I am a nerd. More to the point, I am a black (male) nerd. I have always been a nerd as my socially awkward personality and above average intellect and emotional intelligence burnished my nerdy bona fides. Growing up nerds were a target for bullies, the favorite for teachers, invisible or peculiar to peers, and “mature for their age” or keeps to themselves for adults. At least that was how I knew of black nerds to be treated as that was how I was treated. However, since the advent of Kanye West (College Dropout era) we have seen black nerd style and personality become mainstream and commercialized.
Donald Glover is a great example of the mainstream nature of black nerds. He began his career as a comedian riffing on black nerdiness, starred in TV shows where his characters were an archetype of the black nerd, and his music is steeped in the nerdy roots of alternative music and psychedelic soul. Particularly early in his career, Kanye adopted a nerdy persona, spoke about unorthodox topics in his music, and even used a cartoon bear as a mascot to channel the rebelliousness he had against society and traditional hip-hop and rap. Other artists like Pharrell Williams, N.E.R.D., Missy Elliott, and Issa Rae have used black nerdiness and their experiences in the mediums. Kanye’s early music was my coming of age soundtrack and Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Loveis a soundtrack of sorts for my young adulthood. These artists and many others have helped to usher in this contemporary mainstream integration of black nerds (one of my favorites is Missy Foreman-Greenwald of the TV show “Big Mouth”); but, has that integration become an avenue of appropriation or appreciation?
In art and media, the black nerd has now become a modern archetype that exudes the perceived indecisiveness, angst, eccentricity, and instability (emotional, professional, and personal) of millennials. Issa Rae’s Issa Dee and Lawrence characters in “Insecure” are prime examples of contemporary black nerd stereotypes — and they are steeped in realness. On commercials and other platforms, visual cues such as artsy, glasses, and beards have been given to black nerds that have gone to our subconsciousness and affect our (and white people’s) perception of black nerds and acceptability. In real life, we have seen bullying rise amongst children of all ages.
Historically, black nerds have been the target of bullies, and one has to wonder what correlation or causation between being a black nerd and its clash with perceived notions of common blackness has on the rising rates of suicide amongst black children under the ages of 18, if any. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for children under 18 in the United States. According to research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, black children are twice as likely to commit suicide as their white counterparts, particularly between the ages of 5 and 12 years old. The Centers for Disease Control reports that an average of one child 12 or younger dying by suicide every five days; and, that pace has increased in recent years. Studies have been unable to find a cultural context for the racial difference in suicide rates, but Dr. Samoon Ahmad, believes that several factors could bet the reason.
“To me, the 5–12 range is more related to developmental issues and the possible lack of a family network, social network and cultural activities.” He also mentioned that, “[And] with the introduction of social media, there is more isolation with children, not as much neighborhood play. Kids are more socially in their own vacuum.”
Maybe it is that vacuum or those developmental issues that is what separates black nerds from everyone else? Regardless, I think one solution to finding better solutions is by formulating and utilizing better qualitative research methods partnered with traditional quantitative data to help eliminate any biases against minorities and to fill the knowledge gaps. Furthermore, we, as a community, should continue to improve our efforts in promoting mental health education and awareness as well as; both, encouraging minorities to seek professional medical help and foster pathways for more minority students to enter mental health professions. We have seen therapy help improve the lives of many of those aforementioned artists and many more in their personal journeys.
My personal journey as a black nerd was mostly uneventful. I was not bullied for being a nerd as much as being overweight. However, being above average smart and liking different things made finding friends (of any race) harder. Also, being a black nerd led to this perpetual limbo of being smart enough where people needed me for homework help, but not cool enough to have a bunch of friends, but also never a complete loner. This was a fine line as if I had the Sword of Damocles over my head. This odd fit always bothered me as it was persistent throughout my entire academic career. But, this also helped my find my real friends and those who truly care about me. And, in adulthood, I realized that those nerdy traits have helped make me an asset and that there was a professional, personal, and emotional role for people who can navigate multiple circles with relative ease and anonymity. This objectivity needed and developed by a black nerd is exactly what is needed by others (and society) when evaluating whether they are appreciating or appropriating black culture.