This past week, the nerd community saw the release of one of the most anticipated trailers of the year, Star Wars Episode VII. Unfortunately, almost immediately afterwards we also saw some Twitter trolls start the offensive hashtag: BoycottStarWarsVII. The campaign was supposedly created to stop Star Wars from pushing a evil multicultural agenda of tolerance and acceptance, because there are some people out there who just aren’t fans of Lando Calrissian, or nuanced and informed discussion. Those people are morons, but in a world where important conversations about identity, gender, and racial divides are conducted with hashtags, at least they have given us this opportunity to have a dialogue about multiculturalism in geekdom. A big part of the problem is the way that people of diverse -and especially African American backgrounds- are not always perceived as being stereotypically nerdy, but nothing could further from the truth.
Missing the Target with Stormtroopers
Let’s face it. The outrage over a black stormtrooper or the outrage over a multicultural Star Wars cast is completely ridiculous. It is the same kind of outrage we saw over the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, the creation of Miles Morales, or any one of a thousands or so similar incidents. It is possible that sometimes nerds don’t mean to be racist, and they get so caught up in canonical in-fighting that they fail to realize what they are doing. It is also possible some people are just terribly ignorant.
However, the nerd community does not share the fault alone, as the media does not do a good job of embracing the idea of a black-nerd, or “blerd.” When Hollywood thinks of geeks, they think male, white, Asian, or even Indian. -Basically the cast of the Big Bang.- Welcome to the struggle of the blerd, but why is that the case? There have been plenty of famous black nerds, Raj in What’s Happening, Carlton in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and of course Steve “I am the goddamn nerd king” Urkel in Family Matters. Yet, Hollywood and geekdom in general still struggle with casting African American leads in science fiction, fantasy, and comic entertainment, partially because they fear the choice will put off those big juicy, money-spending, white male, geek crowds. Worse yet, when they finally do buckle and add a little variety, it is the members of that very same nerd community who are the first to rage or completely disregard such casting choices as nothing more than “political correctness,” and that has a lot do with our collective cultural stereotypes of the black community in general.
For this article, we are not looking to get into the complexities of black culture or how the media and white culture perceives black culture, or how black culture may perceive itself through the mirrored lens of the media. Mostly, because we don’t have the time, historical perspective, or proper doctoral degrees to really do the subject any justice. For now, let’s just say that living up to the media’s standards of being black in America means you often find yourself stuck along very rigid stereotype lines, and very few of the prescribed roles that the media assigns to African Americans involves being nerdy.
The Trials of Mace Windu
When a black character gets portrayed it is often along certain stock-lines such as a sports star, a rapper, or the bad ass. We love Mace Windu as one of the only good things about the prequels but he has an undeniable Samuel L. Jackson quality about him. Now that is not a bad thing, but not every black Jedi needs to be Shaft with a lightsaber. Why couldn’t Qui Gon Jinn or any other Jedi have been black too? Why do we only seem to get one representation at a time? By portraying African Americans so heavily along the roles of gang members, criminals, and even “the cool one” the media helps create the perception that these are really the only acceptable things young black men or women can be. So for years, the very idea of the black comic book nerd or the black science fiction nerd was forgotten. We’re not saying that they didn’t exist, just that they were not made visible by Hollywood for the viewing audience at large. In fact, when blerds were portrayed at all, many perceived those characters as “acting white,” because smart and uncool have not been the standard labels for young African Americans. So whenever we got the black nerd character, he was only ever portrayed as the person who was rejected by the show’s wider community. Both Carlton and Urkel started as comparison characters to the show’s “cooler” characters. In other words, they were not the characters that were “normal” or worth emulating. Even if they did eventually become some of the most popular characters on their respected shows.
Thankfully that perception is changing, slowly but surely. When you really open your eyes and take notice you see blerds everywhere, and it is amazing. People like Aisha Tyler, Damon Waynes Jr., Donald Glover and Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson have come to epitomize what it means to be black and nerdy. Characters such as Turk from Scrubs, Toofer from 30 Rock, Gus from Psych, and Troy from Community, helped to put forth new roles for African American nerds in Hollywood, even if their shows are now all canceled. No longer are these characters the punching bag or the annoying friend. They are funny, smart, and fun to be around. In the past decade it has started to become cool to like cartoons, comics, sci-fi,.and be a little weird. That has helped the blerd gain some prominence, but unfortunately even with these positive role models, studios, social media, and geekdom at large, still hesitate and debate over the merits of casting African Americans in starring roles.
Will Smith may have starred in Men in Black, Laurence Fishburne may have played Morpheus, Samuel L. Jackson may be Nick Fury, but the minute you cast an African American actor as a stormtrooper the Internet breaks. People will point to characters like Falcon, Zoe Washburne, Static Shock, Black Panther, Uhura, or Captain Benjamin Sisko as example of diversity in geekdom, and they would be right. However, those characters are just a good start, and not a justification for why we need an all white cast for Episode VII. Being a nerd should be about including all people and most importantly giving everyone a hero they can look up to and say, “He/she is like me. I can be a hero, a Jedi, a stormtrooper, a Galactic senator, or whatever I want to be,” because that has always been the magic and importance of our shared nerd heritage.
Gambling on Lando Calrissian
Many people will inevitably wonder why we need a separate label for a black nerd. Those will be the same people who will wonder aloud why February is Black History Month, or why “only” Black Lives Matter? What those people need to understand is that saying that Black Lives Matter is not the same as saying only black lives matter. It is a reminder that black lives matter too. Similarly, giving one the label of blerd does not mean they are separate from other nerds. As a race and as a minority African Americans have been poorly under-represented, or worst yet represented poorly through the lens of media stereotypes. The blerd label -much like the Black Lives Matters campaign- is way to remind us that African Americans are not just two-dimensional stereotypes. They are humans who are entitled to life, hopes, dreams, and the freedoms to swing a stick around their head and make lightsaber noises. We all need to remember that nerds and people come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors, and they all deserve respect.
Hollywood forgets that sometimes. It is easier to typecast people in certain roles, because it is accepted by the culture at large. Thus the fanboy backlash from casting an African American in a previously white role may sometimes force studios to temper otherwise multicultural and innovative choices. However, as easy as it would be to blame the media for the lack of ethnic diversity in the movies we love so much, it is not entirely their fault. They are far from perfect in fostering equal casting opportunities, but it starts with us, the fan community. As a famous leader once said. “The change you wish to see in the world, you must be, hmm.” Acceptance and equality start with each of us.
Blerd Lives Matter because all nerd lives and loves matter, regardless of color or creed. We need to encourage more diversity in our movies, television shows, comics, literature, and lives. As a community, we geeks and nerds need to start demanding a fair balance of positive racial representation, and more importantly we need to stop raging every time Hollywood makes a stormtrooper black. -It is a perfectly conical choice.- There will always be people out there with poorly conceived hashtags because they are filled with bigotry. Yet we cannot let them be the voice for our larger community. Geekdom is full of great and accepting people, and we have to make sure that the only minority we disregard is the minority of people who want to do nothing more than spread their message of fear, because that leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to a darker-side for us all.