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:
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.