Finding safe spaces for authentic self-expression is helping Black nerds harness the most powerful weapon against bullying: self-love.
Published on October 2, 2023
Omizie, a 16-year-old Canadian student, remembers the first time her mom put Sailor Moon on TV when she was little. She was so enchanted by the beautiful outfits and magical transformation sequences that she would throw around her blankets in an attempt to replicate the scenes. Similarly, she has fond memories of playing Need for Speed with her dad before her small hands could even fit around the controller. Both of her parents were into the same things that she’s now into. Video games, anime, comic books–all of it. She credits her nerdy interests to them.
“My mom actually went to my first convention with me and dragged me to the 90s area of the vendor hall because she had to get some merch as well,” she says. “Even though my parents don’t fully understand what cosplay is, they are still very supportive of it. My cosplays and TikToks have been posted on my mom’s Facebook too many times for me to count!”
Blerd–or Black nerd–is described as the intersectionality of Blackness and geek culture. The term was popularized by the fictional character Dr. Turk in the medical comedy TV series Scrubs. The idea of a blerd has changed from Omizie’s parents’ time to what it is now. From the uncool, know-it-all portrayals of Carlton Banks and Steve Urkel, blerd is now repped by the likes of Megan Thee Stallion, Michael B. Jordan, Denzel Curry, and a host of other famous Black stars who unapologetically and openly talk about their obsession with nerdy media.
In one of his Comedy Central stand-up specials, self-proclaimed blerd Donald Glover said “I’m a Black nerd and that was illegal until like 2003.” While true, it still feels as though Black people don’t have a seat at the nerd table. We still remain heavily underrepresented in science and tech as well as mainstream depictions of nerds (e.g. The Big Bang Theory). Even in the gaming community, a refusal to fairly represent Black characters in fantasy settings while making white characters the gold standard purposefully excludes blerds completely. Moreso, Black gamers are exposed to racism, harassment and bullying when playing online, isolating them further.
The Europhilic nerd culture–in its lack of diversity and overt resistance to Black depictions–leaves blerds in limbo.
Because of this exclusion, teen blerds like Omizie say that identifying as a blerd helps build a sense of community. “Going to anime and comic conventions, and stuff like that, seeing other Black people participating in the same nerdy things as you is very comforting. We also see a lot of blerd conventions pop up most notably being Dream Con that happened a few weeks ago. You can feel a sense of community in the photos and videos and streams that people were doing. I love being able to relate to other Black teens, not only with race and ethnicity but also similar interests.”
The ability to dive into fandom spaces with people just like her is a wonderful form of escapism, she explains. “Being able to shut out my responsibilities, whether that’s my part-time job or my schoolwork, and be able to talk in a discord server with other blerds. Go on TikTok live and talk about the next upcoming video game with other Black nerds. It is amazing and refreshing!”
Omizie spends her free time as a cosplayer and Twitch streamer, but she doesn’t shy away from using her platform to express her thoughts on what it’s like being a Black teen navigating the “nerd” space. In one of her TikToks she describes being a blerd as an odd experience but knowing that there are other Black teens like her provides her with comfort.
“We can’t deny that there is a lot of racism across the Internet and we also see that in a lot of nerdy spaces. Especially as someone who cosplays you see that there’s not a lot of acceptance for Black people. Constantly being told that I don’t look like the character because I’m Black. Or being told that I’m whitewashed because I’m into more nerdy stuff,” she explains.
Finding Your People
“I remember joining a chat with other Black cosplayers, and I was so relieved because I was able to relate to their experiences, and they were able to relate to mine. And now, whenever I go to conventions, I look out for Black people just to feel that sense of community, knowing “you’re just like me.” If you’ve ever seen the Black nod, I do that to all the Black cosplayers I see at conventions and most of the time they do it back,” Omizie says.
Her advice for younger people struggling to find community is to look online. “I know online spaces can still be a very dangerous place. But I found so many of my Black nerdy friends through TikTok and Instagram. And if you aren’t comfortable with talking to people online, going to conventions is also a great way!”
Similarly, 16-year-old Kaz from New Jersey says that one of the highlights of being in the blerd community has been meeting up with other blerds and Black cosplayers at conventions. “I went to my first-ever convention last year and it was absolutely amazing. I’ve now been to three TotalCons, and my favorite part is getting to meet up and hang out with other blerds.”
Kaz says he was always fascinated by things that were considered geeky or nerdy. “I was probably around 7 when I started to get into comic books and superheroes. I would always create my own comics and fantasy worlds. On top of that I loved dressing up and cosplaying my own characters as well as the ones I loved.”
He explains that while being a part of the Black community hasn’t always been the easiest, the blerd community has done a lot for him. “I often found it difficult to relate to other Black kids my age because they didn’t like the things I did. However it [the blerd community] helped me to build bonds with other people over our experiences of being a blerd and make friends that understand me in a way others couldn’t.”
Outside of the community, Kaz admits he sometimes has a hard time. “I’ve been struggling with both depression and anxiety since I was in the 7th grade. My anxiety makes it extremely difficult to talk to people and do a lot of things other teens my age do. The blerd community helped me come to terms with the fact that I am not weird or strange for liking what I do. Because I have a community of people like me, now I’m very proud of my interests and love to share them with the world.”
Creating a Safe Space for Blerds
Speaking to Bayana A. Davis, Co-Founder of Black Nerds Create, she observes that it’s important to have a specific space for Black nerds for the same reason it’s important for Black folks to have their own spaces in general. “Fandoms and nerd spaces tend to be very white, which can be isolating if you can’t find your people, but to have other Black folks and community can help build your sense of belonging within nerd spaces, which can allow you to engage more fully.”
She says that the blerd community can be particularly helpful for teenagers by simply by welcoming them with open arms. “As adults, we can show how being a nerd is something that only enhances our lives whether it’s through building critical thinking skills, developing creativity, and making friends.”
“Having a space for teens to explore things like blogging, podcasting, writing fanfiction, costume making, and other forms of content creation can help them build community with other like-minded folks within their fandoms.” She mentions that it’s equally as important for parents to invest in their children’s interests, if possible. “Buying them games, getting fabric to make costumes, signing them up for nerdy camps (shout out to Mythik Camps).”
At a minimum, she suggests, all parents really have to do to let their teenagers be nerds is encourage them. “That means not dismissing their interests.”
Davis explains what her teen years were like with supportive parents. “Growing up my parents would take me to movie premieres, or buy me a new book when it dropped, encouraging my interests even when they didn’t really get it. Currently, I’m really active in my kid sister’s life and have helped to shape her nerd identity just by introducing her to different media, enrolling her in nerdy camps, and overall encouraging her creativity.”
Since her younger years, Davis thinks that the idea of a blerd has changed for the better. “When I was a kid, in some ways “nerd” still had that negative connotation. I didn’t start really identifying as a nerd until maybe college but I always sort of embraced those qualities about myself, even if they weren’t always as prominent.”
“Growing up I was mostly a nerd in isolation, but now there are so many spaces and communities for Black nerds (for example, the Black Nerds Create community), and it’s sort of become ubiquitous and a lot easier to find your space where it may not have necessarily been before.”