Every morning starts the same: turn on and tune in. Check email, check Facebook, check Twitter, and check Tumblr. Keep each social network in its own tab to make sure to check in periodically. Keep the world at the fingertips while simultaneously keeping it at bay.
I share this common experience with many blerds, black nerds (and geeks), particularly those of us who tend to be introverted and not much for real-life social interaction. We’re much different from popular perceptions of the blerd. Twenty years ago, the very epitome of the black nerd was Family Matters’ Steve Urkel. Before that, it was Lamar Latrell of Revenge of the Nerds. Now the images are still usually males like Donald Glover and Baratunde Thurston.
Black nerd. Black geek. On the one hand, we’re not supposed to exist since black and nerd identities are supposed to be mutually exclusive. On the other, we sometimes pretend not to. Interestingly, blerds appear to be getting so much attention now because of mainstream visibility with celebrities like Kanye West, which not only not only brings questions of blackness and geek identity but also questions of authenticity in the geek community. Now we celebrate prominent blerds like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Aisha Tyler who represent a range of nerdy interests from science and technology to popular culture and video games. Ironically, as social networking became more popular after the new millennium, a movement among black geeks and nerds began to coalesce in cyberspace. Black geeks and nerds made a comforting discovery. We are not alone.
Breaking Out of the Shell
One important connection I’ve made is Black Girl Nerds blogger Jamie Broadnax. I don’t remember when or how I first came across Jamie’s blog, but something about her writing resonated with me. Over the past few months, I’ve connected with her and even contributed to the blog. Looking at this conversation we have about blerd identity, it’s obvious to me why we connected. Her thoughts on black nerds echo mine: “It wasn’t until I signed on to Twitter that I started to connect with other blerds and geeks. Twitter is honestly the best place to meet other black nerds in my opinion.”
Like me, Jamie is an introvert. This comes as a surprise to me when looking at her Twitter profile and tweets in which she appears very outgoing and socially comfortable. In just a matter of months, Black Girl Nerds has amassed more than 8,000 followers and become one of the (if not the) reasons the TV show Scandal — starring fellow blerd girl Kerry Washington — trends nationwide on Twitter every Thursday night.
Unlike me, Jamie quickly learned to navigate the social media that connects black nerds and geeks. Her blog has even evolved into a weekly podcast that debuted in March 2013. She told me, “Social media is a beautiful thing when it comes to connecting to subcultural communities.” I would agree even though my numbers don’t come close to comparing to hers, but I can’t deny that the connections I have made have been valuable in helping me keep up with my own nerdy passions and finding others who understand how it feels to be a black (and female) geek.
Taking the Blue Pill
I was a grad student in my late twenties, probably around 2005 or 2006, when I decided I was a geek (my preferred label) and proud of it, shaking off the embarrassment I felt when taunted as a nerd throughout most of my young life that left me socially isolated. Finding other black geeks and nerds online ironically showed me that we all thought we were alone, but I was already in my thirties by the time I discovered there were growing black nerd communities in cyberspace in 2011. Jamie told me of a similar experience: “I went through a period of my life when I wore a social mask and tried to be someone I wasn’t just to satisfy others or to make friends. I was very unhappy and I always felt like I was being phony. It wasn’t until I hit my thirties and lived a life of solitude and came to terms with my true identity.”
While being an introvert or solitude is not a necessary part of what many people would define as nerdy, blerds like me and Jamie have found that that solitude occurs because it is sometimes difficult to find others who share our passions as well as others who will not ridicule us for them, especially as black nerds. In my experience as someone coming from a Southern small town existence, pursuing the things that made me happy was not always possible. Comic book stores were not down the street and midnight film showings were not commonplace.
However, having an Internet connection helps me to keep closer the things that mean so much. These opportunities had not always been available to me even when the Internet was introduced into our grade schools in the late 90s and even as I had to depend upon public computers throughout my college years. Even with Internet access, I may have connected to the things I loved but not with the people who loved them as much as me. This has been social media’s blessing.
These days, my nerdiness is a source of pride. Any black geek or nerd knows that owning that part of our identity can be a truly liberating experience. It occurs on my Twitter timeline quite often from fellow blerds and geeks relieved to finally find their peers. Social media users may skew toward the younger 18-29 crowd, but those of us who embraced geek identity before it was cool have finally found ourselves with social media.
Social media helped me find different blerd experiences. Some blerds actually did have a sense of community in their younger years before finding community online. Henry Wiggins, also known as the Geek Soul Brother from the website and podcast of the same name, shared with me his experiences and tells me that he always had what he calls “core nerd friends which gave me social support where I didn’t care if others accepted me fully.” Yet there were “awkward moments when I talked about pulsars and quartz lasers.” However, Henry mostly felt comfortable with his geek identity thanks to a cadre of close nerdy friends such as those in high school including football players who played Dungeons and Dragons.
Henry may have also had an easier time dealing with nerd identity because he determined it at a younger age around 11, but many of his classmates did not share his passion for interests such as science and space. I agree with him that the difference now is that sites such as Black Science Fiction Society and Black Sci-Fi exist. He tells me, “I always thought there was a need for a community of black people that liked science fiction and comic heroes to collect and network.” He discovered as much when he began using Twitter and connecting with other blerds: “People of color were glad to have found like-minded and ‘like-skinned’ blerds they could interact with.”
The Mobile Connection
While thinking about why so many blerds and black geeks have found each other, I began to wonder how the constant evolution of technology contributed to this. During my stint as a graduate student in communication studies, I would sometimes come across a concept called the digital divide, which shows that communities of color often lag in adopting new technology. I had access to computers and the Internet throughout school but never had my own computer until 2001 when I entered grad school. I had a dial-up connection for years even though high-speed Internet had been around and was quickly replacing slower-speed connections.
Even now, I have not adopted most of the mobile technology that is practically ubiquitous. I’m still on the other side of the digital divide, which sometimes makes it difficult to indulge in my geek life. This means that I’m the one behind the times as I have usually been throughout my life, but others are taking full advantage of what mobile technology has to offer.
I found a widely cited 2012 study from the Pew Research Center circulating through the blogosphere over the past few months, due to the assertion that Twitter is mostly appealing to African Americans, urban dwellers and young adults aged 18-29, the same demographics more likely to use Instagram. Of all African-American Internet users, 68% use social networking sites; 26% use Twitter, the most of other racial demographics. A Pew study from 2010 also found that 87% of African Americans own mobile phones; 33% of these mobile phone owners use smartphones. With smartphones and other mobile devices so heavily penetrating the black community, it comes as no surprise to me that more are using these devices to connect to social media. Jamie even mentions that she uses her “fancy schmancy Android phone with all the bells and whistles” to connect to the Internet about 60% of the time.
I thought about the Quartz news story that shows smartphones are closing the digital divide with almost 54% of black users saying they use their phones to connect to cyberspace. Many blerds who create social media have been aware of this for years as they make podcasts like Nerdgasm Noire Network, Geek Soul Brother and 5 Nerdy Venoms, Black Girl Nerds, The Black Geeks and Operation Cubicle available on iTunes and Stitcher radio and keep social media presences on multiple platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest that are all mobile device friendly. Yet even without a mobile device, I feel like I’m listening to friends with podcasts such as these. “Five Geeks. Five opinions. One podcast. Nerdgasm Noire Network. Where we do nerd shit.” How I’ve come to love that intro. Podcasts take the place of the office banter I don’t get while working from home. Blerd voices like these give me oxygen even though I can’t yet take them on the go.
Taking the Red Pill
“Twenty years ago, you might have to travel far and wide to find a group of black nerds that meet together,” Henry explains to me. “You have this incredible support system right at your fingertips that can help you get to where you’re going, or be who you feel comfortable being.” Jamie agrees: “[Social media is] a virtual community that redefines how people connect with others.” Like me, other blerds connecting online feel they’ve finally found a safe space to acknowledge who they are. Jamie mentions she’s glad to be living in a time when it’s okay to be yourself. Henry even finds these spaces help prevent bullying. Personally, I’m relieved to have a space with those “like-skinned” nerds where I can safely explore my interests.
Even five years ago, I would have never thought social networks would become such an essential part of my existence. Twenty years ago, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there were others like me because I never saw them. Now, through blerd communities online, I have a way to connect with those who once had the same experiences I had shaking the shadows of Urkel and Latrell. The blerds have united. We know who we are. And now we know where we are.