There's a NY Times article about race and nerds. I haven't read it yet. But I've read two blog entries directly responding to the article. One at Sepia Mutiny and one at Rachel's Tavern.
Rachel reads nerdiness against whiteness. Examining the question of whether acting nerdy for people of color is acting white. And concludes, at least in the case of black nerds, Urkel you are clearly alive and well in the cultural imaginary, that it is not the same thing. There's something else other than whiteness that is not cool about nerds.
Ennis at Sepia Mutiny (who I like a lot a lot) raises another interesting point, that dovetails rather neatly with what Rachel is talking about. In a discussion of race and nerdiness, Asians have to be front and center, in my opinion by necessity, we're located right at the confluence of both things. Ennis's point is a good one, I think.
Growing up in New York City, we had nerds of all colors, sizes, shapes and flavors, but the median nerd was probably an immigrant kid of some sort. It didn’t matter where your parents came from, just that they weren’t born here and that you yourself may have emigrated as a kid.
Since I went to a geek high school, I grew up with Eastern European nerds, tons and tons of east Asian nerds, and yes, brown nerds. And it wasn’t about people definingthemselves against blackness — African nerds with their white short-sleeve shirts, slacks and ramrod straight posture were just as nerdy as an IITian or MITian around. [Which is precisely why “blackness” gets tricky when talking about immigrants - are you going to call African immigrants Oreos just because they don’t fit stereotypes of “black Americans”?]
As a matter of fact, I would go as far as to argue that brown nerds aren’t hyperwhite but ultrabrown. They weren’t trying to emulate the squarer parts of American culture, in fact they were uberdesi . They wore polyester short-sleeve shirts, coke bottle glasses, were very earnest and spoke grammatical english. And yes, before somebody brings up the distinction, they were not just geeks but pukka nerds.
However, brown nerds (and immigrant nerds in general) fall outside of the black-white dichotomy that Bucholtz sees at the heart of nerdiness. They’re not trying to “deny themselves the aura of normality that is usually one of the perks of being white,” they’re simply not white. Sure, that means that they don’t acquire the popular culture markers of being cool, many of which have to do with African-American culture, but that didn’t make them any closer to white culture either.
The overlap between FOB and nerd is a fascinating one to explore. I'm not convinced that they are the same thing. FOBs and nerds are most certainly both uncool. And there are nerds who are FOBs, however there are nerds who are not FOBs. Conversely there are FOBs who are not nerds. I.e. the Korean guys in puffy vests who smoked too much and stood around together in the hallways of my high school. FOBs perhaps, but nerds definitely not. The conflation of geek and nerd may come from the equation of Americanization and cool and immigrant = not cool. Which is where the term "boater" comes from, overtly Asian and not cool. I would even argue that the term "ghetto"(adj.) functions in a similar way.
However, Ennis makes an excellent point, that Asian nerds, and in particular immigrant nerds do not conform to American culture, as per the findings of this study (apparently.) What this means in my opinion, I'm not sure exactly, I'll have to think more about it.