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What is a Blerd? | Part 1

Blerd (n): A combination of the words Black and Nerd. In essence a black nerd. First used in this context by Dr. Turk on the TV show Scrubs.

“I spent all weekend talking to my cousin who just so happens to be the world’s biggest ‘blerd.’ {pause} That’s a black nerd.”

Urban Dictionary

It’s 2019 and nerd doesn’t quite mean what it used to, or perhaps the connotation of the word has altered. Popular culture has made “nerd” or “geek” a classification that is no longer instantly ridiculed. In the recent past (’80s and ‘90s) nerds were thought of as thick glasses-wearing, pocket protector having, high water pants wearing, non-athletic, high pitched voice having, and overly annoying people. Nobody wanted to hang with Steve Urkel, nobody wanted to be Mark Foster. (If you don’t remember Mark, he’s the one with the glasses on Step by Step.)

Pop culture has helped change the paradigm with characters from Community, Arrow, Flash, Chuck, and Heroes going from the punchline to the star of the show.

If you’re a nerd, you don’t have to be reminded of being bullied by the popular girls, jocks, or the normals in the middle looking to elevate their status. That doesn’t make it fun, but it’s what people in High School called the “natural order of things.” But for blerds (especially pre-2010’s) it is different; being a nerd, dork, geek, etc; is deeper than liking comics, LOTR, RPGs, gaming, and books. It is considered a violation of culture, a betrayal. It’s acting white.

While the blerd experience has a lot of parallels, there are stark differences between male blerd and female blerd life. LTN asked Angel Jo and me (Matt) to try our best at depicting nerd life from our view. So we co-wrote this two-part article, old school, black folk stickin’ together style. And keeping it 100, it wasn’t easy. We relied on each other like Cliff and Claire, George and Weezie, Florida and James, or Rainbow and Dre. With that being said I’m passing the mic to Angel. – Matt Williams

🎶 Here is the story of a blerd named Angel and her unique tales of blerd life 🎶

Even nerds are thought to be cool if they keep silent, and accepted if they hold their tongues. (Proverbs 17:28) (Mostly.)

Aight so boom. I grew up listening to hip-hop, R&B, rap music with a little bit of jazz. I wore baggy pants and turned my hat backward or sideways. I wore my older brother’s Karl Kani and Cross Colours. I could tell you exactly what the scenario was. Outwardly, I blended in nicely while living in Queens, NY. That is, until I opened my mouth.

Here we go, yo.

Which was the greater insult: engaging in white people’s activities, or not engaging in activities that black people held in the highest esteem?

I didn’t grow up with the term “blerd”—I just lived it. In my excitement, and perhaps my naiveté, I would hardly shut up about my love for Sonic the Hedgehog, role-playing online in AOL chatrooms (//roll, anyone?), and watching anime subtitled because back then I was team subs-over-dubs. (I mean, how else was I going to learn Japanese?)

I hadn’t realized that these things and more were mainly associated with things that white people do. Until one day I was told that because I enjoyed rock music and role-playing that I was not black. (I still have to ask myself if I’m black enough to even write about being a blerd.) My older brother thought I was crazy. My religious parents thought my anime posters in my bedroom were, in fact, demon posters. And anybody else that knew me knew that I had little to no “gangsta” in me at all. Zero street cred. No black card. No batteries included and no strings attached. All that.

Growing up black and nerdy was intimidating. As black people, historically, we’ve fought so hard to preserve, maintain and express our blackness, which has been suppressed for centuries. For a long time, being nerdy was mistakenly synonymous with acting white (cue up Weird Al Yankovic’s “White and Nerdy”). I was constantly called white or told, “you’re not really black.” It was considered mutiny. I was a sellout. Accused of not staying in my own lane. I was made to feel ashamed because of the things that brought me joy. There were also black-card earning tasks of which I had not earned: I’d never seen the movie Friday, I had no interest in playing Spades and I couldn’t play double dutch. Which was the greater insult: engaging in white people’s activities, or not engaging in activities that black people held in the highest esteem? 

So I did what any person would do when getting rushed and rushed and attacked. I hid. I only let my nerd flag fly high when I knew it was safe—when I suspected that I wouldn’t be ridiculed for it. (So the question then became: who would reveal their inner nerd first?) 

Not only was I the token POC, but I was also a token WOC as well.

To cope, I developed two different personas. I curtailed my nerdiness for a lot of people. My family, my friends, employment, church, etc. When I could find a safe nerd space to converse, it was primarily populated with white men. Not only was I the token POC, but I was also a token WOC as well. Even in the games I was playing there were hardly any POC to choose from, and when there were POC to choose from, they weren’t nearly as many women. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Streets of Rage, Gauntlet, etc. Yet, if I had the opportunity, I gravitated to the female characters that were available. Every time.

In the next article, you’ll read Matt mention that he didn’t know any blerd girls growing up. Well, neither did I. (How many blerd girls did you know growing up? I’m asking for a friend.) I loved going to the arcade, but it was always a male-dominated space. I would get one of mainly two reactions from men: 1. I was cute and a lot of guys wanted to talk to me to get to know me since nerdy girls were always an anomaly, or 2. I had to be a fake gamer/nerd girl just trying to get attention from places where I knew men would be. This also meant that men expected me to suck at games or possess little knowledge of nerd lore. Elitists would always try to quiz me. Yes, I know that there are seven dragon balls. Yes, I can name all five Gundam Wing pilots. Yes, I know the difference between an FPS and a TPS. UGH. Who wants to pretend to be a nerd? Is anyone really that thirsty? 

I had a few female friends (not many who were persons of color) who were geeky or nerdy. We played games, cosplayed and watched anime, even went to anime conventions! However, it was such a shame that those same popular girls that made fun of the nerdy guys made fun of the nerdy girls too. The popular girls, no matter the race, made fun of me for being nerdy. But black people, no matter the gender, made fun of me for being black and nerdy.

It made dating very awkward for me. I could catch guys, but once they found out who I really was, I was either considered “another one of the guys” or I was too corny to keep them. Or, I just never showed them the real me. Ultimately, I was sure that I would never find somebody who would love me for me.

I was wrong.

I found out that you could always test the waters with music. At a college Christmas party, lover of music that I am, I decided to sit at the vacant piano and play a little bit of music. I wasn’t the greatest tickler of the keys, but I played some tunes from Super Mario Bros. 2 and the theme from the original Legend of Zelda. Anyone who didn’t recognize it just thought it was a nice tune. There were, however, several people who recognized what I was playing on the piano.

And I married one of them. And played the very same nerdy themes at our wedding!

We are currently living in a geeky golden age. We have made evolutions in all genres of geekdom by far. We’re seeing so much black nerd excellence in video games, movies, cartoons, sci-fi, YouTube, anime—yes, even anime—art, music (*in my best Shirley Caesar voice*) you name it! Black Panther & Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse are just two of a flood of award-winning movies with POC doing big things for the culture. There are strong, playable female characters from games like Uncharted, Overwatch, and Broken Age. Even cartoons have evolved with positive black leads like Craig of the Creek and Steven Universe. Blerds are uniting all over the internet and the world, especially with social media groups aplenty, meetups and outstanding conventions like Blerdcon, QuirkCon, and Wakandacon. I brought that same energy over to Japan by singing with the Glory Gospel Singers, competing on the Japanese game show Nodo Jiman by performing my gospel arrangement of one of the most notable anime theme songs of all time, “Cruel Angel’s Thesis”!

The worst of the black nerd stigma is much closer to being utterly dismantled. Gatekeepers may continue to question the richness of my melanin, but that won’t stop me from living my best life. I’m tightly embracing my blackness while celebrating my nerdiness and flying my blerd flag as high as it can possibly go! Yes, yes y’all.

***

This is the first of a two-part series on blerds. You can read the followup article from Matt Williams here.



Angele Joubert-Johnson is a cultured singer, song-writer and author. A proud blerd who loves gaming, comics, anime, cartoons and jamming to soundtracks of NES classics. You can follow her on Instagram @angele_joubertjohn

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