to tolerate).

    The closest to human race in the world of dogs is breed and breed-grouping. However much a show-dog breeder or handler or a breed enthusiast emphasizes the differences between an American Staffordshire Terrier and a Bull Terrier, to the uninitiated they are all just dogs running around at best or ‘Pit Bulls’ at worst.

    I did not attend public school in the US but a private Jessuit school overseas.

    Is that the new form of snob?

  2. Is that the new form of snob?

    I wouldn’t be able to explain snobbery to somebody who can’t even recognize it.

  3. Any ‘modern’ topic on race (and I have read) is polluted with opinon and political correctness and not based on science.

  4. GB, Australoid comes under Negroid.

    Oh yeah ? Where did you learn that ?? My best friend — who went to a Presbytarian school overseas — learnt in 8th-grade biology that there are four races!!!

    Somewhat less flippantly, contrast this from #96:

    Race is more than physical appearance and skin color (although these are some features) Race has to do with blood and genetics. There are certain diseases that are race specific eg. Cystic Fibrosis and Tay Sachs.

    with this from #95

    Furthermore, we haven’t heard of any bioinformatic studies that establish even a moderate correlation between the nature of a closely-acting complex (as opposed to a few genes that determine, say, sickle-cell anaemia) of non-physique-related genes and racial type.

    (emphasis mine) In other words, Rajesh, your #96 does not convey anything beyond what everybody knows (apart from the somewhat interesting disclosure that your 8th-grade biology textbooks seem to be stuck in the era of T.E. Lawrence and J.G. Frazer). I sympathise with you that you have no patience as a teacher. But you are not off the hook until you explain to us, without any hand-waving arguments, the biological basis for the categorization implicit in the statement: “The Bushman is different in physical statue and appearance than the Massai but they belong to the same race.”

  5. I did not attend public school in the US but a private Jessuit school overseas.

    You know what the Jesuits (one might think of them as a variety radical behaviorists) say, “Give me the boy until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Did they collaborate with the CIA in some sinister experiment at the height of the Cold War and put you in a bizarro skinner box to produce a jingoistic, gun-toting hyper-reactionary?

    SM-ers I apologize for the ad-hominem nature of this remark, but it is precipitated by this gem:

    Whatever your wishes may be the idea of RACE is not an an idea but a Biological fact.

    Your 8th grade biology teacher seems to have a twisted sense of humor. Hopefully, she at least denied the existence of the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and the Loch Ness monster. I suggest that you go read a few ‘modern’ genetics and
    biological anthropology texts. I would make some recommendations but..

    I never had much patience as a teacher. Do the research yoursel[f].
  6. Any ‘modern’ topic on race (and I have read) is polluted with opinon and political correctness and not based on science.

    So then… modern science is all bunk, and at some undisclosed point (maybe around the time eugenics was discredited by the Shoah Holocaust) all scientists stopped doing science? Should we just turn back the clock, then? Maybe discard genetics in favor of phrenology?

  7. Whatever your wishes may be the idea of RACE is not an an idea but a Biological fact.

    Eiether way- if it is, or isn’t, why does it matter in a modern, liberal democracy like the USA? Is your concern that the Jim Crow laws may be reenacted and ‘the white people’ won’t recognize that you are a first class citizen because of your skin?

    Honesty I’m curious. How do you think your life will change if everyone “embraces” Indians as caucasian- what will that do for you? It’s obvious from your comments you are not involved in medical/pharmacology research, nor even a creditable poser,what’s up?

  8. . . .a jingoistic, gun-toting hyper-reactionary? SM-ers I apologize for the ad-hominem nature of this remark, but it. . .

    Spare your breath, portmanteau. I rather suspect that R. Harricharan will take your remark as a compliment 😉 . (Unless the gun-toting thing is a pose. Some of the disclosures that he “reluctantly” makes on the Obama-Pak thread suggests that either his Navy days are well behind him, or he is Mr. Loose Lips.)

  9. GB,, You are right. I am retired Navy but I do keep in touch with the actve duty guys, most in Iraq and Afganistan, Marines, Navy, and Army. I have not disclosed any secrets in my postings. portmantheau When you call me a jingostic gun-toting hyper-reactionary, all I can say to that is thank you.

  10. Ok ennis, I went to a geek high school in New York City too– fess up, which one was it? Hunter/Stuy/B.Tech/Bx.Sci.?