Growing up is always tough. But there’s something unique about the black girl nerd experience. There’s no prototype for the black girl nerd; no famous fictional adolescents whose path we could mirror and cling to. I think many of us had to go our own way, figuring everything out as we went along because it felt like we were the only ones. For me, it felt like isolation heaped atop a pile of loneliness. Who can forget those feelings of euphoria upon actually meeting a fellow black girl nerd in high school?
Here are a few things I wish I’d known as a teenager navigating a world rife with racialized sexism and feeling like the odd woman out in all the worlds in which I wanted to belong.
It doesn’t matter if people doubt you. You have nothing to prove.
I think we’ve all had that moment. Maybe you’re in a group conversation with acquaintances or classmates and you reference something geeky without thinking. Someone looks at you in surprise: “You like ____?”
Why is it surprising for me to like something but not the white boy next to me? What other incorrect assumptions are people making about me? That kind of thing used to gnaw away at me. From there, I would always subconsciously look for a chance to further prove people’s assumptions about me wrong.
Now that I’m older, I’ve reached the point in my life where I’ve decided that it’s better not to wonder about just how secretly racist the people around me might be. That only came from growing secure in who I am which admittedly, took years. So here’s my first piece of advice to a young me and arguably, the most important: Take the time to really get to know yourself and discover who you want to be. Build a little cocoon of self-love and exploration. Lock everything else out until you feel strong in who you are, irrespective of outside influences and opinions. It’s worth the effort.
There’s more to science-fiction and fantasy than white male creators.
This may seem obvious to some, but the whiteness of fantasy can seem unchangeable and immovable when you’re new to that world. When you’re used to seeing seas of white characters, people of color in lead roles may seem unfathomable, women of color even more so. Unfortunately, you have to actively search for your idols. Luckily, they exist and show that you are not alone. Writers like Octavia Bulter, N.K. Jemisin, and Nalo Hopkinson changed the game, and they’re black women. Give Tolkien a break and take some time to seek out stories that have all the elements you love without erasing your identity. It will change your life.
It’s not your job to educate or argue with anyone.
There are always going to be asshats, especially on the internet ready to say something racist and sexist. You will encounter people that will make you wonder if their one goal in life is to try and invalidate as many lived black experiences as they can. I will say it right now: don’t always engage. It can be tempting to rise up and meet any on-coming battle when you’re young and passionate, but be careful not to wear yourself out. Consider every possible fight with unapologetic selfishness: What will you get out of this exchange? If responding will make you feel better, then don’t hold back, but if the thought of ‘getting into it’ again makes you feel tired, walk away and save your energy for what matters.
For me, that meant writing and creating. I learned to channel the frustration I felt into something that made me feel productive and inspired. Blogging about life as a black girl geek helped me to feel comfortable in my voice and opinions. When people would comment saying they’d dealt with the same things I wrote about and felt comforted by reading my posts, I felt like I was taking something negative and turning it into a positive. Find what works for you.
It’s never just a movie; media representation matters. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t.
When you talk about what it’s like to consume media as a black woman and having to deal with random instances of flagrant racism and sexism when all you want to do is relax and read a book, people will come out of the woodwork to tell you that it doesn’t matter. They will say that you’re looking for something to be offended about, that you’re thinking too much about it, blah blah blah. Ignore it and trust your voice. If it matters to you, then chances are, it matters to someone else.
How often did you watch something growing up and get a sinking feeling when you heard yet another tired black woman joke? Maybe it was a visual gag – the sexually promiscuous big black woman whose valid desires are played for cheap laughs. Maybe it’s a run-of-the-mill ‘ghetto black woman’ character whose over-the-top sassiness is supposed to make us laugh because look how loud and ghetto she is and how visibly uncomfortable it makes the white protagonist. Hahaha?
Now imagine how much better you would have felt if there was just anyone, anywhere, saying that it wasn’t okay, that characters who look like you didn’t always have to be the easy punchline. That people like you could be characters in their own right, rather than offensive cardboard cutouts filtered through the white male gaze. Don’t be silenced by people who don’t get it, because the words you swallowed down could have helped someone else find their own.
You can like something and still criticize it.
If discussing and analyzing the messed up racist scenes you saw on your favorite TV shows makes you feel better about what the heck you just watched, then do it. Liking something does not mean you can’t criticize it. In fact, sometimes that may be the only way to manage to continue liking some things at all. It’s not a crime. You can still consider yourself a fan.
Find your online home(s).
Sometimes all you’re looking for is for someone else to say, ‘Yeah, woah, that was crazy racist, it’s not just you.’ But that doesn’t always happen. Reading comments sections or online discussions can make you feel absolutely hopeless, especially if you’re looking for kindred spirits. This is why it’s important to find spaces where the conversations you care about having are taking place and, if need be, remove yourself from certain fandoms rather than argue with virtual brick walls. Find blogs you like with voices you can relate to. If you can’t find anything that suits you or you just feel inspired to make something new, then create your own space. WordPress is free and ridiculously easy to use. It makes you a part of the solution.
Above all else, remember this: your voice is valid and worthy of being shared.
Was growing up a black girl nerd hard for you? If you could share any words of wisdom with your younger self, what would they be?
Sharon Lynn Pruitt is a writer who divides her time between Middle Earth and the Midwest. She blogs about black feminism and geek culture at thugnerdlife.wordpress.com and struggles to complain in 140 characters or less on Twitter at @SLPruitt.