Saturday, July 28, 2007

White and nerdy?

Is nerdiness just an extreme form of whiteness? In the Times magazine, Benjamin Nugent cites a study by Mary Bucholtz which shows that nerds in the U.S. are merely high-schoolers who refuse to adopt African-American culture. Jo reminded me of the Weird Al song, "White and Nerdy," which suggests there may be something to this. And it's fair to say that European teenagers, even the ones who are coolest back home, tend to look geeky by American high school standards, if fashionable by SoHo or NoLIta ones.

However, having studied nerds (or as Gawker would put it, The Nerds) for eight years, I'm going to have to disagree. The two ethnic groups most associated with nerdery in America are (East) Asians and (Ashkenazi) Jews. Not black, but not white, either. From the little I've learned of American high schools that are not largely Jewish and Asian, the students mocked as nerds sound more stereotypically Jewish or Asian (socially awkward, good at math and/or music, short and/or skinny, etc.) than stereotypically white, regardless of their ethnicity. Nugent's article mentions neither Asians nor Jews, which cannot be because of a politically-correct fear of mentioning race, in that the article is all about race.

If you're going to ascribe an ethnic quality to nerdiness, you might as well be precise. Want to see hyperwhite? Take a look at this. The region of America I'm from, the Northeast, has at least one thriving Caucasian-American culture that's not at all nerdy, and that has not, to say the least, embraced African-American style. Socialites, 'it-girls,' and country-club tennis champs, along with their i-banking, pink-shirted husbands, possess an aesthetic that sells. And not because its consumers are assumed to use Latinate words.

6 comments:

pc said...

IMHO you should read Bucholtz's paper before lodging your disagreement so strongly - the NYT article doesn't give it the complexity or context it deserves. Her study is (was? the paper the NYT mentioned was 2001) based on ethnographic research in a California high school, where the racial climate of the school was implicated in nerdiness being associated with whiteness (though it's more complicated than that, hence her use of the term "hyperwhite"). She's not claiming to be dissecting "nerd" for all of the United States (which, btw, you should be careful about doing as well. A broad unequivocal claim like "The two ethnic groups most associated with nerdery in America are (East) Asians and (Ashkenazi) Jews" is pretty easy to refute and pretty hard to prove.).

Phoebe said...

If it's easy to refute, refute away. By way of proof, there's the fact that unless they bring in 'character,' athletics, or affirmative action (i.e. qualities other than high-school nerdery) to their admissions criteria, selective colleges tend to find themselves with 'too many' Asians and Jews, thus 'overrepresented minorites.'

pc said...

So are you saying that "nerd" is just equivalent to "high academic achiever"? Because I don't think that's ALL that most people consider a "nerd" to be. It's not what I consider a "nerd" to be, anyway; to me nerds are mostly white kids with glasses (and grownup hipsters with glasses), but they're not necessarily academic high-achievers. But again - it's a term (like all social terms) that means different things to different people in different places, which is why you can't just say that "Nerds are smart" or "Nerds are white" or "In america, nerds are Jewish and Asian." It's not easily equated with any of those things; it's probably not even quantifiable.

I don't really know what you mean by "character," but I'm pretty sure that minorities being less well-represented in (successful) college admissions is largely because of structural socioeconomic issues, not (non-)nerdery. At any rate, the point was that Bucholtz's claims are about one high school where, btw, the social categories "Asian" or "Jew" weren't salient amongst nerds; "White" and "Black" were, on the other hand.

Anonymous said...

The two ethnic groups most associated with nerdery in America are (East) Asians and (Ashkenazi) Jews.

What about our South Asian brothers-and-sisters-in-nerdiness?

Anonymous said...

The two ethnic groups most associated with nerdery in America are (East) Asians and (Ashkenazi) Jews.

What about our South Asian brothers-and-sisters-in-nerdiness?

Phoebe said...

I think most-associated with nerdiness is pretty specific. Remember, I also slighted the Sephardic Jews.