I tried for a decade to fit into the “nerd” community. It might not be possible.
When I was twelve years old, I was certain I was not a nerd.
Never mind that I was researching in astronomy and loved math and reading. Never mind the thick glasses and the crazy curls I’ve barely, a decade later, learned to control.
I didn’t want to be a nerd. In middle school, I got punched in the eye and was partly colorblind for a month all because some muscled boy thought I was a “geek.” The Big Bang Theory had just started airing and no one knew that nerds were about to take over the world.
What I was certain of is that I was a social misfit. An outcast. Lonely even when not alone. Drawn to other misfits starved for kindness.
During high school, I tried to make friends during stints at particle physics and cosmology centers that were bursting to the brim with nerds. I learned about D&D and complex board games and LARP’ing and xkcd. But I was never invited to join.
Much younger than everyone I worked with, I hadn’t grown up on video games. As a girl growing into my body, I wanted to talk about dresses and relationships — but quickly learned not to. Though I had read many comic books, they were Amar Chitra Katha, not Marvel or DC.
In science, nerds were men. And men didn’t like girls. Especially young, ugly girls.
I made no real friends.
In 2014, I moved to D.C. and went to law school. I grew an hourglass figure and my mom bought me dresses. I cut my hair and got braces. I learned to wear sunscreen.
Suddenly, I was popular. I was still bullied and taken advantage of in ways it would take me years to understand. But on the face of it, I was popular.
I talked to professors and deans in the halls. It felt like the entire student body knew me. But I clicked best with two nerd groups: the legal geeks who actually studied during group reading sessions and a group who hung out on the weekends to debate politics and play board games.
Every single one of these people was a white man. I’d learn later than many of them just wanted to sleep with me.
When some racially or gender diverse people(a white woman or a half-black man) showed up, they would act exactly like the white men, bringing no new language, culture, food, or minority thought to the group. For example, I met two gay black men in my nerd circles. They were both Republican and one said that “black culture” was what was holding black people back.
And here I was, with my Indian accent and my vegetarianism, living with my parents, listening to Hindi music. I didn’t even think the same way these nerds did or speak the same language, sometimes literally. But I loved them anyway. And love comes with blindness.
But I loved them anyway. And love comes with blindness.
I loved board games and fantasy. I loved reading and book clubs and debating politics. I loved D&D and LARP’ing and nerd movies.
So I ignored the many ways that all those things weren’t meant for women and people of color.
I ignored the board games starring only white people and featuring mechanics like genocide*. I ignored the large cup sizes and the cleavage in video games and role-playing games. I ignored that on “The Big Bang Theory,” the women don’t game; they talk about boys and makeup.
I stayed friends with misogynistic people who felt sorry for Harvey Weinstein. “He was a poor ugly nerd,” a couple of friends agreed, “and he had to use his power because hot women never treated him well.”
I wanted to play D&D even if our DM didn’t believe that racial microaggressions were a thing, didn’t support the #MeToo movement, and wouldn’t cast Indians in “white roles.”
I wanted to debate politics and religion, even if “religion” meant Judaism or Christianity (the only religions popular fantasy is based on), and even if the ivory tower political debates were all too real for a child of immigrants.
Sometimes, I stood up for myself. I defended sexual assault victims. I backed out of a LARP where a major plot point was lynching a black man. I publicly quit a “religion and fantasy” book club where after a year they refused to read any diverse authors, though they read the Earthsea trilogy to talk about Buddhism (hint: it’s not written by a Buddhist and gets everything wrong).
Sometimes, I used the racism and sexism to my advantage. Friends of friends often assumed I was an “attractive Asian chick” (my friend circle thought it okay to rate me out of 10), an asset to be won by some lucky guy, not a real nerd. So I’d pretend I was losing or didn’t know how to play board games, playing into their stereotypes. I won all the time.
But it’s not just being a woman and being brown that’s difficult. It’s the character that comes with them. Women are often kind and bond by deep conversations and emotional support. We can tell when other people are sad and always respond to messages asking for help. Indian immigrants are often family-oriented, offer to pay when we eat out, are generous with our money, and don’t really understand Western musicals.
Nerds are almost definitionally selfish, okay with being weird, and insistent on not following “cultural norms,” even when the norms are there so people don’t get hurt. My friends take advantage of me offering to pay but never offer back. Almost all of them didn’t get me a wedding gift, because nerds don’t think gift-giving should be mandatory. None of my friends check up on me when I’m sick. Many of them said they wanted to beat me at board games more than they wanted to win and were confused when I cried.
I found out that every bad thing a nerd does can be excused by their mental health, their introversion, or their difficult background (because they were bullied).
Despite all this, I stayed a nerd. My friends were mostly good people: creative, insanely intelligent, successful, and happy to be pedantic with me.
But I still didn’t belong.
Today, “nerd” is the culture I associate most with. I identify with the introversion and the precise conversations and the child-like sense of wonder. I don’t like it when people who bullied me want to be called nerds now that it’s cool.
But I’m a woman too. I like my fashion design game that I play with a group of loving, international women. We talk about our boyfriends and husbands and our hair and our clothes.
And I’m Indian. I don’t wear shoes in the house, I like chudidars, and I’m unhealthily in love with discounts.
I can’t fix it if I tried. Identity is not something you pick and choose like new clothes.
Identity is not something you pick and choose like new clothes.
And if I have to give up these other strong identities and countless others (attractive, honest, kind, open, passionate, emotional) to be a nerd, maybe they’re not the ones I should be reassessing.
I know I’m going to continue watching every Marvel and Star Wars movie when it comes out (except for Solo which is garbage and doesn’t count). I love sharing my last name with people, which my husband and I chose when we got married: the Quenya (Elvish) word for destiny. I’m about to binge-play Pandemic Legacy.
But I’m not sure I want to be a nerd anymore.
*Small World is one of my favorite games. It has amazing graphics and mechanics and is very simple to learn. But the first game mechanic is killing “Lost Tribes” to clear the board. Really.