Steve Urkel Glasses, Suspenders & Social Awkwardness: What Makes Someone A Nerd?

February 15, 2013  |  


The term nerd has evolved materially over an extended period of time.  It has somehow cultivated into so many meanings, that it has become one of those elusive terms that makes it somewhat difficult to define.  The TBS reality show “King of the Nerds,”  is an example of yet another reality TV show exploiting stereotypes that are not all encompassing of what a large majority of nerds are.  The show depicts the archetypal nerd.  On “King of the Nerds,” some of the contestants include the neuroscientist, the NASA engineer, the mathematician, and the geophysicist.   There are also the comic book nerds, video gamers, and a guy who describes himself as a “professional hacker” (scary).  In any event, albeit these contestants represent a myriad of personalities and talents, I believe that being a nerd is far more than a high degree of intelligence.
Think about every movie or TV show you have watched that depicted nerds.  Usually they are socially awkward, extremely intelligent and have an obsession with a specific (usually non-social) activity.  I think being a nerd has a lot more to do with what you do for a living, how many degrees you hold and how many dates you’ve been on in the past few years.  I would like to give credit to a commenter on my Facebook page for Black Girl Nerds who so beautifully articulated this statement and I quote:

“To me a nerd has many underlying definitions; nerds are people who go against social norms, out of the box thinkers, knowledge seekers. Black nerds are all those things but also open minded and embrace black and non-black culture. Other blacks consider us Nerds because we exhibit those things which they themselves do not value. I love this new found appreciation for Nerds. It’s cool to be yourself; it’s cool to be artistic, intelligent, knowledgeable, and well spoken. A lot of people feel like Nerd is the new cool, but I have always thought it was “hip to be square.”Mustbe TheLibrarian Harris
The definition of a nerd is exactly what was stated above.  This permeates in all communities not just African Americans.  However, it is especially important for us as black people to not adhere to stereotypes of the past (and present) that paint a broad brush over the definition of what a nerd is.
An obsession of non-social activities however does not always make one a nerd.  One can be well-versed in a sport, a political pundit, a manager of a team, or any other number of social activities and still be considered nerdy or geeky.  A nerd also does not have to be fashionably-challenged.  I know several fashion geeks who are trendy and ‘hipster’ in their fashion-forward looks, but still consider that they are, in fact, nerdy.  The point to clarify here is that nerdiness is not a monolith.  We cannot be placed inside of a box with a label slapped on the outside of it in a plain package.  We are innovators, designers, creators, executives, leaders, thinkers, and masters in our crafts.  We don’t understand the terms conformity, standard, and status quo.  We refuse to be in compliance with what everyone else is doing and what is considered to be “cool.”  You will more than likely see us sitting in a library alone reading an Octavia Butler novel or creating code on a computer because these are activities we relish in and enjoy.  We don’t know how to be like everyone else, we just live our best life the way we know how.  Therefore, what makes someone a nerd is someone who understands their own identity and is willing to step outside of the conventional box.
How does this relate to Black men and women?  We have heard of the portmanteau term “Blerd” which has become quite controversial within the last few years.  There are the hopelessly optimistic people like me, who think it is an empowering word that strengthens black nerds and helps to facilitate more positive imagery into our community.  Then there are those who will always choose to be critical of anything outside of conventional thinking and will use words like “divisive” and “exclusive.” There are critics who believe that the term separates black nerds from “regular nerds” and therefore we are somehow different from nerds in general.   Close your eyes and think of an image of your typical nerd.  I mean it.  Think of your stereotypical nerd that you have seen in every movie, photographed in every magazine, and described in every book.  What image do you see?  Is your nerd black?  Chances are your image of a nerd is an undeveloped white man or boy, in outdated clothing and unfashionable glasses.
I want you to try another experiment.  Go to Google images and type the term “Nerd.”  You may see a small sprinkle of us in there, but not that much.  In fact, the only reason you may see a sprinkle of black folks in those images is because of the Blerd conversation that has taken place among media types like Eric Deggans and other online publications that have brought this new term out publicly.   I will personally share with you that when I started the blog Black Girl Nerds, and googled the term ‘Black Girl Nerds’ nothing came up in Google.  The terms “Black Nerd”, “Black Girl”, and “Girl Nerd” came up yes, but the words Black, Girl, and Nerd in the same sentence was nowhere to be found.   After some digging (and I mean an extensive night of Google searching) a few blogs and articles written with those terms came up.  I thought it was ridiculous and quite surprising that there was little to no content in cyberspace that spoke to women of my ilk.  It was that very night that the BGN blog was born.

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  • Great post Jamie! So proud of you!

  • Love the article–and totally relate! It’s really insane to think that any group of people has to have monolithic tastes–and if you don’t, somehow you’re not down enough. Glad MN published it!

  • Kahekili

    nerd |nərd|noun informal

    a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious

  • adanie12

    Different types of nerds. Me myself I’m a black 27 year old female, but I’m a universal nerd. Some people who really aren’t into that world think it only means, books or being smart, but it’s way than than. You have gamers, tech nerds, bro-nies (My Little Pony Bros), comic book nerds, tech nerds, action figure nerds, dugeon and dragon nerds, pokemon nerds, Scott Pilgrim nerds, Napoleon Dynamite nerds, Superbad nerds, Comic-Con nerds, Anime nerds, Cos-play nerds, Star Wars nerds, Harry Potter nerds, etc. Most black people, (sorry to say), don’t even understand or can begin to understad the Unviersal Nerdom, (yes it’s made up). We are somewhat represented on Youtube by, The Black Nerd, Wilson Tech 1 and Andre from Black Nerd Rants, along with others; but for the MOST part, blacks are known for “rap” and “hiphop” or “swag” whatever. If youre like me and your black and into ALL of these things, you typically have to hide it from family, friends and roommates out of embarrassment. I find myself always afraid to allow my roommate to use my laptop in fear she’ll think I’m freak watching PSIII game reivews, walkthroughs or fat white guys playing World of Warcraft. I find myself befriending more white than black people, because our race is notorious for freaking out over anything “weird or different.”

    • mac

      I’m sorry I have to call this how I see it. It sounds like it’s you who has a problem with your race, and a chip on your shoulder just from how you spoke of Black people in this post. As if we’re not intellectually up to par in order to understand “real nerds”. Please. Sounds like a bunch of overcompensation to me.
      And on another note, no one can make you feel ashamed for what you like, you ALLOW yourself to feel ashamed.
      For example, I love EDM (better known as techno to other people), and baseball, two things which are nonexistent in the black community. And I’ve never been shy or ashamed about it, regardless of the side eyes or snide comments. What for? I don’t relate what I’m allowed to like to my race. Neither should you or anyone.

  • FromUR2UB

    I’ve always thought of nerds as people with nearly one-tracked interests, or pursuing several interests with obsession.

  • Taj

    I always found the word “nerd” to be a subjective term and one that I have taken slight issue with in terms of a person being an individual or their own person.

    “Black nerds sometimes feel threatened to stay in the closet for fear they will be labeled white by their black peers”

    That is the problem. Since when did seeking in any subject matter become an antithesis to one’s blackness? However, whenever someone makes the case that someone isn’t “acting” black, it seems that “acting” black is associated with ignorance.

    My background is in Engineering. However, I am a political junkie and have read books on managing one’s finances, green homes, and sustainable housing. Whenever I find the time, I hope to find the time to read some books on African Philosophy and take some carpentry as well as plumbing vocational courses. Although I would hire professionals, I would like to self-sufficient in repairing small jobs and at least knowledgeable in knowing that I am not being ripped off by such workers or subcontractors.

    To some, that may constitute being a nerd. However, for me, is about me reaching my potential as a person. Yes, I do fun activities such as listening to R&B music. However, I don’t see why I shouldn’t invest the same amount of energy in learning how to manag

    • Taj

      I was cut off. . . .However, I don’t see why I shouldn’t invest the same amount of energy in learning how to manage other areas of my life that I have in regards to my career.

  • mac

    hipsters have bastardized the title “nerd”. Everyone wants to be a nerd just to be considered “different” and counter culture, but ironically they end up being the same.

    I semi consider myself a nerd mainly because I’m a huge knowledge seeker. I like to know things. One time I found myself reading up on gov’t legislation at 2am just out of my own curiosity. I love debating and having mentally stimulating convos.

    And I prefer a man with a large vocab over a man with a large—–never mind.

  • IllyPhilly

    Am I the only one who went to a school where you did not know the nerds, jocks, etc?

  • Keep talking about it, new nerds are born everyday and need representation. Just YOU have heard something does NOT mean that no one else needs to hear it.

  • damn MN! you are QUITE a few years late on this one….articles have been written about black nerds as far back as 2002. also….true black nerds dont seek out the title for sake of it being “the new cool”….fyi black nerds have been around since the dawn of man. 2 of our most famous black nerds to date george washington carver and neil degrasse tyson.

  • T

    This article is garbage. A nerd is a nerd. Why do we always have to be the “black “? so irritating.

  • Another article

  • Lili

    Love this article! It feels good to know I am not alone in my “black girl nerdiness.” 🙂