By now you have watched and likely discussed Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) and his new video, “This Is America.” Whether you love it or hate it, it’s forcing a discussion about the state of black America and making many (white) people uncomfortable in the process. To be sure, I find the dancing more amusing and powerful than the contents of the video itself. I’m a tough critic, I imagine. But I digress.
Aside from inspiring repeated conversations about the black experience, “This Is America” calls into question Glover himself because he has a longtime white partner. Make no mistake: There is no monolithic black experience, so Glover is fully entitled to speak on blackness as much as any of us can, but it has made social media more interesting.
The idea of a black person having a white partner led to many questions on Twitter: “Who can speak on the black experience?” “Why not date a black person?” And, my personal favorite, “What if black women didn’t want me growing up?”
However, it’s the last question that has continued conversations that ultimately result in the angry, black male nerd rearing its ugly head … again.
Lately, we’ve been living in a twilight zone of the (black) revenge of the nerds. Straight black men have been taking their rage online and speaking about the black girls who did not want them in high school because they were—yes, you’ve guessed it—nerds. And while I can understand the feelings of nerdy black men, of whom I consider myself one, about being rejected in middle and high school, I also call out inherent entitlement and anti-blackness.
To start, what is a nerd? “Nerd” is a word used and rarely defined, but when it’s described, it is often linked to being proudly contrarian.
In his 2010 Comedy Central special, Glover noted that he was finally allowed to be a black nerd because of President Barack Obama. In describing what it means to be a black nerd, Glover commented, “If you like strange, specific stuff, you are a black nerd. Kanye West is a black nerd; he likes strange, specific stuff.”
Glover used robots, teddy bears and liking the Cranberries (instead of rap music) as examples. In other words, things that are not traditionally appreciated by black people makes someone a nerd.
I’ll just say it: I’m exhausted from the unchecked pretension of some black people who believe they are “different” because they don’t like what is considered acceptable in our community. Congratulations! You’re contrarian.
That’s why the black-male-nerd conversation is mind-boggling because there is no universal understanding of what it is, and for those who have bought into the contrarian definition, it’s usually rooted in whiteness.
Is a black male nerd a person who likes Dungeons & Dragons, anime and studying? Is a black male nerd a person who wears glasses, hangs with honor students, listens to rock music and stays in for the weekends?
If so, it shows that our understanding of blackness is linear and needs to be explored. Sure, there are various things that make us different, but that difference shouldn’t be linked to anti-black racism and caricatures.
“This Is America” also led to conversations about interracial relationships, with many black male nerds empathizing with Glover. But as The Root staff writer Michael Harriot pointed out, “The celebration of Glover’s artistic brilliance comes with the reminder of his seemingly public fetish for Asian women, a perceived past denigration of black women, and the fact that his current girlfriend and the mother of his children is a woman of no color.”
Nonetheless, many of these black male nerds understood Glover and even began telling their own stories of black girls who did not want them.
My high school experience taught me the social caste system of self-segregating based on who people felt they were and with whom they should be associated. Therefore, many times, people dated within similar circles, apparently except nerds. Often, who went on dates in high school was about attractiveness and popularity, which was not necessarily mutually exclusive with being a nerd, a term frequently used for a person with good grades.
In response to black male nerds sharing their stories, the self-identified black female nerds shared some of their own. Conclusion: Their male counterparts did not want to date them. So the question becomes: Who, then, were these male nerds attempting to date? Were their hurt feelings a result of thinking they were entitled to date a particular girl? The prettiest girl? The most popular girl? Entitlement.
At a young age, boys are taught about the commodification of women and linking it to their social capital and bodies. We are taught that we must find a woman with certain aesthetic qualities, then connect that to our self-worth. That makes life complicated for two groups: gay men and straight nerds (who claim no woman wants them).
What’s more, is the idea that to be a nerd is to be nice, which we know is false from the second we “friend zone” someone. That niceness becomes misogynistic incredibly fast. You think I’m lying?
In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded 13 more near a California college. In a YouTube video, he vowed his bloody vengeance against the sorority women who rejected him and the men who succeeded where he so often failed.
A nerd who was rejected by popular girls killed people. (It should also be noted that Rodger is revered by a group of (primarily white) young men who call themselves “incels”—involuntary celibates—but that’s a whole other story.)
To be clear, I know that many nerdy black boys are considered gay, soft or otherwise undesirable, which is also problematic because it’s rooted in homophobia. That’s a problem. But I also recognize that many of these nerdy black boys (now men) use their experiences to be anti-black in why they don’t, refuse to or minimally date black women. Your high school insecurities don’t belong to anyone but you.
If people want to date outside of their race, they should do so. But people don’t have to denigrate an entire category of black women in their “I haven’t gotten over liking the popular girl in high school” process.
It wasn’t mandatory then, and it isn’t now, but we cannot pretend that nerdy black boys weren’t rejecting nerdy black girls for the same reason they were being rejected by the popular girls.
Glover’s new video won’t solve the problem emanating from our high school experiences, but black male nerds can. We cannot allow a rejection to pass as an excuse for being anti-black and misogynistic. As Erica Albright said to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network: “You’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”