And Nerdiness For All

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I watched this Weird Al video awhile back. It was sort of funny; sort of. Not worth linking to or sharing. What bothered me about it, and kept me from enjoying it as much as I might have, was how it equated whiteness with nerdiness. I mean, what about the nerds of other colors? It made me sad to think of some chess-playing 13-year-old African-American math geek seeing this video and getting the message (couched in a well-meaning and silly music video that clearly means no harm) that having dark skin means you can’t be nerdy.

I put the video out of my mind until I read this post — written by a black physicist — who notes that not only does the video equate whiteness and nerdiness, it also equates dark skin with slightly thuggy ghetto behavior.

I think Weird Al is funny. I know he means no harm. But even this goofy video perpetuates stereotypes that I’m just sick of. I, a lover of science, don’t like to see anybody kept out of the club.

Why am I whining? Because the perpetuation of race and gender stereotypes harms lives and limits achievement. In a recent scientific study (read more about it here), women were asked to take a reading comprehension test and then do some math problems. As part of the reading part of the test, some of the women were given materials that “either contended that there is a genetic difference between men and women in math ability, or discussed the images of women in art — a reading which did not discuss math but was designed to remind them of being female.”

The women in the two reading groups mentioned above scored lower on the math portion of the tests. As the NYT says, Expectations, it turns out, really do make a difference. “The findings suggest that people tend to accept genetic explanations as if they’re more powerful or irrevocable, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies…”

The other day I found a physics blog that I really liked. I scrolled down, reading, and eventually discovered that the writer was a young woman. I’d just assumed — ME, A CARD-CARRYING FEMINIST AND CHEMISTRY STUDENT — that the writer was a man.

Because it was a physics blog I was reading. And apparently, to some part of me physics means men. I deduce from this is that I am prejudiced against women, and that I unconsciously have trouble perceiving women as people who can do math and physics, EVEN THOUGH I MYSELF DO MATH AND AM HEADED FOR PHYSICS.

Why do I feel this way? I think it’s because certain sexist ideas and beliefs (“like football, hard math is for boys”) were ingrained into me by my society, by my family, by the people around me. Who for the most part, just like Weird Al, meant no harm.

I think that acts of sexism and racism in American society are now rarely overt. I think they’re quieter and sneakier than that. I think that they’re a 37-year-old feminist American female quietly assuming that anyone who writes a technical physics blog is male. I think that they’re Weird Al Yankovic assuming that “nerds” are white by definition, and that whiteness and blackness can be contrasted as nerdiness and “ghettoness.”

Stereotypes and labels can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Here’s a recent example from my own life. My math prof, perhaps seeing that I have decent homework grades but god-awful test scores, began treating me as math-anxious: asking me if I wanted to take my test separately in a quiet area, etc. In a few days flat, I found myself — an A-B student who made an A in Cal I — with dreadful math anxiety. The idea of suffering from “math anxiety” framed my suspicions and worst fears. I felt singled-out, deficient.

I’m now I’m convinced that I’ll fail every quiz. And since my self-diagnosis of math anxiety, I have. I now feel noticeably more nervous when asking questions and digesting the simplest of explanations, and for the first time in my life have begun blanking on tests and quizzes. I suspect that my anxiety — certainly already present — was exacerbated by being treated like I had more problems with math than I actually had. (BTW my math professor, a kind and perceptive person, truly meant well.)

I’ve caught myself feeling fleeting surprise when I do well in math. Why? Because some part of me “knows” that women can’t do math well. Because some part of me “knows” that someone with a performance background and some measure of artistic ability cannot possibly do math well. Some part of me knows that those closest to me are surprised by my mathematical ascension — to college! to calculus! — and it just can’t wait to shuck the burden of keeping them surprised.

Stereotypes are insidious and their perpetuation is harmful. That’s the reason for this post. Perhaps the most ruinous prejudice in society today is not the overt prejudice practiced solely by idiots, but the secret, hidden, dreadfully wrong beliefs we hold cell-deep inside us. The prejudices we hold against ourselves. There is part of us that somehow welcomes the many tiny defeats that, so wrongly, we believe help align us with who we are supposed to be.

ADDENDUM 10/26

OK, I watched the video again today and damn, it made me laugh. And I note that Weird Al is contrasting himself with “gangsters,” not black people. But I agree with Dr. Johnson of Asymptotia that a dark-skinned nerd (not to mention a few girlnerds) really would have helped the mix. Sorry to be so PC, people, but stupid stereotypes about women is one of the things that helped keep me from studying science for 15 years. I’m not too late, but I’d just as soon have been on time and believed and understood myself and my abilities from the start.

4 responses to “And Nerdiness For All

  1. Wow, what an awesome post to have gotten linked from.

    It’s funny that it hadn’t really occured to me that people wouldn’t know that I was female from most of what I put on my blog. I don’t like to make a big deal about it most of the time because I don’t like constantly drawing peoples attention to the fact that I am different. I’d rather just be different and hope that that speaks for itself.

    I get asked all of the time why there aren’t more women going into physics and the only answer I have for them is that I don’t really know because I don’t seem as affected by it somehow. I’ll also usually point out though that I never believed that math or science was something I couldn’t do.

    Good luck with your courses.

  2. Hi Jenn,

    Wow, I never met anybody else named Jennifer before! :0)

    I think it’s GREAT that it never occurred to you that somebody might read your blog and assume you’re a man. I figure you’re about 10 years younger than me (I’m 37), so I think that maybe you’re part of a generation that more easily slipped the chains of self-deceit than mine did.

    Who knows what forces conspired to make you more able to geek out than I was — greater desire and greater ability might well be part of it.

    I’m guessing you’re from a nerdy family with at least one nerdy parent. I’m also guessing your talents were recognized early and given free rein. And if I’m right on both counts I’m delighted for you!

    Who knows what kept me behind… I don’t come from a nerdy family, I was sent to crappy schools, I’m from the (at times) conservative and repressive South (I love my home, but I didn’t love being treated like a freak for playing with a BB gun while female), I was belittled throughout childhood for my nontraditional interests and desires (G.I Joes and microscopes). I never had a math or science mentor, except for Carl Sagan, whom I worshiped.

    But in the end, here I am in college nerding out with all the other nerds and pretty much fitting right in at last. I might have a few complaints, but mostly I’m just glad to be here, and glad to see a younger generation of women who’ve always been free to be total nerds.

    I enjoy your blog and plan to be back for lots more! Keep up the blue hair and nerd-girl t-shirts. :0)

    Jennifer

  3. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for noticing, and thanks for keeping the debate alive. It is an important one. In reference to the excllent remarks you made about doing well in mathematics despite the “knowing” that you shouldn’t according to stereotypes that prevail, see my post on that issue, with regards recent test results. The link is here. I’m curious to know what you think.

    Best,

    -cvj

  4. Jennifer,

    I don’t agree with most of your assumptions. Consider that your reaction to the video was to contrast what you knew of reality (Black nerds exist) with what you were seeing. Likewise a black nerd (no offense sir) felt that not all black people were as ‘cool’ as those in the video. I doubt there are many people who think or react so differently than you. By exaggerating and poking fun at several different stereotypes in the video, the artist is actually helping to discredit them. Not only does the video do no harm, it is very nearly a public service. Let’s give Al some credit. It’s not an easy feat being this amusing when arguing against stereotypes.

    Best Wishes,

    Captain Gizmo
    (White Nerd)

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