Learning to Blerd in America
As a perennial nerd, I’ve written about my connection to fandom prolifically and at length. It has been a route to shaping my social connections, my world view, my interpersonal relationships, my politics, morals and numerous other aspects of my life. Fandom is the lens through which I have shaped my mind, which at times, has been a problem.
When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I — like many other girls of that age — was an obsessive Spice Girls fan. I’d memorize their songs, watch the movie dozens of time and, on the playground, my friends and I would pretend that we were the dazzling singers and somehow we also solved crimes. Don’t ask me why. However, when we played Spice Girls everyone had to pick a person to be. I always wanted to be my favorite, Mel B. She was the Sporty Spice, The tomboyish one, the one who wasn’t that in to dresses and just dared any boy to tell her what she couldn’t do. But I wasn’t the only one who liked Mel B. The disputes were invariably settled the same way every time. My playmates insisted that I be Mel C. Scary Spice. Because no one else wanted to be her and because I was the only colored person in the group.
I say colored because this rule of raceplay didn’t seem to limit itself to my blackness (which even I questioned, as a mixed race child) or my Africanness — when we played Power Rangers and I wanted to be the pink ranger, I was instead assigned the role of Trini. The yellow ranger. Because she’s Asian and I’m not white so…
This “not-whiteness” was a tricky concept for me. On the one hand I knew that I was not white, but I felt that I was not quite black either. As a child I didn’t have much exposure to black American culture and customs. I knew some about my mother’s African ancestry but the rest of our family was an ocean away. I found culture through fandom. There were no black elves or hobbits or wizards or rogues. No black superheroes — or so I thought.
With divorced parents, a white family and a black family, I struggled not to have that binary rip me in two. I shrank from conversations about race for fear of being forced to mediate a conflict I barely understood — and yet it’s a conflict rooted at the core of my identity.
In 2007, I learned of an Illinois senator named Barack Obama, while reading a magazine on a flight home from my summer internship. I devoured the article and felt a thrill in my heart about the possibility of a mixed race person coming to prominence. Up to that point I’d known of mixed race celebrities, but they rarely ever define themselves as such. The public knows them to be black or native or latinx, etc. Never mixed. Mixed is too messy a category. There is no mixed ranger. I was heartbroken when Obama was permanently codified as black. Whether it was his choice, a strategic choice, a political choice or a media choice, I mourned for the loss of visibility and felt once again the racial tug of war.
I’d read a single story in my life about a mixed race character, Dovasary Balitang of Tamara Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen*. Dove wasn’t the protagonist but she was prominent, she was strong. She stepped up when she had too. She was not the chosen one, but the chosen one’s younger, more responsible sister. She led a rebellion and a kingdom with maturity and grace. Her mixed ancestry was key to her success and she managed to find a balance between the two and use it to heal the divide between her people. She exemplified to me what a mixed kid could do if only someone gave her the chance. I think many — including myself — hoped Obama would do the same.
As his presidency progressed so to did my understanding of race both in the country and within myself. I forgave Obama for picking sides. I learned about other mixed people with unique situations — for example, a pair of twins, one of whom is white with ginger hair and the other who is darker than I am with curly kinky locks.
I decided, while working on my masters degree at NYU, that I would take a class in Black Performance with Tavia Nyong’o. Having recently learned that fandom studies was a thing and a thing I could do — a thing that people would take seriously and not ridicule me for as they had done in childhood — I took the opportunity to search for black performance in fandom. I started with crossracial fanart — reimaginings of characters as black or native or mixed or curvy or disabled or anything other than normal. I was overjoyed to find a portrait of a black Hermione — it resonated with me so deeply that I can still see it clearly in my head.
I got into cosplaying and went to my first convention and felt a lack within myself — no one recognized my costume. Of course they didn’t. Harleen Quinzel is not black. She is blonde and pale and tall and skinny. There wasn’t much I could do to achieve that look and the costume alone didn’t seem to o be enough. Around the same time I saw an article online about a woman in Germany who had donned blackface to play a character from The Walking Dead named Michonne. The double standard cut through me. Thousands of white people jumped to her defense while people of color were forced to explain the offense over and over again only to be rebutted by poorly thought out excuses and complaints. Meanwhile a black cosplayer named Chaka Cumberbatch was harassed and assaulted with racial epithets for daring to cosplay Sailor Venus — a character who appears white but is culturally and linguistically Japanese.
I decided to tear this thinking apart — to confront the idea that play is immune from ethics and to call out white nerds for participating in the erasure of black bodies in a community that is already suffering from a serious lack of color. I turned this into my Masters thesis and it bought me a ticket into a PhD program to study with professors who had inspired my interests in the first place. And yet it also brought me strife. I published the paper on my social media and was confronted by a white acquaintance who seemed to be asking for permission to cosplay Asian characters. I explained that my paper wasn’t about that, do whatever you want. He responded that his Asian friends would be upset with him. I said they had every right to be. The conversation only got worse from there as the complainant decided that my irritation was aggression, that I was attacking him and that — of course — by calling attention to racial issues, I was the racist one.
The fight didn’t stop there. Hours after the last comment from this “friend,” another so-called friend who also happened to be my director/boss started in on me for “attacking” the former commenter. Suddenly my past was brought up to demonstrate my tendency to “play the victim.” I was told that my claims of sexism and racism were baseless and that in essence, I was a terrible drama queen who enjoyed being upset and stirred up conflict to feed a desire for attention. It did not matter that this could not be further than the truth — it accomplished its goal: to divert the argument into personal emotional flaws rather than societal inequality, and to punish me for having the audacity to threaten white privilege.
I was emotionally savaged by these conflicts. Offline I sobbed and questioned everything about myself. I wondered if I was crazy, if I should stop, if I was wrong. Online I spat vitriol back to the two men who tried to silence me and I refused to apologize for it. I blocked the second man and he used my work email to continue his tirade. I shut him down without reading and told him to stop contacting me. He kicked me out of our mutual social groups. He had effectively transformed me into an Angry Black Woman stereotype and nothing I could say or do would change that. He had effectively inoculated the majority of our friends from listening to anything I might have to say.
The more of these attacks I experienced, the more I retreated and searched for other ways to be in fandom without self-destruction, gaslighting and verbal and emotional abuse. As I began my PhD and immersed myself deeper into social issues I discovered more black characters and black fans and then, randomly one day;
I found the Blerds.
Blerds are black nerds. We are a rare and special unicorn of subcultures at the center of bullying, persecution and exclusion from a variety of angles. Blerds are often seen as not black enough and of course we have no hope of ever being white enough. No media outlets cater to us, no mainstream artists pondered how to include us, no marketers agonized over strategies to capture our demographic. What space we have we’ve carved out for ourselves. We took enormous pleasure in mixing Mass Effect and Beyoncé ballads. We wrote stories about what Harry Potter might experience if he studied abroad in Nigeria. We became uniquely skilled at teasing out social allegory and pointing out where it failed.
And then, finally, we were rewarded.
Our patience and diligence paid off with John Boyega joining the Resistance, Luke Cage and Misty Knight repping Harlem, Hidden Figures finally unveiled and Black Panther — both the Coates comic run and the upcoming film. Looking forward I’m dreaming of Roxanne Gay’s new comic about the Dora Milaje — the Black Panther’s two female bodyguards. In the film the characters will be played by Danai Gurira aka Michonne, and Lupita Nyongo, who also played Maz Kanata in Star Wars VII, veterans of blerddom. (Octavia Spencer of Hidden Figures is also a veteran Blerd, having co-starred with Chris Evans** in Snowpiercer (2015)).
This isn’t to say that black genre fiction didn’t exist before I discovered it — that is, of course, the worst kind of cultural imperialism. Rather that as I discovered my blackness to be compatible with my fandoms I was greeted with a beautiful explosion of black media and a thriving social community to go with it. A community where I don’t have to repetitively explain that blackface is painful and wrong and a people with whom I can lament or celebrate black representation in the media. A community of yellow rangers and scary spices.
I hope to nurture that community, celebrate it, and bring it the deserved attention that it has been denied for so long, and perhaps one day we will see some truly mixed kids on screen.
- A professor pointed out to me that Star Trek has often featured mixed-race characters like Spock. For me, it’s a strange grey area as many of these mixed fantasy race characters were still played by white humans. Further, rarely is the relationship between two fantasy races (excepting perhaps dwarves and elves) as contentious as the history between blacks and whites on this particular Earth. The character I refer to from Trickster’s Choice emulates that particular form of tension. That said I’m sure there are other depictions out there — the take away is, that as a child, I had a very hard time finding them (also, I didn’t encounter Star Trek until I was grown!).
(thanks for reading! @a_wild_acafan on the tweets)