Friday, February 25, 2011

Who can be nerdy?

by Monica Burton

While reading “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” by Mary Bucholtz and “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” by William Labov, I became keenly aware of the connection between nonstandard language and race. This connection is, of course, obvious in the relationship between the African American children of South Central Harlem and African American Vernacular English in the study featured in the Labov piece. And while it is clear that there is a connection between the hyperstandard English spoken by nerds and whiteness, analyzing this connection further, and its presence in daily life, reveals additional interesting racial dynamics.

At  Bay City High School the nerds are white. Bucholtz says the nerd identity “is racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines” and that nerds “instead construct their identities by cleaving closely to the symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness, especially the resources of language” (Bucholtz 2). They employ language to adopt a very specific social identity that works to enforce their racial identities. They do this consciously in deliberate attempts to distance themselves from the cool students and even further from the “hip hop crowd,” or black students. The appropriation of hyper correct English represents a rejection of the black elements in standard youth culture, such as hip hop music and slang.

The nerds in the study admit that they do not associate with the black students, who, if they speak anything close to the AAVE discussed in the Labov piece, must be the polar opposites of these nerds. The hyperstandard English spoken by nerds is marked by the use of what Bucholtz terms “supercorrect” linguistic variables. This includes formal vocabulary, carefully articulated phonological forms and strict adherence to standard grammar. In contrast, the AAVE examined in Labov’s piece is characterized by negative inversion, negative concord, the invariant “be,” and the the use of “it” instead of “there.” What’s more, the students interviewed in the study Labov discusses do not speak in complete sentences, when compared to standard English.

These two pieces present very different subjects whose linguistic identities are tied inextricably with their racial identities and there is no crossover. But because these two studies were presented in conjunction this week, I was reminded of the phenomenon of the black nerd. I say phenomenon, because regardless of the actual intelligence or nerdiness of certain members of the African American population, in popular culture, black nerds are presented as oddities.

The two “nerds” that immediately come to mind are Carlton Banks, from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Steve Urkel from Family Matters. In both of these sitcoms featuring predominantly African American casts, the nerds are outsiders and outcasts. While this classification is due in part to some odd behavior (odd for anyone, nerd or no), with Carlton especially, much of the reason for the characters’ positions as outcasts stems from the way they comport themselves linguistically as well as their nerdy interests, interests shared by the nerds at Bay City High School.
For example, in this clip from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air we see Carlton singing and dancing to his favorite artist- Tom Jones. Carlton rejects African American and “cool” interests through his language and taste in music, just as the Bay City teen nerds do, but is embarrassed by his behavior in front of his cooler cousin, Will, who speaks a less standard form of English than Carlton does.  

The linguistic behavior of the nerd is further exemplified in the character of Steve Urkel. Like Carlton, his interests lie outside of those of the other characters on Family Matters (in this case, polka) and he speaks English differently. His speech is clearly marked, reinforcing his role as the outcast. Like the teenagers at Bay City High School, he uses slang, but it is old fashioned slang, not the cool slang derived from African American Culture. 
The representations of black nerds in these TV shows carry over into live outside of the television screen, namely in the idea that this type of person--the African American nerd-- is an anomaly, to be looked down upon.

I came across this video for an advertisement for a spirit day at a high school. Called “White and Nerdy,” it operates on a few different levels. First, the title implies that white and nerdy are two concepts that can relate to each other, while black and nerdy is not nearly such a natural fit. White is almost equated to nerdy when we see black students in the video dressed up as stereotypical nerds, enhancing their nerdiness, and thus whiteness with glasses, suspenders and button down shirts. To make the video appealing, however, the makers play on elements of African American, cool culture by using the rap song “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire (note that the dropping of the gerund in the song’s title adheres to standard AAVE). The simultaneous use of the cool elements of hip hop culture and the image of whiteness and nerdiness (used together) make the absurdity of the particular spirit theme more apparent. Though whiteness and hip hop culture  exist together in this video, the absurd dress and behavior exhibited by the students make it clear that these identities do not normally exist in real life.

The readings and my examination of the above aspects of cultural identities brought to mind the question of appropriation. When is it okay to adopt the linguistic behavior closely associated to another group? What does it mean when this occurs? And why is it that it is more acceptable for certain people to take on the linguistic characteristics of another group?

It seems that white students are able to appropriate aspects of African American language and culture to a certain extent without ridicule, black students who take on certain aspects of what is deemed “whiteness” may face some derision. Take for example the hypothetical subject of a teenager in South Central Harlem who speaks AAVE. If he were to take on the speech of the students from the Bucholtz study, his peers and family would likely accuse him of snobbishness among other negative traits. In this community (as in the African American communities presented on television) nerd has a negative connotation whereas it is a positive identity for the students at Bay City High School who try to mark themselves as separate from the general high school population through language.

African American English, however, exists in stark contrast to the language spoken by nerds. It is not associated with high levels of intelligence (as seen in the Labov piece), it is considered cool, and, it is acceptable for those outside the race to take on aspects of this version of English,  just enough to adopt the “cool” aspects of the identity associated with it.

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