The Other "N" Word
This post also appears on the blog Black Girl Nerds.
I don’t utilize that other social media site too often. Between the cumbersome privacy settings, multiple birth and/or divorce announcements and interrogations from family on if I fit into either of those categories, I choose to avoid rather than engage. However, on one of my visits during the holidays, there was one post recently that caught my eye - a cousin recounting her 16 year-old son’s reaction to being on the receiving end of that n-word – Nerd.
According to her, the label comes not from his close friends, but rather a large group of acquaintances who made the assessment based on the following:
He follow the rules;
He enjoys and is very successful in school;
He never talks back to adults;
He never user profanity;
His use of proper English; and,
His musical preferences compared to that of his peers.
Sigh. This sounds all too familiar. High school, how I don’t miss it so.
I’ve always observed the wonderful job she did at raising this well-rounded young man. He’s an attractive kid, excels academically, plays sports, and has his own finely-crafted sartorial sense. She says she’s “teaching him that all the degrees and education in the world don't equal intelligence and intelligence doesn't equal wisdom.” Given her career as a mental health professional, she notes that “I don't think he internalizes any of it because of how he's been raised and his closest friends have his back. He’s more insulated from serious teasing.”
But when her observations take on more of a Mom tone, she says, “But at times, I can see some of the comments getting to him.”
She got words of wisdom and support from friends and other family to pass down to him and ultimately, the discussion ended with the following question: Surely, that labeling and teasing stops -or at least tapers off - after high school, right?
Answer: Hold that thought.
Same holiday break, I posted a photo of the Christmas gifts my husband and I exchanged on Twitter and that other site. For him: t-shirts from the video games Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption. For me: a Doctor Who calendar, a Grand Theft Auto V themed t-shirt. For us: an Xbox One and a few games. Great haul, no? We surely thought so.
Minutes later on the non-Twitter site, there was one lone comment under the photo – Nerds.
Cue the record scratch. Flag on the play.
My first reaction:
Second reaction: Well, Arnold sums it up.
Third reaction: Questioning if I should have posted the pic at all.
I’m a college educated, gainfully employed, married woman in my 30’s with diverse interests. Admittedly, I have a slight Napoleon complex due to my short stature and struggle with a daily battle between my notorious sweet tooth and stubborn toddler belly. Overall, I’d say I’m pretty confident with (most aspects of) my life. When conversing with my fellow Blerd/Nerd/Geek community, the word has no sting. It’s the common denominator that unites us.
But the source of that comment was not a part of that community. And given that the comment was made outside of that community, it took me back to a place I normally don’t like to go. That place where my cousin recently found himself - back to the days of old where being labeled the ‘nerd’ was the kiss of death. It was the ultimate insult one could hurl your way (aside from THAT other N-word) that could inflict just the right amount of distress, discomfort and panic and cause you to question everything you enjoy, support and believe in.
I was the kid in elementary school who took equal pleasure from Baby-Sitter Club and Sweet Valley High books and playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out on my NES with my Power Glove. I enjoyed going to video game competitions and giggly sleepovers with my friends. Opening the box of the new Barbie doll brought me just as much glee as cracking open the plastic of a new video game.
In middle school, music became one of my differentiators. When my classmates gravitated toward Kris Kross, NWA and 2 Live Crew, I craved Technotronic, Bjork, Bootsy Collins, and because we were in Puerto Rico, the trinity of Salsa, Merengue and Reggaeton. Of course that made me a nerd. I mean, why would I dare listen to something that my classmates weren’t familiar with? Why didn’t I just fall in line with everyone else?
In high school, I experienced my first true culture shock and brushes with racism after moving from the Caribbean to rural Georgia – courtesy of the United States Army. There, my nerdiness (academic prowess and music interests in particular) was a “problem” compounded by my blackness. I had my core group of friends (hooray for the band geeks!), but was far from popular and generally self-conscious, as I knew I was just different: not black enough for some, and just plain black to others.
But I digress. Why did that one word from a friend sting and then proceed to stick with me for a few days after? Her endless supply of snark and bluntness are a few of the reasons why we hit it off and are friends. I processed it through my usual “Is it me?!” filter to assess if I was being sensitive – I determined I was not. And I know considering the source this response shouldn’t have bothered me - but it did. I mean after all – a comment on Facebook getting under my skin when there are social and judicial injustices raining down like a biblical plague in America on a nearly weekly basis.
But after marinating on it for a while, I came up with the answer.
After years of schooling, working in multiple professional environments and general life experiences, I would like to think our vocabularies have expanded to the point where one can opine, comment, discuss and insult with more refined words and not the schoolyard standards “nerd”, “geek”, “dork”, “stupid” and the like. In school, such words are generally used to make those on the receiving end feel like outsiders, but those who dish them out are usually the outsiders themselves.
My friend’s comment came from a place of unfamiliarity with any of the subject matter – so rather than inquire or investigate, they responded with something that dismissive in nature. A response that as kids and adults is wholly unnecessary and ultimately immature.
I also think that that we hold close friends to a higher standard and expect them to be supportive or enthusiastic about our interests. Although we put things out on these social media platforms (and should have absolutely NO hint of surprise or shock with any resulting comments or responses), friends generally refrain from pissing on them providing sophomoric or snarky commentary like we’re back in school. Shoot, that’s what family is for.
I don’t want this to sound like a rant a lá “WAAAAAHHHH, a friend left a mean comment on my Facebook picture.” No, I’m not overly sensitive, I can take a joke and dish out way more than my fair share. It’s that word. It may have been totally unintentional on her part, but that word has a certain bite, can yield the power of many atomic bombs and bring back some nasty memories that can only be fixed with time or a brief review of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”.
The holidays kept me too busy to dish out any side-eye as a response, but really, I’d like to thank them – for reaffirming that yes, I am a nerd. Let’s go a step further. I’m a rare breed of nerd – a black girl nerd. To the mainstream, that’s like a unicorn or some other mythical creature. I own my nerdiness, accept it and will no longer apologize or be shamed for it. I was lucky enough to marry someone who appreciates my nerdiness and really doesn’t acknowledge it as such. It’s just who I am. He got a nerd who still gets excited by cracking the plastic on a new video game, who has a music library that cannot be contained on any one hard drive and who coordinates all our socializing around Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and Walking Dead broadcasts. I may curse a liiiiitle bit too much when gaming, but it’s just an indication of my passion. (Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll go with that.)
To my cousin, if being respectful, intelligent, well-dressed, and possessing diverse musical interests are the markings of a nerd, then wear your markings with pride. They will serve you well in the future.
To the ten year-old girl who competed in the Nintendo Power gaming competition AND beat the boys in four rounds of competition – so what if someone called you a nerd for it? You’re a badass for competing in such an event and your mother was equally badass for encouraging you to go. To that awkward, introverted middle school girl who loved Mortal Kombat, writing screenplays and didn’t care for kissing and/or chasing boys (unless they gamed too) - so what if someone called you a nerd for it? Your diverse interests are the result of being raised by parents who encouraged you to be worldly and open-minded. Anyone who criticized that clearly lacked something in their miserable, pre-pubescent lives.
To the high school kid that wrote a paper on Björk’s music for Humanities class (yep, true story) – who cares if your classmates called you a nerd for doing so? Your teacher acknowledged that A+ paper as the catalyst for him checking out her music – and he later became a big fan.
To the college girl and aspiring adult who felt as if finding ‘nerdy’ kindred spirits was an impossible task and tried to change in order to fit in with the status quo- Stop. Don’t do it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You just need to be a little patient. Okay, a lot patient, But you will find your place and you will find your nerd kin. Changing who you are will only make you miserable until then.
To all those girls, boys, men, women, anyone who needs to hear it: Let people call you a nerd. Hell, I’ll do it too. You are a nerd. But in case you haven’t noticed, the world is run by nerds, blerds, geeks and the like. We’ve organized, multiplied and mobilized. We’re a brand, a movement and a force to be reckoned with. Being a nerd is the ultimate compliment and rest assured - you are in and will always be in great company.