Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson answers science questions from the crowd at the Williamsburg Waterfront on July 29, 2011, in New York City. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Back in the days when I was young - I’m not a kid anymore - I think I lived pretty squarely in nerd territory. And because I'm Black, we'll refer to it as blerd, though I will mostly use the term nerd. Urkel was my muse. We’re talking early 90s and well into high school. Or maybe still now? I have no idea and I’m having an existential crisis about it.

Also, I had to look up existential just now to make sure I was using it right, which I’m not sure is something a nerd would have to do. Except I was listening to Larry Wilmore’s “Black on the Air” podcast and Neil deGrasse Tyson - possibly the world’s unquestionably coolest nerd - didn’t know what the word “preternatural” meant, and I did, so maybe I’m back on the nerd foot? As you can see, I’m having a crisis. And for those wondering, “preternatural” means to exist outside of the norm of nature, in simple terms.

Why am I asking myself this question? I’m glad you asked. Nerd culture seems to be fairly popular nowadays. While nerds have long lived outside of the mainstream, heckled as the picture of anti-cool at every turn, and teased for being smart and awkward - again Steven Q. Urkel - it seems that the full embrace of one’s nerd-dom isn’t as socially outcastful as it once was. Or maybe that’s just nerds who are adults. In fact, that’s probably accurate. The older you get, the more control you have over the composition of your peer group and as such the stigmas and sensitivities that can occur in grade school don’t have to exist. If you want to find a bunch of people who like to dress up in furry costumes, there’s an actual convention for that. Not just a chatroom, a convention.

Back to why I’m asking: I listen to lots of podcasts these days, some for leisure and some for information and education on things I didn’t know. There are SO many dope informational podcasts out there (Malcolm Gladwell's "Revisionist History" comes immediately to mind).  Some I listen to in order to learn about people and platforms I’ve heard of but haven’t really engaged with. One such platform is called Black Girl Nerds. They have a popular podcast (the site and podcast is run by a woman named Jamie Broadnax), and often have great content about topics that are, I suppose, native to the nerd. Except, none of it, to me, seems that nerdy, at least how I currently think of nerd-dom. Sure the level of knowledge about comic book writers and story-lines might seem to reach nerd levels, but I know minutiae about hip-hop artists and producers and have studied these individuals and bought books (leather-bound ones to boot) to absorb as much information as possible about the culture and can discuss at length about said topic. Is that nerdy?

Listening to the podcasts, which I highly recommend as they are very interesting in topic and scope, and talking to friends of mine who call themselves nerds has made me wonder what exactly makes one a blerd or nerd. Even rappers - the ostensible cool kid on campus - seem to be nerdy in ways that used to be pejorative. I’ve long joked that rappers today look like the guys rappers used to beat up. Basically, rappers today look like the nerds of yesteryear. Some of it is performative, some of it is the new accessible world we live in that allows anybody with access to a computer to take their talents to the marketplace.


But what is a nerd? What are the qualifications? I like comic books and still own my comic book collection from my youth. I was a straight A student who took all the AP classes in high school. I was part of Math clubs and wrote an entire piece about my TI-83 calculator. But at various points from middle school to high school, I also played sports and was on the homecoming courts and prticipated in SGA. I was on all the smarty art kid lists and in all the honor societies, and still like to read science-centric magazines and journals.

According to the world’s most accurate source of information not named Ja Rule, Wikipedia:

A nerd is a person seen as overly intellectual, obsessive, or lacking social skills. Such a person may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, little known, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical, abstract, or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities.


Personally I like to think of myself as intellectual though I’m not sure what overly means. If you knew what I did for a living though, you would would say that I work at a nerd factory as my entire employable existence is rooted in the creation of mathematical models and spreadsheet analysis of those mathematical models. Basically I math shit for a living and that seems nerdy, though maybe not as nerdy as friends of mine who neuroscience shit.

I’ve been accused of having OCD a time or thousand. I do have social skills, but more and more people that I think I’d call nerdy, or who refer to themselves as nerds seem to do just fine in the social skills department too. My point here is that I’m not sure those three criteria “count” anymore. I think when we are talking of nerdiness we’re talking specifically to the second sentence in the definition about non-mainstream activities and the realm of the abstract and fantasy. At one point in time, I think gamers would be considered nerdy, but that’s a billion dollar industry of which all the cool kids participate. Are the cool kids the nerds nowadays?

I don’t even know exactly what a non-mainstream activity is, and maybe that right there is enough to disqualify me from the running of the nerds. I do enjoy the world of the fantastical and I remember being an avid Dungeons and Dragons player as a kid. I definitely never got on the Pokemon Go bandwagon but I also don’t know if mentioning that makes me even less of a nerd than before.


So I’m not sure if I’m a nerd, but I’ve spent a lot of my youth being called a nerd, but almost never in a negative context as I think we used to typically think of them. I almost think that being a nerd is the cool thing now. Nerd culture is everywhere. Seeing people dressed up to go see Star Wars isn’t just a nerd thing, it’s a gotdamn rite of passage. But again, maybe I’m just off base on what makes a nerd which is why I’m not a nerd even if maybe I used to be one. I think. I used to read the encyclopedias for fun so I think PJ aged 12 was solid as a rock.

But I ask: What makes a nerd? Or a Blerd (Black Nerd)? Is there a difference? Are you a nerd? Why?

Nerd out. Or nerd; out. I don’t know, man.