Social Text 20.2 (2002) 49-64
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Race, Sex, and Nerds
From Black Geeks To Asian American Hipsters
The development of technological expertise requires not only financial resources but also cultural capital. Nerd identity has been a critical gateway to this technocultural access, mediating personal identities in ways that both maintain normative boundaries of power and offer sites for intervention. 1 This essay examines the figure of the nerd in relation to race and gender identity and explores the ways in which attempts to circumvent its normative gatekeeping function can both succeed and fail.
Nerd Identity as a Gatekeeper in Science and Technology Participation
Turkle (1984) vividly describes nerd self-identity in her ethnographic study of undergraduate men at MIT. In one social event "they flaunt their pimples, their pasty complexions, their knobby knees, their thin, underdeveloped bodies" (196); in interviews they describe themselves as losers and loners who have given up bodily pleasure in general and sexual relations in particular. But Turkle notes that this physical self-loathing is compensated for by technological mastery; hackers, for example, see themselves as "holders of an esoteric knowledge, defenders of the purity of computation seen not as a means to an end but as an artist's material whose internal aesthetic must be protected" (207).
While MIT computer science students might be an extreme case, other researchers have noted similar phenomena throughout science and technology subcultures. Noble (1992) suggests that contemporary cultures of science still bear a strong influence from the clerical aesthetic culture of the Middle Ages Latin Church, which rejected both women and bodily or sensual pleasures. He points out that the modern view of science as an opposite of religion is quite recent, and that even in the midst of twentieth-century atheist narratives, science (and "applied" technological pursuits such as creating artificial life or minds) continues to carry transcendent undertones. Noble's historical argument easily combines with Turkle's social psychology of nerd self-image.
Normative gender associations are not the only restrictions that nerd identity places on technoscience access. In an essay whose title contains [End Page 49] the provocative phrase "Could Bill Gates Have Succeeded If He Were Black," Amsden and Clark (1995) note that the lack of software entrepreneurship among African Americans cannot simply be attributed to lack of education or start-up funds, since both are surprisingly low requirements in the software industry. Rather, much of the ability of white software entrepreneurs appears to derive from their opportunities to form collaborations through a sort of nerd network—either teaming with fellow geeks (Bill Gates and Paul Allen at Microsoft) or pairing up between "suits and hackers" (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple).
But if nerd identity is truly the gatekeeper for technoscience as an elite and exclusionary practice, it is doing a very inadequate job of it. First, while significant gaps are still present, there has been a dramatic increase in science and technology scholastic performance and career participation by women and underrepresented minorities since the 1960s (Campbell, Hombo, and Mazzeo 1999); yet during that time period nerd identity has become a more and not less prominent feature of the social landscape. Second, this change has been far stronger in closing the gender gap than in closing the race gap. For example, in the 1990s the gender gap in scholastic science performance for seventeen-year-olds was significantly lower, while the gap between black and white seventeen-year-olds remained the same. Yet Noble and Turkle portray gender/sexuality, not race, as the overriding feature of nerd identity (Turkle does not, for example, offer any reflections about the possibility of racial identity in her comments about "pasty complexions"). Finally, we might note that in comparison to, say, Hitler's Aryan Übermensch, the geek image is hardly a portrait of white male superiority.
Indeed, the more we examine it, the more nerd identity seems less a threatening gatekeeper than a potential paradox that might allow greater amounts of gender and race diversity into the potent locations of technoscience, if only...