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John McWhorter and Ta-Nehisi Coates have been battling over what Barack Obama means to young, black “nerds.” And I’ve been following the debate with interest. Since I’m among my friends here at ARP, I can admit to lifelong geekiness. Young Tami was a bit of a braniac bookworm. I dreamed of joining Peace Corp; watched Sunday night BBC shows on PBS (Monty Python, Dr. Who); listened to the wrong music (rock and pop, when hip hop reigned); and, as I was informed by my mostly-black classmates, talked and acted “white.” Oh, those were rocky years…no one appreciated my “differentness.” 

To hear John McWhorter (who I often disagree with) tell it, help may be on the way for young, black nerds:

The problem dates from desegregation. Black teens only started calling each other “white” for liking school in the mid-sixties. Feeling unwelcomed by the white students they were now suddenly going to school with, black kids started identifying school as “other.” Recently, teachers and black parents have been addressing the acting-white problem, but it’s hard. Teenagers have a variety of identities open to them for trying on anti-Establishment postures. White kids can be stoners or goths. Black kids can be “nonwhite.” As of last Tuesday, however, there’s a new weapon, and it’s Barack Obama himself. Whenever a black nerd gets teased for thinking he’s white, all he has to say is four words: “Is Barack Obama white?”

It remains to be seen what an Obama presidency will mean for the nuts and bolts of education policy. But those four little words could do more to improve black-student achievement than any number of new charter schools and reading tests. Read more…

Rebuttal by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Leaving aside the fact that, according to John, he, well, kinda is,  this is the sort of retort that will get you slapped-up, beat-down and snapped-on for like a week straight. One thing I learned as a black nerd in West Baltimore: Get your tips on how to defend yourself from kids who know how to defend themselves, not from other black nerds….unless said nerds have figured out how to defend themselves.

For the uninitiated, I offer this helpful dramatization of how John’s theory may actually play out..

Nascent Black Nerd: [References some obscure episode of Battlestar Gallactica]

Daytwon: Son, why you always watching that white shit?

Nascent Black Nerd: Is Barack Obama white??

Daytwon: Baracka-these-nuts nigga!!!

Read more…

McWhorter retorts:

Both of these writers’ suggestions are essentially on the side of the teasers. Ferguson is especially overt; Coates at least feels the pain of the nerd, acknowledging that he once was one himself. Yet Coates still wants the nerd to pick up the battle practices of the teaser. Although he’s not specific as to what these practices would be and whether they would be physical or verbal, whatever they are, aren’t they the kinds of things we would presumably be loathe to encourage any more of than there already is? Also, the deft putdown Coates scripts for the teaser paints him as an affable Falstaff, too clever to be a problem.

What motivates both Ferguson and Coates is, it must be acknowledged, love and historical awareness. After all, black kids didn’t start questioning black nerds’ racial credentials out of some mysterious and evil desire to shoot their own race in the foot. It started in the late sixties when black kids in newly desegregated schools were grappling with the tepid welcome from white teachers and students. The inheritors of this sense of school as “white” today are just imitating as all teens do. They are innocents, despite making so many black teens let their grades slip in order to have black friends. Read more…

Ta-Nehisi again:

This is a rambling, rambling post. The point I’m making is about labels and how they’re applied. I say that I was never a natural for the community mores, but I bet that’s true–in varying ways–for half of all of us. Kenyatta dances like she comes from West Baltimore (or the West side of Chicago) but she can talk like anyone from the Oak Park of her youth. Me, I sound like where I’m from. I stopped bopping after my 30th–it didn’t seem dignified. But I really don’t have much else on the essentialism scale. And yet, for whatever reason, I’ve always been at home in Harlem, or–as Jay would say–on any Martin Luther. Read more…


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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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