We, the Hyperwhite

Hilary (poetloverrebelspy) pointed me to a NY Times Magazine article yesterday, which clearly needs to be shared with all of you, our readers: Who’s a Nerd, Anyway? The article is reporting on the research of linguist Mary Bucholtz, who specializes in sociocultural and ethnographic linguistics, and in particular, in the study of nerds.

I’m not kidding at all. Hilary and I have heard her speak, when she came to Grinnell as part of the linguistics lecture series. She talked about the linguistic and behavioral characteristics of nerds and geeks, and I for one found myself nodding in agreement throughout, because I certainly fit her profile. Carries books for pleasure reading everywhere? Check. Has used “reading pronunciation” out loud? Check. (How was I supposed to know how to actually pronounce “rhododendron”?) There was a bunch more, but that lecture was, um, 7 years ago. What a frightening thought.

According to the NYT article, Bucholtz has a new term to cover the overall linguistic behavior of self-identified nerds: “hyperwhite.” As the article explains:

As a linguist, Bucholtz understands nerdiness first and foremost as a way of using language. In a 2001 paper, “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness,” and other works, including a book in progress, Bucholtz notes that the “hegemonic” “cool white” kids use a limited amount of African-American vernacular English; they may say “blood” in lieu of “friend,” or drop the “g” in “playing.” But the nerds she has interviewed, mostly white kids, punctiliously adhere to Standard English. They often favor Greco-Latinate words over Germanic ones (“it’s my observation” instead of “I think”), a preference that lends an air of scientific detachment. They’re aware they speak distinctively, and they use language as a badge of membership in their cliques… Nerds are not simply victims of the prevailing social codes about what’s appropriate and what’s cool; they actively shape their own identities and put those codes in question.

Presumably, my own strict adherence to proper sentence structure, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling in things such as instant messaging only further expresses my group identity.

The article’s final paragraph, though, brings up an interesting point about all that being “hyperwhite” can entail in its cliqueishness:

By cultivating an identity perceived as white to the point of excess, nerds deny themselves the aura of normality that is usually one of the perks of being white. Bucholtz sees something to admire here. In declining to appropriate African-American youth culture, thereby “refusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded,” she writes, nerds may even be viewed as “traitors to whiteness.” You might say they know that a culture based on theft is a culture not worth having. On the other hand, the code of conspicuous intellectualism in the nerd cliques Bucholtz observed may shut out “black students who chose not to openly display their abilities.” This is especially disturbing at a time when African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if they’re too obviously diligent about school. Even more problematic, “Nerds’ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students,” even if the nerds were involved in political activities like protesting against the dismantling of affirmative action in California schools. If nerdiness, as Bucholtz suggests, can be a rebellion against the cool white kids and their use of black culture, it’s a rebellion with a limited membership.

Something to think about there, I’m sure. But I love my Greco-Latinate words! I don’t think it is ever the intention of modern-day nerds to be racially exclusionary, but I can see where the problem could be seen to lie. I’ll be interested to read Bucholtz’s book on the subject, whenever it comes out. In the meantime, some of her articles on the subject are available online. Yay!

* White Noise: Bringing Language into Whiteness Studies

The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness

* “Why be normal?”: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls

* Geek Feminism

There are more, actually, as well as the full citations for her other, more archaically available, articles and chapters available through Bucholtz’s CV.

-posted by Dana, a girl nerd


5 Responses to We, the Hyperwhite

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Or is it nerd girl, Dana?

    A couple things I remember from that lecture (and did you *have* to bring up how long ago that is now? Sheesh.), besides all the heads nodding in silent agreement:

    + the research she was doing was in fact on “European American” youths adopting African-American slang, but this subset of nerd girls, identifying themselves as such, proved interesting in and of themselves.

    + all of the students chose code names for their responses. Nerd girls most often chose traditionally male identifiers (Bob, Frank), unlike their non-nerd counterparts, who selected girly names (Tiffany, Brittany).

    + nerds were the only subset avoiding the California vowel shift (kewl dood!). This vowel shift is considered permanent, as the majority of the population over 35 has also shifted their vowels. This shift is slowly spreading across the U.S.

    What I don’t remember but gleaned from her CV is that she spent her undergraduate years at a small college in Iowa. Funny that.

  2. alejna says:

    I’ll have to look for her book, when it comes out.

    “Presumably, my own strict adherence to proper sentence structure, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling in things such as instant messaging only further expresses my group identity.”

    I guess that fits for me, too, though I’d never thought about it in terms of identity. I’m completely hopeless at IM. The conversation moves on without me as I check for typos.

    One other thing. Have seen/heard Weird Al’s White and Nerdy?

  3. […] As a timely follow-up to the NYT article about Mary Bucholtz’s linguistic research on geeks as a subgroup, yesterday they had another article about the phenomenon of geek rap, better known as nerdcore […]

  4. […] does remind me of the article about nerdy vs. cool language I wrote about over on Geek Buffet a while ago, though. Mary Bucholtz, the linguist being profiled for her work on nerd language, […]

  5. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit
    my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that
    over again. Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

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