White Men Don’t Own Nerd Culture, And I’m Not Stealing It

By Latonya Pennington

In a recent interview, X-Men: Apocalypse actress Olivia Munn caused a stir when she claimed that she did all her own stunts for the upcoming film. This didn’t sit well with the stunt community, since it is their job to physically test a stunt for safety reasons before allowing the actor to do it; even if Munn performed her own stunts, she should have given the stunt person credit for testing them out first. Somehow, though, this ended up as a storm of outrage on Twitter, not from stunt professionals, but from nerds complaining that Munn was a “fake geek girl” and “appropriating nerd culture.” When I read this, I couldn’t help but groan inwardly. I’ve heard this argument before, and it’s wrong on a lot of levels.

Leaving aside the question of whether Munn is a “real nerd,” this isn’t “real appropriation.” Appropriation means a dominant culture profiting from and taking credit for something that originally came from a marginalized group. The white straight cisgender men who were complaining about Munn may not consider themselves popular, but within nerd culture they’re far from marginalized. Despite the progress we have made, white straight cisgender male nerds are still the dominant group.

Like Munn, I’ve been made to feel like my nerdy interests aren’t sincere or valid. But as a queer black woman who has been, yes, a nerd since childhood, I can tell you: I’m not appropriating anything. This culture belongs to me as much as it belongs to any man.

***

I have been a nerd since I became obsessed with Sailor Moon at the age of 6 and Harry Potter at age 10. Since then, my nerdy interests have gone through some significant changes. For instance, I don’t enjoy Japanese anime as much as I used to and I’ve mostly outgrown Harry Potter. Yet the biggest change comes from knowing that I’m not the only black female queer nerd out there. Thanks to websites like Black Girl Nerds and Geeks Out!, I can hoist my blerd flag high. (It’s short for “black nerd,” duh.)

But even though I now know there are lots of black nerds and female nerds, it took me until my early twenties to find them. That’s because the most visible and loudest nerds are still cis white men, and they often try to shout down anyone who’s different.

I’ve found that the moment I try to critique or participate in nerd culture, I get attacked online. The first time this happened, I was participating in a discussion thread on an article about female anime characters. The site that published the article was mostly read by men, but I thought my gender wouldn’t matter.

When I tried to engage in conversation with a male commenter about the article, he insulted my looks (I had a photo of myself as my avatar) and said he couldn’t take me seriously. As I wished him a safe trip to hell, I looked at the names of the other commenters and realized I was probably the only woman in the discussion thread. These men felt like I was an interloper, and they wanted me out.

How could I be “appropriating” when I was just trying to exist in the culture I loved? I don’t have the power to steal nerd culture from cis white men, but they have the power to chase me away — and they also have the power to shape and maintain nerdy movies, books, and TV so that people like me are marginalized or invisible.

Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this is in superhero films, where women either have little agency or none at all. If a woman is in a film with other superheroes, then she is usually the only female superhero in the group. Black Widow, Storm, and even Wonder Woman have fallen victim to this. In addition, female superheroes and villains such Elektra, Catwoman, Emma Frost, and Mystique have gotten costumes that cater to male viewers.

For superheroes and villains of color, things are even more problematic. If they exist at all, then they are either covered up, marginalized, or killed off. In their respective films, Black Panther and War Machine have their faces completely covered in costume, so you can’t even tell that they’re black men. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, all of the mutants of color (including Bishop, Warpath, Blink, Sunspot, and Storm) died horrible deaths. Since people of color aren’t seen too often in superhero films, having our tiny amount of representation watered down and erased is a travesty.

Besides superhero films, white cisgender men are also dominant in other areas of nerd culture such as fantasy and sci-fi. Last year, controversy arose during the Hugo Awards season when a group of these men formed a squad they called the Sad Puppies in an attempt to manipulate the award nominations in their favor. They couldn’t stand the idea that non-white and non-male fantasy and sci-fi authors existed, so they tried to put a “No girls or people of color allowed” sign on the nominations.

Even though I’ve been reading fantasy fiction since 2001, I only started reading fantasy fiction and sci-fi featuring people of color and LGBTQ people a couple of years ago, and only because I went looking for them. Diverse fantasy and sci-fi books are under-promoted by the media and by the white-man-dominated nerd establishment.

When I first started reading diverse SFF books, I had to Google them using search terms like “fantasy books with Asian mythology” and “fantasy books with a black female lead”. The first time I saw diverse SFF books was on a Goodreads list titled “YA Books Inspired by Non-Western/Eastern Mythology.” Lists like this are rarely seen outside Goodreads, and the lists that find their way into mainstream media are much more white. Recently, Paste magazine did a list of the 30 Best Fantasy Books of All Time, which included no authors of color, five women, and only book featuring a non-white protagonist. Last year, Buzzfeed did a similar list with 50 books. While there were more women on this list than Paste’s, there was only one author of color.

So tell me again: whose culture is being stolen?

***

Cultural appropriation is not a phrase to use lightly, because it’s one of the ways marginalized cultures are kept down. As Jarune Uwajaren writes on Everyday Feminism:

“When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil. It’s about a centuries-old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures.”

White male nerds are not a marginalized culture; they are the dominant force among nerds, and they work hard to keep it that way. Indeed, they are the ones stealing credit, power, and representation from women and people of color.

If marginalized groups, real and fictional, are forced to stay on the margins, then not many people are going to realize that they exist. For instance, there is a whole history of women superhero creators, women gamers, and women SFF authors, who are rarely given appropriate credit or even acknowledged. As a result, female nerds think there’s no place in nerd culture for them. Some avoid participating because they feel unwelcome, and others who try to participate are treated like newbies when they’ve actually been here the entire time. Thus, white men get to keep nerd culture for themselves.

There has always been more to nerd culture than white straight cisgender males and you can find them if you bother to look or just ask. Yet we shouldn’t have to look so hard because nerdiness can exist in anyone. If nerd culture is supposedly a haven for the marginalized, then it shouldn’t be the one doing the marginalizing.

***

Lead image: flickr/Dave Mathis

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