The NY Times magazine asks the age-old question:
Who’s a Nerd, Anyway?
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.
Hmm - if you have been wondering who's a nerd for twelve years, your research might well be conducted with a bathroom mirror (works for me!).
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.”
There are no Asian nerds? If anyone in this household would ever wake up I would conduct some field research of my own by interviewing a few teenagers. Humph.
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.
...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.
Had enough? I got plenty more where that came from:
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.
So young white nerds today are traitors to their whiteness by not pretending to be hip-hop gangstas? Could someone please just cap me with a nine right now? But quietly - people are sleeping...