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The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness

DOI: 10.1525/jlin.2001.11.1.84

Bucholtz, Mary. “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11.1 (2001): 84–100. Print.

p.1: Anthropological research has shown that identities that are "not white enough" may be racially marked. Yet marking may also be the result of being "too white." California high school students who embrace one such white identity, nerds, employ a superstandard language variety to reject the youth culture norm of coolness. These practices also ideologically position nerds as hyperwhite by distancing them from the African American underpinnings of European American youth culture. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.1: It is not the concept of racial unmarkedness itself that creates the problem but rather the common scholarly misperception that the unmarked status of whiteness is impervious to history, culture, or other local conditions. On the contrary, markedness theory, which can be traced back to its origins in linguistic theory (Trubetzkoy 1969), has been usefully extended to a broader semiotic context to provide a model of cultural ideologies, including racial ideologies. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.2: Hartigan shows that certain white identities, such as "hillbillies," are racially marked because their class orientation and cultural style separate them from the middle-class white norm. Crucially, interracial ties between hillbillies and African Americans also contribute to the view that hillbillies display a "degraded form of whiteness" (Hartigan 1999:90). -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.2: Thus while all whites are racially marked vis-a-vis blacks in inner-city Detroit insofar as their race is visible and salient, hillbillies are also racially marked vis-a-vis other whites insofar as their version of whiteness is both recognized and problematized as a racial subject position. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.2: The present article addresses this question by offering an example of a white identity that is nonnormative, nonhegemonic, and highly marked in the local racial economy. This identity, the nerd, is racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines and instead construct their identities by cleaving closely to the symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness, especially the resources of language. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.2: Nerds are members of a stigmatized social category who are stereotypically cast as intellectual overachievers and social underachievers. From the Columbine High School killers to Microsoft monopolist Bill Gates, the label nerd clearly has negative associations in American culture (especially when, as in these cases, it is used to explain highly antisocial behaviors). It is also, as such examples suggest, a cultural category that is both ideologically gendered (male) and racialized (white), although these dimensions are not always contextually foregrounded. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.2: As the basic value of youth culture, coolness may be defined as engagement with and participation in the trends and practices of youth culture; it frequently involves a stance of affectlessness as well. In rejecting coolness, students who consider themselves nerds signal their distance from both the practices and the stances of trendier youth. Instead, they embrace the values of nerdiness, primarily intelligence. But in so doing, especially in contexts of racial diversity, the oppositional identity of the nerd becomes as salient for its racialized position as for its subcultural orientation. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.3: The black origins of many elements of youth culture in the United States have been well documented; trends in music, dance, fashion, sports, and language in a variety of youth subcultures are often traceable to an African American source (e.g., Kiesling, this issue; Lhamon 1990; Rose 1994). This connection is often obscured, however, for as increasing numbers of European American teenagers embrace particular black cultural practices, these practices become detached from blackness—they become deracialized, or racially unmarked, at least in the eyes of the white youths who participate in them. At the same time, such practices often lose their urban associations and become normalized in suburban and rural settings as well (witness the expansion of rap in the past decades). Even the concept of coolness itself stems from African American traditions (Morgan 1998). -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.3: White nerds disrupted this ideological arrangement by refusing to strive for coolness. The linguistic and other social practices that they engaged in indexed an uncool stance that was both culturally and racially marked: to be uncool in the context of the white racial visibility at Bay City High was to be radalized as hyperwhite, "too white." Consequently, the production of nerdiness via the rejection of coolness and the overt display of intelligence was often simultaneously (though not necessarily intentionally) the production of an extreme version of whiteness. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.4: This phenomenon is illustrated by the fact that in U.S. culture generally, Asian Americans are ideologically positioned as the "model minority"—that is, the racialized group that most closely approaches "honorary" whiteness—in part because they are ideologically positioned as the nerdy minority, skilled in scientific and technical fields but utterly uncool (see Chun, this issue, for research that challenges this ideology). In general, then, white nerds were identifying not against blackness but against trendy whiteness, yet any dissociation from white youth trends entailed a dissociation from the black cultural forms from which those trends largely derive. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.11: Nerdy performances of intellectual ability also produced racialized difference, as suggested by Signithia Fordham's (1996) ethnographic study of academically successful students in a black high school. Fordham notes that some high-achieving African American students were accused by their black peers of "acting white" precisely because of their intellectual performance. This charge was often accompanied by the pejorative epithet brainiac, a term that as Fordham makes dear, is racialized as black in much the same way that the analogous but not synonymous term nerd is racialized as white (1996:361, n. 2). At its most negative, the term brainiac refers to an African American whose display of intellectual ability indicates a capitulation to European American cultural values. To avoid being labeled brainiacs, black students in Fordham's study often hid or downplayed their academic accomplishments and demonstrated their engagement with the concerns of African American youth culture. By contrast, nerdy white teenagers at Bay Qty High presented themselves as fully engaged in academic endeavors and other intellectual work and showed their indifference toward the youth culture that surrounded them. Such practices constituted a counterhegemonic erasure of the devaluation of academic achievement, but they also erased recognition of accomplished black (and white) students who chose not to openly display their abilities. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.12: Nerds' dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students. In this sense, nerdy teenagers' social freedom in rejecting normative youth identities was constrained by their acceptance of normative, ideologically rooted views of their African American schoolmates. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.13: White nerds inhabited an ambiguous racial position at Bay City High: they were the whitest group but not the prototypical representatives of whiteness. It is likewise difficult to disambiguate nerds' relationship to white domination. In refusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded, nerds may be viewed as traitors to whiteness. But engaging in nerdy practices may itself be a form of white privilege, since these practices were not as readily available to teenagers of color and the consequences of their use more severe. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014