Saturday, August 04, 2007

Nerds vs. FOBs

So, I made a private resolution to myself, and possibly Magniloquence, that I would link more. And what does the blogoverse reward me with but a splendid confluence of entries. Ahem. Clearly I need to use or lose the SAT words, whatever.

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.


Magniloquence said...

Hmmm. Dean Dad talked about this too.

I think you're right... whiteness isn't a defining part of nerdiness to me (though it is the default state in my head). One of the things I noticed, though, was that for each of the groups you pointed out (except for african americans), they were hyperethnic. Pick a (non-thuggish) stereotype, and your nerds are likely to be there, at least sartorially.

I think that comes from a notion of... hmm... propriety? proper-ness? conformity? I'm not finding exactly the right word here. Taking Dean Dad's point about the differing rates/types of development, I think a part of it is that [a large subset of] nerds aren't quite as socially developed as their peers. And the buttoned up shirt or the fobby bowl cut or desi-brown-pants are all very proper. They're the cultural narrative easily available. That they don't come out right (pants too high waisted, shirt rumpled, hair that looks funny no matter what they do to it) is a measure of the awkwardness with which they're donned.

And to the extent that you have that other subset of nerds who are often-but-not-always more properly talked about as geeks - the ones whose cultural narrative is more ratty jeans and a t-shirt that hasn't been washed in weeks - it's the same thing. It's what's there and available and relatively unmarked.

It is sometimes an act of defiance (okay, I'd say almost all of these are at least sometimes marks of defiance)... identity as defined by Will Not. I Will Not wear jeans. I Will Not look like a thug. I Will Not assimilate. I Will Not be One Of Them.

That aura of Will Not is often (though not always) a reaction to the initial discomfort of Can Not. If you can't fit in, because you weren't born here or the kids don't like you or your grades are too good or your interests are wrong... then you can either give up and accept that you're wrong somehow, or you can redefine yourself in opposition to all that. Which is why nerds often have that arrogance... that sense of 'better than you' - because they're (we're) so far off the norm that the most available alternative is 'not as good as you.'

So you push further into your subgroup and then you're looking down on the poor English majors, or the stupid jocks, or the thugs that are 'making us all look bad.' And you cling to tradition, to whatever group you're automatically included in (proper middle class white boy, unassimilable FOB, arrogant and secure brown immigrant), because that gives you status. You can say 'I held to my core better than you did'... I wear buttoned-down shirts because that's what the men who run the world do; I won't speak English because I didn't forget about my roots; I might not have ever seen my parents' coutry, but I'm a good boy and I dress like a good boy, not like you poor bastards who are dissappointing your mothers and killing our race/country/culture/people/faith.

I think that's different for African American nerds, though. The cultural context there doesn't quite work, because there's no 'home country' to read in. The dominant paradigms (all of the ones that read "proper" anyway) are all white, because this is our country, and they have always been in charge. There aren't (m)any narratives that you can run with that are both read as "traditionally black" (or easily available) and proper/nerdy. You reach for what is easily available ... the white nerd stereotypes ... because we all grew up in the same country. We've got the same cultural capital at our fingertips, but all the good (easy, mobile, etc.) bits got taken.

lovelesscynic said...

A ha! Suddenly the gordian thought becomes rather ungordian. That's one long ass post though.

You make a very interesting point about the difference between black nerds and other nerds of color, well, African American nerds. Ennis of Sepia Mutiny points out rightly I think, that African nerds adhere to the immigrant nerd stereotype.

Properness might explain it though, very interesting.

Magniloquence said...

Hah, yes. I think my comment was longer than your initial post. Sorry 'bout that.

*grins* Okay, no I'm not, but still.

lovelesscynic said...

Hey, I ain't sorry either.