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Revenge of the Nerds

Calling attention to the fact that black nerds are often teased by black peers for “acting white” elicits predictable reactions, such as claims that the problem doesn’t exist. Two reactions I have encountered, however, have thrown me.

The first was some years ago, when I was on a panel with Ronald Ferguson of the Harvard Kennedy School. Ferguson, who is black, argued that black nerds should reassure the teasers that they don’t think they’re better than they are.

More recently, in response to a piece I wrote noting how “Is Barack Obama white?” could now be a useful retort for black nerds, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic supposes that this would “get you slapped-up, beat-down and snapped-on for like a week straight,” or at least dismissed with the likes of “Baracka-these-nuts nigga!!!”

Coates’ suggestion is, “Get your tips on how to defend yourself from kids who know how to defend themselves,” and points to an occasion when a second-grader threatened teasers by swinging his heavy backpack around.

Both of these writers’ suggestions are essentially on the side of the teasers. Ferguson is especially overt; Coates at least feels the pain of the nerd, acknowledging that he once was one himself. Yet Coates still wants the nerd to pick up the battle practices of the teaser. Although he’s not specific as to what these practices would be and whether they would be physical or verbal, whatever they are, aren’t they the kinds of things we would presumably be loathe to encourage any more of than there already is? Also, the deft putdown Coates scripts for the teaser paints him as an affable Falstaff, too clever to be a problem.

What motivates both Ferguson and Coates is, it must be acknowledged, love and historical awareness. After all, black kids didn’t start questioning black nerds’ racial credentials out of some mysterious and evil desire to shoot their own race in the foot. It started in the late sixties when black kids in newly desegregated schools were grappling with the tepid welcome from white teachers and students. The inheritors of this sense of school as “white” today are just imitating as all teens do. They are innocents, despite making so many black teens let their grades slip in order to have black friends.

I sense that Ferguson and Coates feel that we must view this dissociation from school through a special lens, acknowledging the injustices of American social history. Standards must be reconsidered. Back in the day, we were to see O.J. Simpson’s acquittal as just desserts for police brutality. In the same vein, the teens teasing black nerds must be understood and accommodated. The nerds are the ones who have to take a deep breath and pull off unprecedented social feints. Black nerds of America: Learn to at least fake a belligerent persona, possibly in the physical sense. Or attempt so delicate a social feat as to inform your teaser of his equal merit to you.

But the question is just how, for example, that last part would actually play out in real life--try scripting a real-life dialogue of a kid wangling this. Not to mention that contrary to Coates’s brawling depiction, the “acting white” charge is typically less a matter of fisticuffs than simple social ostracization. Precisely what method of defending themselves against this could a nerd learn from the people doing the ostracizing?

Whatever Ferguson or Coates’s answers would be, for 40 years nothing like what they suggest has had any effect I am aware of on a very real problem. I cannot imagine telling the hundreds of people who have written me unsolicited about being teased as “white” for liking school that all they should have done was swing their bookbags around with a streetly grimace, much less while slipping in an “I don’t think I’m better than you.”

It seems to me that the symbolic power of Barack Obama as our president could be more useful than this when it comes to the reception of our Urkels, and my interest is in what might actually create change. In that light, the Obama era gives signs of being a tipping point. The old paradigm on race, well-intentioned but quixotic, has decried root causes such as the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the “unlevel playing field”--which could be termed, under another name, capitalism--with an assumption that meanwhile, black America’s problems must be “understood.” This is yielding to a new paradigm focused on solutions in the world as it will be--enter Obama’s advice to absent dads.

I am more optimistic than Coates on Obama’s potential usefulness to black nerds. Yet I remain open to alternate defense strategies. I was lucky as a black Urkel: Having inherited my mother’s sharp tongue, I did not get called “white” for liking school. But I do recall one Asian kid who gave me a hard time for being “smart” once in eighth grade. Somehow I came up with “Okay, Rex”--yes, Rex, go figure--“but one day you’re going to be asking me for a job.” That did get to him somehow, and I received no slapping-up, beating-down, or snapping-upon.

But I still wish I could have said something about Barack Obama.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.