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Growing Up Black and Nerdy

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The other day I went on a rant.

Like any egotist, I thought it was illuminating, articulate and  -- most importantly  --  RT worthy.

For many black and brown folk who grew up preoccupied with varying aspects of nerdery, from Mononoke-hime to Magic the Gathering, at some point you'll have to justify your chosen hobby. Most painfully, it's usually to someone with your own skin tone. It still stings to remember bringing a copy of Super Mario RPG to 3rd grade Show and Tell and getting called an "oreo."

Words like "oreo" (similar to "coconut" or "banana"  --  black/brown/yellow on the outside  --  white on the inside) are intraracial, within the race, slurs used to question a person of color's identity. And while in 2014 the lived spectrum of blackness has visibly widened to include POC scene kids, hipsters, goths, drag queens, coders, gamers, and even presidents, Twitter last night reminded me that there are many POC nerds, or #blerds who grew up having to negotiate their race and chosen hobby.

My own gaming origin story is similar:

I grew up a (spoiled, demanding) only child with a single mother in Little Rock, Arkansas. Arkansas was notorious for gang violence in the mid 1990s. Murders were omnipresent on the nightly news -- "Bless their hearts" my grandmother would say. Every night a black man was murdered by either the police or a rival gang member. My mother was afraid for me.

Fortunately for me, schools in Arkansas are still segregated. Post-desegregation White Flight fractured Arkansas such that the heavily funded Magnet schools were more than 90 percent white, leading to a 1982 lawsuit "which argued that the state had allowed for a series of wide-ranging policies that promoted racial imbalances between the three school systems." In 1989, Arkansas began a series of programs meant to alleviate the imbalance, one of which was the Majority to Minority (M-to-M) transfer program.

The M-to-M program meant seven-year-old me rode the bus an hour every morning and every afternoon out of the city and into a prestigious, lily white magnet elementary school. Well-intentioned as the M-to-M transfer program was, there wasn't much thought given to how throwing black kids from all black neighbors into schools with white kids from all white neighborhoods would be socially alienating. Fitting in at school wasn't the problem, it was back at home: an only child whose only friends were out of the city had made me very solitary. And my mother, influenced no doubt by the color of the men we saw every night on news reports, was wary of me making friends in my own neighborhood.

Perhaps rightly so. In discussing how the difference between black and white neighborhoods affect black poverty, Slate's Jamelle Bouie mentions the disparate impact of juvenile experimentation between black and white youths:

"Youthful experimentation for a white teenager in a suburb might be smoking a joint in a friend's attic. Youthful experimentation for a black teenager might be hanging out with gang members. As Mary Pattillo-McCoy writes in her book Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, "Youth walk a fine line between preparing for success and youthful delinquent experimentation, the consequences of which can be especially serious for black youth."

Black kids don't get a second chance. Trayvon didn't. Jordan didn't. Renisha didn't. And I sure as hell wouldn't have either. However much progressive publications want to applaud changing American views on marijuana usage, smoking weed and drinking were all part of the posthumous smear campaigns justifying the murder of black teenagers, campaigns mired in respectability politics.

Enter: video games. My mom bought me a SNES and a copy of Super Mario World for my birthday. It kept me at home, out of the headlines and in front of my TV. Needless to say it was awesome and acquiring new video games became major life events. From Ogre Battle 64 to Ocarina of Time to Banjo Kazooie. I was in love. Base escapism? Not quite. Video games eased a necessary solitude and eased a fear looming over all black women in America: giving birth to a son that would become a statistic.

I became very different from the black men I saw on the news. I isolated myself from violence by diving head first into gaming fantasies. Naively, I thought nerdery meant I was isolating myself from racism as well.

I was wrong.

The image of "thug" controlled me, just as it controlled any other black man in America --  I wasn't free. I thought that my "oreo" status meant something in between "different from" and "better than" other black men. I had internalized the respectability politics that separated me from that image of black masculinity. I was alienating myself from blackness. My simplistic view of race/racism as a child led to a lot of black resentment: why don't they just stop shooting each other? Why don't they just say "no" to drugs? Why don't they just go to college and get better jobs? Why do they have to be thugs? I'm not a thug.

This static image of black masculinity has been at the center of a long negotiation for me, with social penalties for either conforming to or subverting the stereotype. As I've come to recognize, black folks shouldn't have to do either: we shouldn't be conditioned from childhood to appraise black men, deducting points for sagging pants, loud music or hoodies. We shouldn't call upon anyone to justify our existence. Using video games to isolate myself from blackness had only made me haughty and distrusting of the black men who "bought into" the thug image. In retrospect, I should've been interrogating the image itself and how it's used to appraise, classify and justify the dehumanization of black men.

It's not "just" an image or a game -- it never was.

The image of black masculinity as criminal and terrifying, remarkably uniform across video games and news media, not only led to me questioning and resenting my own blackness, it caused the desegregation anxieties which led to programs like M to M shaping my entire childhood. How astonished my 14-year-old self would've been to learn that video games, my bulwark against racism, borrowed the very same portrayals of black men on the nightly news that fed my distrust of "thuggish" black men.

So ask me again why I have to object, loudly and uncompromisingly, to problematic racist imagery in my favorite medium. Why I balk at the notion of "choosing" to be offended at something. Why I'm incensed when I'm told black people "aren't realistic" for a setting or race "doesn't matter" in designing heroes -- being a minority means even your fantasies are regulated by white believability.

As a child, I chose the cynical, colorblind silence that detractors are pushing upon gamers of color in the comments of every article about racism and gaming. Silence doesn't work and only serves to alienate and exhaust us (leaving white gamers to enjoy their medium free of critique, of course). Video games, though I love them, traffic regularly in normalizing this particular brand of tacit racism and every targeted, troll-led backlash against diversity only speaks to gaming's inseparability from whiteness.

So: racial politics in video games? I'm all for it; we should all "play" our own politics. Stand for anything, just don't stand for silence.

This post originally appeared as 'Being Black and Nerdy' on Medium.com