Hidden Figures Taraji P. Henson Black nerds

"Hidden Figures"

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Geek culture has reached its public apex: From the DC Comics Arrowverse airing weekly on The CW to Netflix's successful series of Marvel adaptations, comic book superheroes are airing in primetime, dominating the movie box office, and bringing nerd culture from comics conventions to the masses.

No place is this more evident than the success of "Hidden Figures," a historical drama about three Black female mathematicians who helped NASA send astronauts to space. Instead of marketing "Hidden Figures" specifically to Black audiences or space aficionados, 20th Century Fox mass marketed the film.

It paid off: "Hidden Figures" has now earned more than $119 million, making it the top-grossing Oscar nominee, according to Entertainment Weekly. The cast also won the best ensemble Screen Actor's Guild award.

The success of "Hidden Figures" also proved a point Black nerds have been making for a long time: Geek culture isn't inherently white — and perpetuating it as such excludes a large swath of Black nerds. 

There are several reasons why geekiness is often associated with whiteness.

photo: GIPHY

Historically, the majority of comic book superheroes have been white, according to The History Guy. They weren't created with the intention of inclusion, which reflected the cultural segregation of institutions, like schools and churches. 

"It's difficult to get around the fact that so many iconic heroes — comic book heroes in particular — were created in a time without our current sensibilities," screenwriter Eric Anthony Glover told Revelist. "The industry created this incredible pantheon of characters without blinking about its 'lack of diversity' in the '30s, '40s, and '50s."

Couple this lack of racial sensibility with the whiteness of DC and Marvel's earliest writing staffs, and it becomes clear that inclusion wasn't prioritized in any level of the comic book-creating process.

"There has been such a long-standing history of exclusion of people of color within this subculture which is why whiteness has always been associated with geekiness or nerdiness," Jamie Broadnax, creator of Black Girl Nerds, told Revelist.

That doesn't mean there weren't always Black people engaging in nerd culture.
"There have always been people of color and women and queer people participating in the things that we’d consider as modern geek culture but, as is often the case, their voices haven't been the ones that are elevated," Charles Pulliam-Moore, reporter at Fusion, told Revelist. "So what you get is the idea that this space and these themes belong solely to white guys and that's just not the case."

Although Marvel introduced the first Black superhero, Black Panther, in 1966, geek culture is still struggling to be more intersectional and inclusive.

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For instance, Black cosplayers, or comic book fans who don replica costumes of their favorite characters, are often met with resistance when they choose to portray white characters.

Cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch experienced this firsthand when she wore a Sailor Venus costume to A-Kon 21, an anime convention in Dallas, Texas. In an essay for xoJane, Cumberbatch wrote that white nerds wrote hateful messages about her skin complexion, nose, and hair online.

"My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a 'face like a gorilla' and wasn't suited for such a cute character, because I am Black," she wrote. "My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn't blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being Black and having it on my head."

Pulliam-Moore has heard stories similar to Cumberbatch's experience.

"Each and every single person of color that I know who's ever attended a comic book convention has had that experience of cosplaying as their favorite character only to have that moment where the authenticity of their costume is called out because they aren't the 'right' race or ethnicity," he said. "The bigger issue at hand, though, has always been a lack of imagination on the part of those people who like to play gatekeeper." 

None of this surprises Glover.

"Some white fans' anger at seeing beloved (and sometimes not even that beloved) characters turned brown tends to automatically come with a wave of rage-filled comments and feelings of betrayal," he said. "It's frustrating at first, and then it just becomes white noise."

Black nerds are also attacked online for highlighting the flaws in nerd culture, including the whitewashing of characters of color.

photo: GIPHY

Glover told Revelist that detractors left hurtful and vicious comments on an article he wrote about whitewashing in "Mortal Kombat."

"The site I wrote for required a photo of me to be attached to every article, so these commenters saw what I looked like. And one of them wrote, 'Of course you're Black. Of course," meaning "only a Black person would complain about this stuff," he said. "That comment made it clear that my Blackness was the only reason I'd care about how damaging whitewashing could be."

For Black female nerds, in particular, racism and sexism can make them feel uncomfortable in nerd spaces.

"I've definitely encountered sexism going into comic book stores," Broadnax said. "I would get the obligatory stare from the comic book shop owner with the look that clearly asked, 'what is she doing here?' They would refuse to help me or would point me in the direction of comics that featured super feminine cartoon characters as if I couldn't get into an 'X-Men' or an 'Avengers' book."

This resistance is one of the reasons Black people are hesitant to partake in nerd culture, according to Broadnax. They often have to fight to get their voices heard.

photo: GIPHY

"I think the challenge we currently face is just being able to have our voices acknowledged," she said. "If we have concerns about issues of race, gender or sexuality, just listen. Listening to marginalized voices are important because often we don't get a seat at the table."

For Pulliam-Moore, who has routinely written about inclusion in comics, it's all about having as many people from marginalized communities as possible critiquing comics.

"At times, it can seem as if, like, the 'diversity in comics' beat is almost too crowded, but then there are moments where you zoom out and take stock of the writing that’s out there and what writing is looked to as being authoritative," he said. "You realize that there can never be enough women, people of color, and queer folks writing about this stuff because once there’s a mass of us, our voices stop being seen as niche and become part of what shapes the paradigm."

Black nerds are particularly vocal when it comes to the lack of on-screen diversity. Even though Netflix has "Luke Cage," there's a Black superhero on "The Flash" and "Supergirl," and comic books have experienced an explosion of diversity, but most superheroes are still white, straight men.

"It may be that a majority of superheroes are white males," comic book artist Neil Adams told The Huffington Post Canada. "But that's because they used to all be white males, except for Wonder Woman and Black Canary, and maybe one or two others."

Black nerds are rising to the challenge though. With movements like #28DaysOfCosplay, Black nerds are resisting the exclusion in nerd culture.

photo: GIPHY

Broadnax created Black Girl Nerds in February 2012 after Googling the term and not finding content that represented her. She created her Black Girl Nerds blog the same night. 

"[It] went from being a blog about me and my personal musings, to a website filled with tons of content and several different perspectives—a lifestyle magazine of sorts," Broadnax told Paste Magazine. "I never expected that it would grow to be this."

Black Girl Nerds isn't the only online community dedicated to nerds of color. As Broadnax pointed out, there's also The Nerds of Color, A Tribe Called Geeks, and The Black Geeks. She's partnering with The Black Geeks for Universal Fan Con, which she described as a convention "devoted to inclusion of people of color, women, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities."

For Glover, writing underrepresented characters and praising inclusive shows are his way of resisting exclusion in nerd culture.

"I write screenplays meant for underrepresented actors and characters, and I have every intention of getting them sold," he said. "I'm traveling to the Los Angeles area next week to take part in a screenwriting fellowship, and while I'm there I'll be networking to circulate my script featuring an all-female core cast and queer characters."

All of this is part of taking a rightful seat the table, according to Pulliam-Moore.

"There’s this idea that if your knowledge of [insert fandom here] isn't encyclopedic that you don't deserve to move through certain spheres," he said. "That's bullshit. Show up and have a good time."

It seems their resistance is working.

photo: GIPHY

Diversity is beginning to improve on-screen and in comic books. Miles Morales is SpiderMan. "Supergirl" has a LGBTQ storyline. "Black Panther" is getting his own solo movie.

Pulliam-Moore is glad that comics are becoming more inclusive.

"Progress, like a legacy character's coming out or the creation of a new character of color who taking up the mantle of an established white character, is always a good thing because, on a fundamental level what they're doing is challenging readers and viewers to expand their ideas of who those characters can be," he said.

Broadnax warns against getting comfortable though.

"These minor improvements are helping," she said. "And let's put an emphasis on the word minor, because there's still a lot of work to do."

Pulliam-Moore agrees. "It's great that Iceman is gay now and America Chavez is starring in her own book, but that doesn’t mean that people should stop pushing Marvel to include more queer characters across their portfolio of titles."

For Glover, these minor improvements matter, especially as a 30-year-old comic book fan.

"I have needed and appreciated every effort to diversify — every effort. It doesn't happen enough, but it goes such a long way when it does."

This story has been updated to include comments from Charles Pulliam-Moore.