You look like you came from a meeting with Bill Gates!” announced American Idol’s irascible judge, Simon Cowell, when clean-cut contestant Anoop Desai appeared at the Season 8 auditions dressed in shorts, flip-flops, and a button-down plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves. Throughout the season, it seemed as though desi Desai’s competitive edge was blunted by Simon Cowell’s perception of his squareness. Desai had unwittingly stepped onto a minefield that immediately colored viewers’ opinions of his performance.
While it was not actually uttered, the word “nerd” hung there, suspended, and then descended to fit squarely around Desai. The world twittered about the racial stereotypes embedded in that remark. “Call him Kumar and be done with it,” said one Internet wit. To my mind, the remark raised a whole specter of issues, not the least being racism.
Dr. Seuss’ 1950 book, If I Ran the Zoo, first introduced the word “nerd” as a longhaired, unkempt crosspatch with a mouth that held still and straight with no indication of laughter: And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/ And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo,/ a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!
In the mid 50s and 60s the term morphed into meaning a “square,” or a “drip,” an unhip person. That connotation has persisted till today, and is used with much derisive inflection around middle and high school lockers.
Nerds are not to be confused with the similar-meaning “geeks.” New York Times columnist, David Brooks, explains the difference thus: “At first, a nerd was a geek with better grades.” In casual parlance, however, both terms are sometimes used interchangeably, with the established understanding that a nerd is a grade-getter and athletically challenged and a geek is, generally speaking, obsessed with an obscure passion.
The ascendancy of nerds can be closely tied to the rise of Silicon Valley. It was in 1971 that journalist Don Hoefler first used the words “Silicon Valley” to describe the intellectual capital that originated out of Stanford and spread to the surrounding neighborhoods. Out of the belly of this valley emerged the modern day renaissance nerds: inventors, entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers and investors. As companies like Intel, Cisco, and Sun grew in size and profitability, the population of nerds, in particular desi nerds, exploded in the valley. Valley entrepreneurs began to attract media coverage and considerable wealth. When the era of outsourcing began, Indian companies like Wipro, Infosys, and TCS entered the world stage.
The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Page and Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Vinod Khosla, Narayana Murthy, and Azim Premji changed putative standards of nerd perceptions. What was reviled and shunned yesterday became sought after and acclaimed. A meeting with any one of these nerd luminaries became part of the utopian dream of capitalism.
With the election of Barack Obama, a paradigmatic nerd, as head of the country, the nerd-acceptability factor grew even more significantly. There is no quibbling about Obama’s nerdiness, for even his wife Michelle once remarked about meeting Barack for the first time, “I had already sort of created an image of this very intellectual nerd. And I was prepared to be polite and all that.” More recently, Ms. Obama has dismissed the perceived negativity associated with nerds and exhorted students to work hard and get good grades, characteristics that typify being studious and square.
The image of a nerd of the fifties and sixties used to be someone who typically wore jeans, a t-shirt, scruffy shoes and thick black-rimmed spectacles. He slouched when out in the sun and spoke with an intensity that was disconcerting. Today, a nerd is someone who tucks in his shirts, and has acquired the rudiments of social polish, yet still speaks with unnerving authority on subjects.
But Anoop Desai was dressed in shorts and a shirt that hung loose and long. So what prompted Cowell’s remark?
According to Benjamin Nugent, author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, one form of racism is stereotyping an ethnicity. In a study conducted by Stacey J. Lee, chronicled in her book, Unraveling the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth, Asian American high school students were asked to respond to several questions, one of which was: “How does the model minority stereotype influence Asian American student identity?”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Lee found that model minority stereotypes can establish blueprints for behavior and those that do not achieve success by model minority standards end up with low self esteem and tend to silence their own non-model minority experiences.
The concept of nerdiness is inherently built into the minority Indian model. So, as Desai stood before the four judges and as the words issued forth from Simon, this stereotype was being ground into the American consciousness—an Indian is quintessentially a nerd, whether he dresses like one or not. A marriage of intellect and artistic talent is unthinkable.
Jaya Padmanabhan ran a media company, inMedya Productions, until 2007. She is a prize-winning fiction writer and is currently in the process of writing a novel.