So, I guess I am a ‘blerd.’ You know, a black nerd. And, I have always been one. In third grade I disassembled my mother’s salad spinner and put it back together again just to see how it worked. And, I had moral quandaries with Barbies because their anatomical form never seemed quite to scale. I wore “Coke” bottle glasses at four years old (called that because they were so incredibly thick). And, I could do my older cousin’s algebra homework by fourth grade. Now back then, this was a bit of an issue for me. I stuck out like a sore thumb for a multitude of reasons. And, although I still did relatively well in social settings, I never quite understood social cues. But, my nerd/geek/smarty status was probably the thing that gave me the most solace. I could steal away for hours reading an X-Men comic. Still, the most rewarding things for me were always academic in nature. I loved math and science. I saw math class as a new conquest everyday. I wanted to solve derivatives, integrals, and factorials into perpetuity. And now, that foundation has done so much more for me than I ever could have thought. So, why don’t more people know about this?
There is an excellent piece up on BB&W by the talented Jamila Akil that talks about the new “Black Nerd Movement.” In it, Akil notes how difficult it can be for developing ‘blerds.’ But, another facet of this very fascinating new trend is the flip side. Young black women who are smart, mathematically inclined, and comfortable with numbers often find great success and support for their academic and career endeavors.
In my case, I grew up in a relatively poor inner-city environment. My single-mother was not a college graduate and had little know-how when it came to navigating the college admissions process. But, from junior high school on, it was several teachers who saw promise in me that shooshed me along to the math and engineering honors courses that neither I nor my mother had any clue existed. When I graduated with my 3.8 GPA and attended a well-known school majoring in engineering, it truly seemed a bit unreal. Because of my minority status, economic background, and academic achievement, several top tier schools were clamoring to pay for my undergraduate education. And that makes sense right? Private institutions benefit from diverse student bodies and accomplished students who have proven they can triumph over personal adversity.
White Math > Black Woman
But, no one ever really tells you how much of a commodity you become once you’ve attained ‘blerd’ status. All of a sudden, interviews become yours to lose, job opportunities seem a lot more attainable, and employers find you an extremely attractive candidate. Upon attaining a degree, it seems that the world becomes your proverbial oyster. But, this is not just a success story. Melissa Harris-Perry, a well known ‘blerd’, political scientist, and host of the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC, has spoken about how quantitative work is “disproportionately” rewarded in academia.
When discussing black women’s contributions to political science methods and research, she notes that “little black girls” who do math are often seen more similarly to well-trained dogs than to real scholars.
“We are unusual and unlikely and no one expects us to be able to do it. And, [math] can at some times be as much a trick as a real tool.”
Akil touches on this in her piece as well. We have all been teased that being smart is equivalent with being “white.” Math and science were, at some point, aligned with “whiteness” and exodus from the black community. So, as Harris-Perry elucidates, black women who like math and science are not necessarily treated as academic equals with their white male counterparts. They, instead, are seen as impressionists and impersonators who can only go through the mathematical motions without full knowledge of its scholarly underpinnings. This gives way to a host of obtuse expectations which are in direct discord with this new movement.
White Math + Black Woman < Social Expectations
So, what does this mean for black women who master and enjoy white math? Well, they often see career gold. Not so much in a monetary sense because black women – and women in general – are still paid less than men in similar fields. But, they tend to garner unequal recognition for their work. This is because, in some ways, these women are seen as transcendent figures who have “overcome” their race and underrepresented status to move beyond normal black accomplishments. For example, remember when Biden said this of the candidate Obama?
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy…I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Biden was a bit off in this statement, but his words reflect the impression many in the mainstream got from Obama in those early campaign days. What makes these nerdy, articulate people so “storybook” is their contradiction with the stereotypical imagery used to describe their social or class group. And ‘blerds’ are a key category experiencing this social change as we speak. While President Obama is likely the most renown ‘blerd,’ he represents a bloc of individuals who have teetered between perceived whiteness and prescribed blackness for some time now. In this vein, black nerds are often seen as the exception to the rule, not an indication that the fundamental rules have changed. Existing stereotypes make it difficult for the ‘blerd’ to be palatable in the grand scheme of things. So, black women who take on this moniker are touted as transcendent rather than as well-adjusted products of ever diversifying social environments.
Socially, black women are still expected to fit into a handful of basic stereotypes. But, nerd is not one of them. And, as more and more black women seek to define themselves, ‘blerds’ will continue to make waves.
White Math + Black Woman = Career Gold?
So, where does the career gold come in? Well, imagine that you are the only person in the room who happens to be from some foreign place. And everyone else around you is pretty homogenous. And because they are generally the same, they have very high expectations for everyone. Everyone but you. Well, they pretty much expect you to fail. But, instead of failing, you totally exceed their expectations. You disprove what they thought they knew about you. And, with no warning, you leave them awestruck at your mental and scholarly capacity. Well, what then? Do the expectations change? Probably not for your group. But they will definitely change for you. You will be seen as some sort of anomaly or “special” member of your group. And that’s when your specialness is rewarded.
This is not to say that black women don’t struggle in employment like others do. Nor is it to say that knowing how to manipulate the graphing functions on your TI-89 calculator will jettison you straight to the top of your field. But, what it does say is that black women occupy an extremely unique space in the academic and corporate arena. It is a social space where isolated expectations exist in a sort of vacuum sealed away from the illusory ones for ‘regular’ black folks. And, though one must still be cognizant of the larger spectrum of social expectations and stereotypes, truly talented black women may supersede these notions with little to no effort. So?
Well, personally, I say we just go ahead and take over the world. Care to join me? No one will expect it.