A few years ago someone told me I was a Blerd. I had no idea what they were talking about. But (as I was then told) I’m black, I like SFF, and I talk about it a whole lot. So that makes me a Blerd. Okay. Fine. Whatevs. I didn’t really expect the term to catch on. I mean c’mon. Black + Nerd? Shows how much I know. Today Blerds are everywhere. There are Blerd sites, Blerd podcasts, Blerd blogs, Blerd meetups–you name it. Blerd has become a community. Blerd can maybe even be called a movement. Blerds are also remarkably diverse. And it turns out using one story to define them, may limit the full breadth of who or what they (we) can be.
Art: Phil Noto, Variant cover, Captain America
What’s cool (new cool?) about the many Blerd spaces that now proliferate social media is that you get to meet black folk from all walks of life, who not only share their varied interests (from science to SFF to gaming and Cosplay or what-have-you), but also share their many experiences. It’s an eye-opener. And on many things, I can definitely relate.
Eagerly looking for the PoC in a story or film. Sometimes turning anyone slightly swarthy into your stand in PoC (Drizzt Do’Urden, looking in your general direction). Having to swallow back sh*t that white geeks think are funny but you find offensive (Leeroy Jenkins). Dealing with the at times arrogant racism from white geekdom. “Wow! I’ve never met a black person who read __________ or is into ___________ and certainly none who can___________.” The list is endless.
There are times however in Blerd spaces when the common experiences ain’t so common for me. These tend to be childhood stories of being ostracized by the black community just for being into Geek Culture. For some, it was alienation from family members or friends. For others it was teasing. For many it was simply a feeling of non-belonging. Some of these stories are emotionally painful, especially when you realize they’re folks actual lived experiences. Most have since gone on to find spaces where they are welcome. Others still however openly deal with the lingering effects of their childhood. Blerd forums often work in fact to assure that there are open spaces for black youth today to fully and openly express themselves–which is ultimately a net positive. No one should be made to feel “less than black” for rocking a Sailor Moon outfit.
Still, all of this leaves me in a strange place. Yeah I’m black. I’ve been into geekdom as long as I can remember. Guess that makes me a Blerd. But I never had any of those experiences. I never felt ostracized. I was never taunted. I was never made to feel “less black.” Not for the mere crime of being into Geek Culture. Yet this has become a common theme (like one of Worf’s Rites of Ascension– see what I done did there?) for many when defining the Blerd experience. It’s left me with an odd sense of belonging and dissonance within some “Blerd” spaces, where at times these “shared experiences” seem almost expected. I started wondering if perhaps I wasn’t remembering correctly. Maybe I had been ostracized by black folk. Maybe my black family and black peers had made me feel “less than black.” Maybe I’d just blocked it all out and was suffering from Blerd Stockholm Syndrome.
Then lists started coming out, detailing what exactly was a Blerd and what wasn’t. Some claimed that Blerds didn’t listen to Hip Hop. Wait, we don’t? Or real Blerds were all socially awkward. Alluh we? One even pointed out that real Blerds can’t dance. Whut? But how can that be? My parents are West Indian and wining is hardwired into my Trini DNA. How can Blerdness be so limiting when Afrofuturism is Black Cool personified?
Sometimes these discussions on Blerd spaces got downright uncomfortable. In more than one instance there were appeals to the “acting white hypothesis,” that purports black people (particularly black kids) equate intellect with being white. Though the hypothesis has been repeatedly debunked through the decades (look it, just got debunked again last week), it enjoys popularity in media circles and in everyday discourse–especially among those wedded to notions of black cultural pathology. So I was disheartened to see it appear in Blerdom, and used by some as an explanation for personal stories of ostracization. A very broad brush was being used to paint the black community I grew up in as somehow antithetical to SFF and by relation (as we tend to think of our geekdom highly) antithetical to intellect. At times there seemed to even be this distinction being made between “regular” black folk and Blerds–the latter of which were somehow “special” in our differing appreciations. The whole thing had a definitive whiff of “New Black” that made me grimace. These weren’t the
droids Blerds I was looking for.
Then I talked to some real life (sometimes you gotta connect one on one) black folk I knew into Geek Culture about all of this. And many of them responded, “Naaah. I never experienced that stuff either.” Oh. So it wasn’t just me. I started questioning, sneaking it into a convo whenever I could between the usual geek talk. Some gave nuanced answers: “Yeah I got teased. But hell, I teased back. Never felt ostracized tho.” Another told me, “They used to make fun of my drawing superheroes. But they liked them too. Started asking me to draw them as superheroes.” More and more, I found there were people who shared my Blerd experience out there. Black men and women, who grew up with nerd culture but don’t have the stories of not fitting in (at least not specifically for that). Black people who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons or reading comic books and weren’t taunted or teased. Black folks whose Blerdness (their imagination, intellect and curiosity) was actually *encouraged* by their families.
Then this past January, blogger omightykaye broke it all down with a bombshell post titled: “On Being A Regular Nigga in Blerd Spaces.” Well damn. That blog spoke to my non-typical Blerd heart. Yes I know, she uses the “N-Word” (*gasp*). But it’s all inner-group dynamics. (We went over this at the all-black-folk meetup back in 2009. See the minutes.) Besides, I think that was part of the point. In her blog, omightykaye talks about how she grew up in a very regular black household where her “Blerdness” was never an issue–at least no more than anything else:
When the conversation starts about how none of us ever really fit in with the other Black kids because books/comics/”talking White”/big words/tabletop gaming, I’m usually lurking and feeling some kind of way because I can’t figure out which side of the line I should be on. My friends teased, but they fully expected me to bring a book to the slumber party and invited me anyway. They tried out my dorky games just like I played MASH when they wanted, and never once did anybody question whether or not I belonged. Ma’fack, they defended me more than a few times from peers who were less appreciative of my charm 🙂
I don’t have stories about how my mother fussed at me for wasting time reading fantasy books or about how my Daddy, aunties, and uncles downed me for being “book smart”. They were regular Black people, doing regular Black people stuff …and anything that I did that wasn’t self-destructive or harmful to others was validated as regular Black people stuff, too.
Yep. Yep. And Hell Yep! That’s more like the experiences I knew. That’s more like the communities I grew up in. I never felt ostracized from my black peers as a kid because I read Tolkien or liked Star Trek. For one, I had a core of black peers who were into the stuff just as much as I was. We found each other and based our friendships in part around it. To this day, my best friend “fah life” is a dude I met in middle school and who introduced me to Dr. Who. Dude played varsity football in high school and to this day feels at ease at a Star Trek Convention or waxing on about his NFL Fantasy draft. We still regularly greet each other on the phone with a movie line from Aliens and can mix it up for hours talking geekdom. So I never had the “alone” feeling. And even if most of my black peers weren’t reading the Belgariad, they were still watching sci-fi TV shows. They were watching the same cartoons–from Transformers to Thundarr the Barbarian. They were reading comic books. They’d seen Star Wars & raved on about Conan flicks. They could never come at me too hard without going in on themselves. How you gonna tease me then ask to hold my Fantastic Four joints over the weekend? Black Nerdness ain’t ever fit them neat little categories.
Didn’t get shame or ridicule from my black family for any of it either. Mom was the one who introduced me to classic SF shows like Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and took my sister and I to the library religiously to check out as many SFF books as I could handle. Pops had me watching Godzilla flicks and took us to the movies to see just about every SFF movie in the 80s. I can still tell when he’s been on my Netflix because all that’s been watched are documentaries on astronomy or dinosaurs. My parents didn’t just encourage my Blerdness, they fed it on a steady diet of museums, books and what have you. I was never told any such thing wasn’t “Black” by them or my larger family of cousins, aunts and what have you. And these were West Indians doing all the “cool” West Indian things. No social awkwardness from dem. Yet what we call “Blerdom” was just all regular black folk stuff to them.
Did I get teased as a kid? Yeah, sometimes. But for all kinds of things. A bad haircut, wearing unpopular kicks, my parents accents. I can give you lists. But my love of SFF barely makes the top ten. On my block, I was in for a world of teasing if some barber seriously f’d over my edges than I ever was for owning a D&D Monster Manual. I would rather have walked into my majority black middle school dressed in a full Star Trek captains uniform (complete with Vulcan ears) than with a jacked up fade! A Trek uniform would get some questions but probably end in a “Alright you weird ass n*gga” and move on. The sin of a wack haircut tho? THAT was unforgivable. And the taunting would last longer than being digested in the belly of a Sarlacc. Real Talk.
I was also the “proper” talking kid from up North (if you’d like to hire me to read you the evening news, I have affordable rates) who other black kids would mimic at any given chance for a laugh. But that kind of teasing was never ostracizing for me. I talked how I talked, and eventually the joke got old. Kids teased everyone after all, for just about everything. And at times it was probably more socially damaging than my interest in The Hulk. The dollar value of someone’s clothing. Perceived class. Their looks. Grade of hair. Colorism. Not saying any of it was right. At all. Just saying that’s the way it was. Children and faeries can be cruel. Like others, I got teased, and was fortunate enough to be a person who could give it back. People learned quick fast that they wasn’t gonna make a rep off me.
No one teased me however for reading too many Madeline L’Engle books. Or because I kept a stash of Avengers on hand. Or because I checked out Bullfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology on the regular. I never knew any black or brown kids when I was younger (despite what you see on TV) who thought reading was something to be taunted over. Just not part of my personal experience. And in the chance someone did make an offhand comment that “I was always with a book,” that was about the beginning and end of it. “Yeah. I’m always with a book. What? You can’t read? With them high water pants…” That was likely to start off a round by others of how dude not only couldn’t read, but how his Moms dressed him for a flood. And that’s how it would go down. Who else wan’ test me?
[Here’s the irony. I went from a majority black middle school to a majority white high school. Some rather well-off white folk too. Like the ones in all those 80s John Hughes films. And it was there that I saw white geeks ostracized by their white peers in ways I *never* experienced among by black peers. But that ain’t none of my business… *sips tea.*]
Admittedly some of my ease was the advantage of my own set of birth-inherited privileges as a straight, non-disabled, cis male-child in the US of A. If not for the “child of immigrant parents” bit and the starkly important “black” part, I would have been all-American. As it was, among my peers I was just another black kid of my day, space and time doing what was perceived to be plain old black kid things. Though my musical tastes always been diverse, I liked Hip Hop primarily. Grew up on it. As I’ve said in other blogs, Hip Hop wasn’t antithetical to my interest in Geek Culture–to the contrary, it complimented it, inspired it. Hip Hop after all has been into SFF since Kool Herc was rocking with his Herculoids and Newcleus was talking about having a one-on-one throw down with Superman. As I like to often point out, Wu-Tang Clan are the coolest, comic-book, SFF loving Blerds you done ever known. To this day, Hip Hop remains my Afrofuturist muse.
Would I have been taunted if I was a black kid into Goth culture? Likely. Death Metal? Probably. Punk? Maybe. Even tho’ AfroPunk folk these days be looking like the coolest muthafunkers on the planet! And black folks kinda been long into that scene and making it drip with Black Cool for-eva. Besides, none of that stuff is about Geek Culture exactly–though it can overlap. And teasing and taunting folk for that ain’t got much at all to do with Blackness, Black folk or Black Culture. They get equal opportunity shade from the American mainstream.
Was I awkward? Yeah. At times. Who wasn’t? I was never the coolest kid around. That was never my clique or crew. (All the coolest kids in my middle school actually hung around all the Honors kids. Yeah. Your stereotypes be damned). But I was sociable enough. I talked about geek stuff, but also all the other stuff we found interesting at the time. Sports. Cars. Girls. I dressed much like my peers, spit the common lingo and (when the moment moved me) held forth lengthily on the bad-assness of Galactus. My geekdom had a code-switch. And I knew when to flick it.
This followed me into adulthood, where I did regular black folk things in college like join a black fraternity, had mostly black friends, went to mostly black parties, and did lots of everyday garden-variety black things (in all the diversity that “blackness” can mean). And if anything, I got more into Geek Culture. I started writing speculative fiction. I made blogs dedicated to it. The whole 9. And yeah, my friends still sometimes snicker when I rush home to catch some SF show with a, “Man, you weird.” But I always shrug. Cuz sooner or later they’re sitting right there with me watching that same show, or browsing my Wolverine comic collection. In the end, everyone just pretty much accepted that’s who I was–much as I accepted myself.
Again, not denying or taking away from other folks lived experiences. That’s not the point here, at all. I’m just giving *my* experience. An experience that I know other folks share, because I lived it alongside them–in black communities, among fellow black peers and within black families. And if Blerd spaces are going to be really fully inclusive, we’re going to have to accept that not everyone has the same story to tell. That Blerds don’t all fit one over-arching mold where ostracizing is a shared trait. And perhaps, we can open up fully what that term (Blerd) can mean without boundaries. As omightykaye says at the end of her post:
More than anything I want us to move closer toward understanding and acceptance of one another despite our different experiences of Blackness. I want to feel confident that I can be truthful about the lenses that color my perception of stories and characters and be welcomed among people who understand even if they don’t agree. I’d like to see more Black people admit that we’ve drunk down the mainstream idea that certain kinds of Black are dichotomous with high fantasy and RPGs (and retch it up). I want us to widely and boldly acknowledge what being welcomed into these web spaces has meant to us and let empathy make us kinder when noobs come along.
Word. Cuz that kid who sags, who has the headphones turned up to 100, and is head-nodding to Big K.R.I.T. (who on his last album Cadillactica literally re-imagines himself as a god-like being who creates worlds), reciting out loud “Took it out the bat cave and he threw it in the trunk!”—he’s a Blerd too.