The Joys Of Being A Flailing, Flappy-Handed Black Nerd

By Shannon Barber

I am a nerd.

I am a four-eyed, flappy-handed, squealing geek prone to public freakouts of over-excited fan proportions.

For reference, you can read this series of tweets that happened shortly after I watched an interview with Michael Dorn about my dream come true, Captain Worf.

This one is particularly telling:


Throw in some flailing and other undignified movements, and this is basically what it’s like to talk to me in person about something I have nerd feels about. According to people who know me, it starts with me making a bug-eyed face, and then there is often wheezing and hand flapping because I get so excited I can’t quite talk for a minute — and then I can’t stop talking. I become the physical manifestation of squee, maybe even doing some weird little dance because I have to let out my joy.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For years, I disallowed myself any kind of public meltdowns like this one. There was no squealing about dinosaurs, no exuberance, no booty-swinging happy dances in the store upon hearing some old school muzak jam — instead I kept it to tight smiles. I made myself sad and colorless, a shadow of who I actually am.

Stifling myself that way was devastating.

Picture yours truly at 21 years-old: young, Black, depressed, and confused. After some lengthy struggles trying to find employment, I finally got a job and sat myself down to figure out how to be a grown-up. One of the things I immediately decided I had to change in order to be a serious real life adult was my dorkiness. The decision seemed easy at the time. No one told me explicitly to stop being such a flailing weirdo; I just understood that it was simply not to be done. The adults I met through work and the like did not talk for hours about fictional characters. They did not talk about horror movies. They did not squee.

The author playing in a tide pool exhibit. Not pictured: said author cooing to the anemone and naming it Percy.

As a result of observing them, I was under the impression that anything going wrong in my life — my inability to find a job that paid decently, my gross dating life, my depression, everything — was completely my fault. It was painfully obvious to me that I was doing everything wrong, including my habit of being so outwardly excited about silly things.

Contributing to my decision to stop nerding out in front of people was my belief that that is not what Black people do. I did not know any other Black people who were self-identified nerds. I had known a few in high school, but not as a young adult, and I began to believe that nerd-dom could not coexist with Blackness. I bought into the idea that the way I was doing Blackness, my nerdiness included, was part of the reason why I was having such a hard time. The messages about what Blackness can and cannot be came from everywhere.

Like when, once upon a time, I was a member of an early Internet message board about books. It was part book club, part fandom talk, and all awesome.

Until it was time to meet up.

A few of us decided to get together for book talk at the downtown Seattle library branch. I brought along a backpack full of books to trade, as well as the sure knowledge that I was about to meet the most awesome folks ever.

But when I walked in, the table went silent and I saw the look. For those who are not Black folks, let me explain. There is a look people get when they are taken aback by your Blackness. It is a kind of uncomfortable squint often followed by nervous laughter and sometimes someone says, “Oh wow you’re Black.” It never feels good. It never turns out to be welcoming, and when I was younger I just could not deal with it. Looking back, I see that my conclusion that Blackness and nerdness couldn’t co-exist became a defense mechanism against feeling pushed out or unwelcome in geeky spaces.

I also decided that my tendency to burst with joy over silly things made me vulnerable — and so I had to go, too. Otherwise people would laugh at me. Nobody would take me seriously ever again if they found out that I got giddy when I read my first book on criminal profiling and serial killers. What I wanted to do was find someone to talk about it with, to talk theory and what ifs for no other reason than the sheer amazingness of learning something new.

Life got weird. I didn’t tell anyone that I cried my eyes out when I saw a redwood tree for the first time because that did not jibe with the stiff-upper-lipped, super-serious adult I was supposed to be. I wanted people to see a Strong Capable Young Black Woman who didn’t need nobody, so I kept that childlike and vital piece of me tightly wrapped up and secret. I could not admit to or engage in things that might make me look totally human.

The result? My depression and self esteem got worse.

The author expressing her undying love for the Xenomorph and ignoring side eye from other adults.
The author expressing her undying love for the Xenomorph and ignoring side eye from other adults.

Along with my Public Geekery, I also tried very hard to stop having Goth tastes. I stopped wearing 47 pounds of black eyeliner and tried to wean myself off of anything black, lacy, or ruffled. I wore goddamn khakis. (Pardon me while I pause here to observe a moment of silence for that period in my fashion life.)

What I experienced in those years was extra stress, needless suffering, and a lot of boredom. I put stringent rules on how I could and could not be in front of people. The new friends I made either through jobs or random meetings never saw me flapping my hands and squealing over dinosaurs. If I knew them well, they got to see my mouth-wide-open, loud laugh, but no one got to see me as my undignified flappy self. No one.

Once I had a better-paying job, I started letting myself supplement my miserable khakis-and-sweatshirts-daytime-I-Am-A-Normal-Adult wardrobe with shiny and lacy things that I wore out. I started wearing dresses and makeup again. I found nerdy people to play Vampire The Masquerade with and, with the help of the Internet and some supportive folks, I started to regain my nerd powers.

Other magical things continued to happen in my mid-twenties. I got fat and discovered online thrifting. I found other Goths on the Internet and many of them sold me pretty office work appropriate fancy things. Then I finally had one of those big thunderclap realizations.

Nobody but me was forcing me to forget what joy was. Nobody but me was enforcing some weird rules about Blackness upon me. I was in fact an adult, and because I was an adult, I could do whatever the hell I wanted.

Whoa, right? I realized that I didn’t have to be so rigid about who got to see me, well, excited. I didn’t have to hide the fact that I’m a tabletop-gaming, occasional LARPer who sometimes gets so enthused about something, all I can do is stare at everything and feel like I might poop myself. Giving myself the freedom to nerd out about my favorite video games, dinosaurs, Star Trek, etc. is a huge part of what makes me, me.

This year I turned 38, and a big part of celebrating my birthday was my partner and two of our friends taking me to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, and me playing my heart out.

The author somewhat rudely jumping in line to get a picture of her getting choked out by Darth Vader.

Similarly, when my best friend of almost 20 years was in town and took me to the Experience Music Project Museum here in Seattle for a late birthday present, we managed to squee so hard, we scared other adults. I got my photo taken (I was being kinda rude, but this was some bucket list-level shit) pretending to be choked out by Darth Vader.

In the Sci Fi museum, I yelled at some pieces of Worf’s costume on display: “WORF OH MY GOD.” I had my partner take a photo of me while I was pretending to be an android — I told a stranger that I was pretending to be an android.

I even pulled a dork muscle while I told the life-size Queen Xenomorph from the Alien franchise that I LOVE HER.

Basically, the working theme of my late thirties is public and teary undignified behavior. Which is to say, I get to be a real live human being. I get to be a real live human being who gets gassy when she’s nervous, and who might have to run and poop after meeting someone she admires or when something great happens. I express glee in squeals, wriggling, and bug-eyed delight. I can be unrefined in public, laugh till I drool, be afraid of silly things — and all of it is okay.

The real joy in my nerdhood isn’t the act of nerding alone; it is the humaning. The difference between twenties adult Shannon and late-thirties adult Shannon is joy. I remember childlike, full body, I-don’t-give-a-hot-damn-who-is-looking level joy.

Being human is hard, and my deepest wish is that no one puts themselves through what I put myself through. You can be as nerdy and weird as you damn well please. And the important people will love you for it.

Screw everyone else.

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