Don’t call it a comeback. Black nerds have been a part of popular culture long before being awkward was cool. But, only recently has this archetype crossed over to a level of mainstream success rivaling its more conventionally cool counterparts. Take actor-comedian-rapper Donald Glover, for instance, a self-proclaimed Black nerd who has publicly expressed a love for many things—particularly things most non-Black people love. To say that Glover straddles two worlds would be not only be an understatement but also inaccurate, considering that his personal taste, his audiences, his fans, and his various projects stem from very contradictory environments that all at once overlap, clash, and—interestingly enough—harmonize. His widely read list of ten favorite nerd things includes all things Pixar, anything Jim Henson, The Smiths, and Back to the Future.
From his fan-boy jock character Troy on "Community" to his emo-suburbia rap alter-ego Childish Gambino, Glover clearly illustrates the gradual social acceptance of a group historically ostracized and alienated by Black and White communities alike.
Black braniacs and Black hipsters have claimed their time in the spotlight. In addition to countering the historically-held notion of a homogenous Black community, these nonconventional individuals have provided roles to Black talent in television and film, sometimes casting Black actors and actresses in roles originally written as white. Plus, the resurgence of these types in popular culture has led to several meaty articles and blog posts written on the blipster—all of which feature nuanced explorations of Black identity, culture, class, and education. We have both President Barack Obama and contemporary Black geeks like Glover, "30 Rock’s" Toofer, "Scrub’s"" Turk, and Awkward Black Girl’s" creator Issa Rae to thank for demonstrating alternative ways in which racial “otherness” can be addressed—aside from reactionary responses. They too challenge racial stereotypes, if not directly then subconsciously, in a much more palatable way than their Black Power and Afrocentric predecessors; however, given that their influences, upbringing, and interests often mirror those of White people least likely to confront, nonetheless admit, any racist or discriminatory tendencies.
Perhaps more credibility would be given to Black nerds and their awkwardly-tactless, and subsequently humorous outlook on society if the ratio of Black nerd to cast were larger than one to many. Despite being a popular type of best friend in movies and television alike, Black nerds are almost always the token Black. That’s not to say that all Black characters should be focused on matters of race, because not all Black people nevertheless nerds have race on the brain. In fact, some of the best geeks such as "Skin’s" (UK) Jal or "Degrassi’s" Liberty Van Zandt, rarely, if ever, brought up race, but still faced assumptions and alienation from both White and Black groups—an isolation mainly reserved for Black nerds.
As wonderfully diverse and refreshing as it is to have acceptance given to a type originally marginalized by the several cultural and racial communities responsible for shaping its identity—this mainstreaming should certainly raise some concern—given that the commodification of Black archetypes usually results in some type of hazardous soul-sucking. Black geeks have even managed to infiltrate one of the most heavily reinforced social fortresses of them all—mostly thanks to a drastically increased inclusion and representation of the middle-Black class through rappers like Drake, Kanye West and Wale. Still, this close connection with the hip hop community also poses a problem for the exploitation of this type.
At the same time, seeing as how the Black nerd is by nature a countertype for the many Black stereotypes out there, including the gang banger, the Jezebel, or the Brute, stereotyping this character is almost impossible, or rather, ineffective. So, maybe the solution to this commodification would be casting a show or film full of awkward Black folk (think New Girl-esque series) or centering a project around an awkward Black lead. Or perhaps, a simple push for those awesome Black nerds whom like Glover are already on the cusp of breaking it big. Because while Black nerds may seem like anomalies, they’re actually adding more dimension to a culture mainly painted either black or white.
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Patrice Peck is a writer and journalist whose work explores the intersection of race, culture, and identity. Her work lives at www.patricepeck.com.