From the New York Times:
Who’s a Nerd, Anyway?
By BENJAMIN NUGENT
What is a nerd? Mary Bucholtz, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been working on the question for the last 12 years. She has gone to high schools and colleges, mainly in California, and asked students from different crowds to think about the idea of nerdiness and who among their peers should be considered a nerd; students have also “reported” themselves. 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.”
While the word “nerd” has been used since the 1950s, its origin remains elusive. Nerds, however, are easy to find everywhere. Being a nerd has become a widely accepted and even proud identity, and nerds have carved out a comfortable niche in popular culture; “nerdcore” rappers, who wear pocket protectors and write paeans to computer routing devices, are in vogue, and TV networks continue to run shows with titles like “Beauty and the Geek.” As a linguist, Bucholtz understands nerdiness first and foremost as a way of using language. In a 2001 paper, “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness,” and other works, including a book in progress, Bucholtz notes that the “hegemonic” “cool white” kids use a limited amount of African-American vernacular English; they may say “blood” in lieu of “friend,” or drop the “g” in “playing.” But the nerds she has interviewed, mostly white kids, punctiliously adhere to Standard English. They often favor Greco-Latinate words over Germanic ones (“it’s my observation” instead of “I think”), a preference that lends an air of scientific detachment. They’re aware they speak distinctively, and they use language as a badge of membership in their cliques. One nerd girl Bucholtz observed performed a typically nerdy feat when asked to discuss “blood” as a slang term; she replied: “B-L-O-O-D. The word is blood,” evoking the format of a spelling bee. She went on, “That’s the stuff which is inside of your veins,” humorously using a literal definition. Nerds are not simply victims of the prevailing social codes about what’s appropriate and what’s cool; they actively shape their own identities and put those codes in question.
Though Bucholtz uses the term “hyperwhite” to describe nerd language in particular, she claims that the “symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness” can be used elsewhere. After all, “trends in music, dance, fashion, sports and language in a variety of youth subcultures are often traceable to an African-American source,” but “unlike the styles of cool European American students, in nerdiness, African-American culture and language [do] not play even a covert role.” Certainly, “hyperwhite” seems a good word for the sartorial choices of paradigmatic nerds. While a stereotypical black youth, from the zoot-suit era through the bling years, wears flashy clothes, chosen for their aesthetic value, nerdy clothing is purely practical: pocket protectors, belt sheaths for gadgets, short shorts for excessive heat, etc. Indeed, “hyperwhite” works as a description for nearly everything we intuitively associate with nerds, which is why Hollywood has long traded in jokes that try to capitalize on the emotional dissonance of nerds acting black (Eugene Levy saying, “You got me straight trippin’, boo”) and black people being nerds (the characters Urkel and Carlton in the sitcoms “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”).
But of course, this being the NYT, there has to be a deconstructionist coda that makes it the fault of white people:
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. Bucholtz sees something to admire here. In declining to appropriate African-American youth culture, thereby “refusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded,” she writes, nerds may even be viewed as “traitors to whiteness.” You might say they know that a culture based on theft is a culture not worth having. On the other hand, the code of conspicuous intellectualism in the nerd cliques Bucholtz observed may shut out “black students who chose not to openly display their abilities.” This is especially disturbing at a time when African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if they’re too obviously diligent about school. Even more problematic, “Nerds’ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students,” even if the nerds were involved in political activities like protesting against the dismantling of affirmative action in California schools. If nerdiness, as Bucholtz suggests, can be a rebellion against the cool white kids and their use of black culture, it’s a rebellion with a limited membership.
Of course, in California high schools, there aren’t just blacks and whites, but somehow Asians, among others, just don’t exist in the academic mindset. The reality is that when it comes to nerdishness, blacks, whites, and East Asians tend to follow the classic Rushtonian trichotomy.
As I wrote in 1999 in “Nerdishness: The Unexplored Cornerstone of the Modern World:”
Nerdishness appears to me to be one of the main manifestations of masculinity, although radically different from the more famous hunter/warrior/jock/leader mode (let’s use a term from African politics and designate representatives of the better known form of masculinity as “Big Men”). Certain fundamental trade-offs tend to distinguish nerds from Big Men. In the realm of intellectual traits:
1. Nerds are more “object-oriented,” Big Men are more people-oriented.
2. Nerds tend to focus narrowly but deeply (single-tasking), Big Men broadly but shallowly (multitasking). Nerds lack the “situational awareness” that the Air Force prizes in fighter pilots, but their ability to concentrate obsessively makes them good at designing the planes that pilots fly.
3. Nerds work best asynchronously (as Howard Bloom says, they never say the right thing at the right time — I can vividly recall walking along after a college history class, thinking about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when some black friend passing by said, “Hey, what’s happening?” “Hmmhmmh????,” I thought to myself in consternation, “What exactly is happening? Well, the Austro-Hungarian Empire is definitely not happening, but what is?” About five minutes later, I came up with a clever, but by now useless, reply, which later I could never seem to remember the next time somebody asked me “What’s happening?). In contrast, Big Men are better when they are “in the flow” (of the discussion, the hunt, the battle, the basketball game, or whatever).
Interestingly, in terms of cerebral skills, nerds tend to be more stereotypically masculine than Big Men, who benefit from stereotypically female mental skills like emotional intuition and multi-tasking. In contrast, nerds tend to be less traditionally masculine than Big Men in physical/emotional traits like muscularity, self-confidence, aggressiveness, etc.
As Mike Waller points out, cave-nerds probably made the stone axes for early cave-Big Men to hunt with. I suspect that nerdishness has been symbiotically related to the prosperity of communities. (Howard Bloom makes a similar point.) In nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, nerds’ object-orientation would not be very useful since objects tend to be heavy to carry. Similarly, in tribes that need just about every man to hunt, nerds’ ineptness at making correct split-second decisions would tend to get them eaten by wild beasts, or at least shunned by women who want men who bring home meat. On the other hand, sedentary communities that have been able to free some men up from food provisioning or war-making, make greater degrees of specialization possible, allowing nerds to flourish as craftsmen. In turn, these nerdy technologists make the tools that allow even more men to stop hunting and farming and turn to nerd-work. Thus begins a virtuous cycle of economic growth. …
These trade-offs between nerdishness vs. charismatic masculine leadership are readily apparent among different ethnic groups in industrial world, too. Allow me to quote a section from my review of Harvard economic historian David Landes’ “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor,” which appeared in National Review on 4/6/98. In it I launched the following trial balloon:
“Interestingly, many of the most striking racial differences can be thought of as resembling faint sex differences. For example, contrast the triumph of Japanese manufacturing with Japan‘s near-total failure in the brutally competitive global market for celebrities. (A recent survey revealed that Americans believe the most famous living Japanese person is Bruce Lee, a dead Chinese guy.) It’s the mirror image of African-Americans’ undistinguished technological achievements versus their outstanding performance in producing media personalities.
“Why? Japanese talents include a set of extremely masculine intellectual skills. Tests show they tend to excel at objective abilities like mathematics and mentally manipulating 3-d objects through “single-tasking” (focusing deeply upon a single impersonal logical problem). Blacks, on the other hand, are often better at typically feminine, more subjective cerebral skills like verbalization, emotional intuition and expression, sense of rhythm, sense of style, improvisation, situational awareness, and mental multi-tasking. Michael Jordan’s brain, for instance, enables him to anticipate his opponent’s every move while simultaneously demoralizing his foe with nonstop trash-talking. (Try it sometime. It’s not easy.)
“Next, think about physical and emotional/personality traits. Here the races are arrayed in the opposite order. Blacks tend to display more of typically male qualities like muscularity, aggressiveness, self-esteem, need for dominance, and impulsiveness. In contrast, the Japanese economy benefits from a male workforce endowed with more typically feminine virtues like small fingers and fine motor skills, cooperativeness, humility and anxiety, loyalty, long-term orientation, diligence, and carefulness. Combined with their first-rate masculine mental skills, these make Japanese companies powerhouses at exporting superbly engineered machinery.
“Compared to Japanese organizations, black communities tend to be physically and psychologically masculine, sometimes to the point of disorderliness. Yet a relatively high percentage of individual black men achieve fame by possessing charismatically masculine looks and personalities, without the nerdishness that Dilbert-style male intellectual skills often induce.”
(Republished from iSteve
by permission of author or representative)