The life of a “nerd” typically involves a certain amount of loneliness and other social challenges. Try being a black girl on top of that.
Sure, mainstream culture has its ways of portraying nerd-dom as trendy and cool (hello, The Big Bang Theory), but this treatment is generally reserved for men … most often white men. So it’s not uncommon for a young black girl who may be into comics, science fiction, horror or anime to ask herself, “Am I the only one? Is there something wrong with me?”
“As black women, just based off our gender and race, we do have two strikes against us,” said Jamie Broadnax, creator of BlackGirlNerds, an online community described as “a place for women of color with various eccentricities to express themselves freely and embrace who they are.”
“When I started my site, I typed ‘black girl nerds’ into Google and nothing came up, which was crazy to me,” Broadnax recalled. “There wasn’t any sort of online nerd-centric community that spoke to black women.”
Luckily, with the growth of the Internet and its accompanying social media platforms, it’s become much easier for women like her to discover that as nerds who happen to be black, and happen to be women, they aren’t alone.
“Social media has been a really great conduit for us to connect to each other,” said Broadnax. “We’ve always been around. Unfortunately, mainstream TV, film and media doesn’t really depict black people as being nerdy, but you’re seeing more of us prevalent now as opposed to five, 10, 20 years ago.”
Broadnax isn’t the only African-American woman who supports others in the embrace of interests and hobbies typically linked to geekiness. Ashlee Blackwell has created Graveyard Shift Sisters, a growing community for black women who are into horror.
“One of the reasons I started my website was because I told myself that I was not the only one,” Blackwell told The Root. “I didn’t like the fact that being a black woman was being totally excluded from a community that I loved so much, when we were there from pretty much the beginning.”
Broadnax added that through Twitter and podcasts, people have been able to “come into their own,” creating their own niches and circles to embrace their identities.
Of course, having a place to belong doesn’t mean that racism and misogyny magically cease to exist when you enter the nerd realm. The lack of diversity within the fandoms, as well as the lack of knowledge of black characters, is a much-discussed problem.
According to Broadnax, merchandise that fans buy from very popular mainstream nerd sites rarely include representations of characters of color, particularly female characters. This prompted her to start regularly spotlighting black female characters from comic books. When she focused on the first black female superhero, Butterfly, the reactions to the post amazed her.
“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve never heard of her,’” Broadnax said. “[And] some of those people were comic book illustrators and editors. Somebody has got to put it out there that these characters exist … White content creators, they just don’t know that diversity is an issue. When you’re surrounded by people that look like you, it’s easy to write content and publish information that speak to fandoms that affect you and your environment, and diversity may not always be a part of that.”
However, even when the diversity issue is drawn to the attention of content producers, Broadnax said, they sometimes still refuse to address or acknowledge it.
“It’s obvious that people are telling you, ‘Hey, you need to change this,’ and you’re still keeping things very vanilla,” she said. “It’s a battle that I fight … every day. And it’s good to be on the flipside in this space because now I can serve to these pockets of diversity that you don’t get to see on a mainstream level.”
For Blackwell’s particular fandom, it is the misogyny that feels much more prevalent. A particular gripe of hers is when she says white males attempt to undermine her commentary because, as she puts it, “[They say], ‘How could you as a black woman know about these hardcore scary movies?’”
While managing negative respones like these, she also focuses her attention on spreading the word about things like the fact that black women have been present in classic horror films from the very beginning. “It’s really about celebrating and highlighting these black women [horror actors] who are overlooked at conventions because of their skin color. Who are overlooked even on podcasts,” Blackwell said of her blog. “We’re never even the women discussed. … It’s really frustrating to me to not hear the people who are so jazzed about horror even talk about [black women].”
Of course, that is not to say that these self-proclaimed nerdy black girls haven’t had great experiences. They proudly celebrate their immensely supportive and diverse reader bases. But that positivity is dampened when they go on to mention the aggressions, micro or otherwise, that they’ve experienced or heard friends talk about. Nor are they naive about the situation they face in the space as black women.
“Mainstream culture has got to catch up,” Broadnax told The Root. “Our subculture is more than the progressive. Unfortunately, when things get crossed over to mainstream, which is usually white, then all of a sudden there’s a problem with diversity or gender.”
A prime example was the recent announcement that Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon), who is black, will be the new Captain America. “When race swapping happens—which happens in comic books all the time—when these comic book characters become mainstream and are movie stars, essentially, it’s all of a sudden a problem,” Broadnax said.
Despite all this, black-girl nerds say they’re here to stay.
“The universal answer is to not feel alone, even when you do,” Blackwell said. “No matter what your passion, there’s always going to be a community out there for you.”
“We exist, we’re not unicorns, we don’t live somewhere in a castle or far, faraway land in folklore somewhere,” Broadnax said. “We’re here and there’s a lot of us. It’s a huge community and we’re crushing stereotypes because of it. There are plenty of women out there like you, who are willing to support you.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.