Saturday, February 19, 2011


By Michael Han

         Mary Bucholtz’s piece The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness presents very interesting insight into the nerd subculture. I hope to discuss some of the highlights of this piece, but before I begin, here is this little gem:

            Yup. But before we can delve into the intricacies of Weird Al, a basic explication of Bucholtz’s work is needed. Bucholtz begins by examining a common flaw in the perception of whiteness. She states “in viewing whiteness as a normative, hegemonic, and unmarked racial position, scholars may be unwittingly reifying a singular and static version of whiteness” (84). She refutes this point, positing “it is not the concept of racial unmarkedness itself that creates the problem but rather the common scholarly misperception that the unmarked status of whiteness is impervious to history, culture, or other local conditions” (84). Simply put, one cannot blanket all Caucasians under one sweeping categorical term of whiteness—that within whiteness, there are numerous layers, varying degrees of how white someone is. Whiteness is not ahistorical, nor is it immune to social and cultural changes. It is this susceptibility that leads to the genesis of the varying types of whiteness.
            With that being said, Bucholtz’s discussion of what is considered Standard English and its two variations (the nerdy Hyperstandard English and the cooler African American Vernacular English or AAVE) form a language spectrum of sorts (see diagram below). In the middle of this spectrum lies Standard English, the variety of English with which all other varieties are compared to. Why is this so? Bucholtz attributes this to its “ideological force” (91)—it is so dominant within the U.S. that its usage implies that it is becomes both ordinary and regulative. The strength of the Standard English ideology is so powerful that the slightest deviation from it is considered divergent, despite the numerous similarities in “grammar, phonology and… lexicon” (88). Hyperstandard English, which pays particular attention to precision in detail in language is described as “over-applying prescriptive rules and producing hypercorrect forms” (88), is placed at the furthest end of the Language spectrum. Although there is technically nothing incorrect in its use, Hyperstandard English sticks out—it strays from the path of Standard English, that is to say, it is different, it is noticeable. Finally, on the other end of this spectrum lies nonstandard English—variations on Standard English that does not emphasize the precision and correctness of speech as much as hyperstandard English does. Any type of slang is an example of this, and the AAVE is a frequently cited example of it as well.
|Hyper standard-----------------Standard-----------------Hyper nonstandard|
    Nerd speak                                                                      Slang, AAVE

            Now that we have the technical stuff out of the way, we can focus for a little bit on the symbolism of White and Nerdy. It is very apparent that from this video that Nerdom has its own language, its own culture. We all know that there are certain things that are considered to be particularly nerdy, and this video takes special consideration to highlight these things. Here are some highlights:

First in my class here at M.I.T./
Got skills, I'm a Champion of DND

All of my action figures are cherry/
Steven Hawkings in my library/
Yo I know Pi to a thousand places
I'm a whiz at minesweeper I can play for days/
Once you see my sweet moves you're gonna stay amazed,

I got a business doing websites/
When my friends need some code who do they call?/
I do HTML for them all

            The lyrics references sciences and mathematics as well as leisurely activities that require thought and concentration, like minesweeper (which admittedly I am terrible at) and DND (Dungeons and Dragons) which society equates with Nerd culture. Why is this exactly? Bucholtz makes the point that nerds often assert their superior intellect, particularly using speech as a “resource for the production of an intelligent and nonconformist identity” (87). Bucholtz’s ethnographical research reveals that more often than not, becoming a nerd is “a purposeful choice that allows those who embrace this identity to reject locally dominant social norms” (85). More specifically, being a nerd allows them to reject all that is considered to be cool, distancing themselves from their trendier peers—embracing nerdiness is essentially an act of rebellion against the widely accepted standards of society.
            This leads to a point that I found to be very interesting—the use of language as a means of active rebellion against the standard. Bucholtz’s interview with Erich provides insight into hypercorrect speech. There were instances in which the “phonological reduction of […] words” (92) like ‘em, goin’ or gonna would have felt easier and more natural conversation, yet Erich took special measures to precisely enunciate each word. In standard speech, people abbreviate these words all the time, often without even realizing that they are doing so because they flow more  easily and sound more natural. The fact that Erich makes sure that every word is clearly enunciated demonstrates just how much thought he is putting into his speech, so as to make sure it stands out in relation to the standard speech.
            Bucholtz’s work also focuses heavily on the racialization of speech. Why is it “White and Nerdy?” What creates the association between whiteness and nerdiness? It becomes clear that Nerdiness is an outright rejection of both standard white culture (which as the article explains, draws heavily on black culture for its trends and measurability of what is “cool”) and black culture. It does not discriminate in regards to what it rejects as nerdiness strives to differentiate from all other linguistic forms, not just one particular one. Bucholtz refers to Signithia  Fordham’s ethnographical research on academically successful students in a black high school, in which “high-achieving African American students were accused by their black peers of ‘acting white’ precisely because of their intellectual performance” (95), often hiding or downplaying their academic prowess and further demonstrating “their engagement with the concerns of African American youth culture” (95) so as to not seem like traitors to their own race.

            In examining the issue of the blackness of nerds, the mind may wander to popular representations of the black nerd (of which there are very few) in popular culture—with his nasally voice and stereotypically nerdy appearance, Steve Urkel of Family Matters fame is the most vivid representation of such category. A wildly successful character, Urkel is an icon in popular culture. Yet why are so many African American students still afraid to embrace their intellectual sides? This issue is addressed by Zack Isaacs, columnist for the Huffington Post, who states bluntly in the very first line of his article Why We Need more Black Nerds “Steve Urkel messed everything up for men like me.”
Did I do thaaaaat?

Isaacs argues Urkel’s popularity and visibility within popular culture is actually a representation of a “caricature that makes inner-city kids think twice about hitting the books.” Isaacs cites specific examples from the show, like how Urkel was “never given the time of day by his counterpart, Laura Winslow—until he morphed into his ‘cool’ alter ego Stefan Urquelle—you can see why some black boys in the inner city don’t want to be smart.” This relates to Fordham’s research as characters like Urkel represent the epitome of “uncool.” Black nerds, to some black students, equates to being a geeky, womanless loser. Urkel’s character further perpetuates this dilemma, as his stereotypically cool alter ego, Stefan Urquelle, receives love and affection from Laura, the girl of Urkel’s dreams.
            I found this article to be so interesting—for the past three years I have been volunteering at the Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law (AGL), a high school located in the Lower East Side. I serve primarily as an in class tutor—ninth grade students are mandated to stay after school Mondays and Wednesdays to receive extra help. If you ever doubted anything about what Bucholtz or Isaacs or Fordham posit in their respective works, spend an afternoon at AGL. A majority of students in the school are African and Latino American. The class I currently work in has one Asian student. Suffice it to say, they really, really do not want to do their homework. I am sure that part of this inclination to misbehave is resultant of the fact that they are fourteen and still rather immature, but their behavior basically echoes all that we have read so far on this topic. A majority of the time, whenever a student (boys especially) attempts to do some type of work, the other students (again, usually the boys) call him out for being a “dork” or “loser,” which elicits laughter from the rest of the class. Furthermore, I have seen students purposefully fail exams—they simply do not answer any questions and hand it in, and then go on to take pride in the fact that they failed. The only student who is left alone is interestingly enough the one Asian student I spoke of. He does well in classes, and no one makes fun of him (they do go to him for answers on their school work, though), which also mirrors what Bucholtz wrote on Asian Americans being positioned as the “nerdy minority” (87), in that they are assumed to be naturally good at schoolwork. As a result, the fact that he wants to do homework does not make him a “traitor” of any particular race. This of course presents a major issue, as Isaac cites in New York city, “only 47% of black males finished high school for the 2007/08 school year” and that “out of that number, only 28% of black males… finish on time.” Educational policies within inner city schools are, however, a topic for another time.

              As I come to the end of this (very long) blog post, I stop and consider the role of nerds in today’s culture. Nerds in pop culture can be traced as far back as the 70s as it was heavily used in Happy Days. The 80s also heavily featured nerds—the music group Devo,
 and of course Steve Urkel. These figures portrayed nerds as the stereotypical, smart and socially inept conception of nerds generally held.
            Today, nerds play a very different role in American culture. From characters on television shows like the O.C. (not that I have ever watched…) to films like the Social Network which featured the intellectual brilliance of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerburg, these new pieces of media portrayed nerds in an entirely new light—loveable, goofy, quirky and even cool. Actors today exude this new aged nerd persona—Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera and Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg all put a face on what it means to
Devo's lead singer, Mark Mothersbaugh
be a nerd in the 21st century.
            Furthermore, there has been a recent resurgence in even dressing nerdy: thick-rimmed glasses, cardigans and ironic sweaters/t shirts are currently in fashion, particularly in hipster centric New York City.

            Of course we should ask are these really nerds? Or are they just ironic knockoffs?   
L to R: Cera, Samberg and Eisenberg (coincidence?)
 Nerds were originally titled nerds because of the way they spoke—everything else (i.e. behavior, dress, etc.) followed this. It is interesting to see that Nerds sought to differentiate themselves as much as possible, to deviate from all that was trendy and cool, yet today, their culture—particularly their way of dressing, has been (ironically) refocused as the center of what is trendy and hip.            
          Finally, as we pointed out earlier in this entry, though, whiteness is not impervious to the shaping hands of society, history and culture. I would like to think that within this overarching theme of whiteness, its variations, like nerdiness, are just as malleable and impressionable. 

Further reading:
I found this really interesting (it's short, I promise) and amusing article entitled Eighties nerds are contemporary hipsters  in which the author draws connections between the 80s depiction of nerds in cinema and today's hipsters. Enjoy!

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