I recently relistened to an excellent discussion on the Black Girl Nerds podcast addressing the whole “fake nerd” phenomenon and what it really means to be a nerd (or geek). I thought great points were made and there was a real honest look at why it is important to not be judgmental on those who call themselves nerds while still trying to preserve what makes us who we are. I also thought one panelist (I’m sorry I forget who she was) gave a rather good definition of who is a nerd: someone who follows a passion.
I happen to like this definition because I do believe that is essential to nerdiness however it is seen. However, it made me think of my own experience and what it means to me to a nerd, especially a black one. I know in my younger years, nerd is definitely a label I eschewed and rejected mostly because it was meant to insult me by saying I was not black. In my adult years, this was not the label I reclaimed but rather went with geek as I felt this word was more to do with a lifestyle than an image.
Still, as nerdiness became more mainstream, I still found myself questioning my place in its culture and emergence not because of my blackness but because of my finances. One of the problems with policing nerdiness is this insistence that nerds be well versed in certain types of passions and the comic book seems to be the epitome of this requirement. For instance, think about how some look down upon others who enjoy film versions of comic book adaptations but are not familiar with the comics.
I have to admit I have never been an avid collector of comic books or graphic novels at any stage of my life. I also have nothing against either of them. In fact, I would love to find a comic book series and watch it progress throughout its run. However, all throughout my life, one thing has kept me from getting in to comic books: access. Where I am from, there was not a comic book store down the street from my home like there is now. Also, many comic books series with which I am familiar have been around for decades. I would not want to get into a series in the middle and miss out on the beginning and who has the time and money to catch up on every single incarnation of Spiderman from the beginning?
While I was considered a nerd because of my academic status and other social signs, I never considered the things I enjoyed to be signs of nerdiness. I used to read Choose Your Own Adventure books and I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown when I was into that book series. However, I remember the afternoons I spent watching the entire original Star Wars trilogy while I was in junior high to be more of a function of my isolation and my wanting to escape from the existence around me.
I never heard of Dungeons & Dragons while it was all the rage with nerds during the 80s. Perhaps I should not feel badly about this because I was a child at the time, but I still sometimes worry that this lack of knowledge somehow invalidates my own nerdiness. But growing up in a small city in Tennessee did not leave me too many options in dealing with people who may have known or had access to this role-playing game. I struggle with telling myself that it is not my fault and does not mean anything to my identity because I did not have access to something so essential to whom I am supposed to be.
I’ve only recently begun to realize that I have had a love of science fiction, fantasy and adventure since my childhood. My favorite films (besides Star Wars) were films like The Explorers and The Neverending Story. I have gotten into television version of The Walking Dead but have never seen the graphic novels. I still look forward to summer blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit and have even gotten into shows like Game of Thrones but have to reconcile the fact that I am not familiar with the source material. According to many, this would make me less of a “nerd” because a true nerd would know Tolkien and Martin inside and out.
Despite my love for these things, I cannot lay claim to them because they are simply not in the budget. I now live right now the street from a comic book store, but that little extra is not feasible at the time, especially since many books and graphic novels are serialized, so I would want to continue exploring my favorites. I have been a book lover all my life, but I do not read them at the rate I would like these days because work is necessary and unfortunately, I do not have the type of job that would allow me to relax after a day of work and indulge in my passions (including writing) each and every day.
What happens to those of us who have either been labeled by others as or as self-proclaimed nerds when nerdiness is not in the budget? In my case, I write my own stories and try to keep up even if I feel like an outsider looking in. I tell myself that sooner rather than later I will be able to indulge in my passions more often and live in my nerdiness the way I see fit. I also find lots of free stuff thanks to the Internet and in many cases discover some really cool writers and other artists who are still trying to make names for themselves. I tell myself that there is nothing wrong with me not knowing the more popular things because they come at a higher cost than I can pay right now.
Blackness is always doubted when it comes to nerdiness, but the intersection of class (and gender) also complicates this a bit more. I can understand how those of us who grew up struggling with nerd and/or geek identity being a bit protective about everyone now calling themselves nerds just because it is cool, but it is also important to remember that not everyone has the same opportunities to follow their passions and may not have knowledge as extensive in subjects in which they actually love just because it is unavailable. Not everyone can cosplay and not everyone will make it to Comic Con even once in their lives. This does not mean that they are any less of a nerd or geek than anyone else.
Part of the reason for my reclaiming the label geek is because I have been able to connect with other black nerds and geeks via social media. Even as I sit alone in my apartment, I am no longer as isolated as I once was. I still feel a bit the outsider looking in because I wait until second run films in order to see them, but I still enjoy discussions of films, books and other media. I may be a day late and a dollar short, but I have to make sure that does not make me doubt my identity in any way.