Letting my black-girl-geek flag fly
Growing up, Erika Peterman felt like the only African-American girl geek out there. That's changed.
November 18th, 2011
05:11 PM ET

Letting my black-girl-geek flag fly

Editor's note: Erika Peterman is a writer and editor who lives in Tallahassee, Florida. She blogs at girls-gone-geek.com and is a regular contributor to CNN's Geek Out blog.

So where are the geeks? Watch "Black in America: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley" at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET November 24 on CNN.

By Erika Peterman, Special to CNN

It was a long time before I let my nerd flag fly proudly, though in retrospect, my status couldn’t have been more obvious.

When I was a kid, “Star Wars” and comic books were the center of my universe. I loved George Lucas’ original trilogy so much that when I started playing the flute seriously in junior high - yeah, I was a band geek, too - I spent evenings listening to John Williams and the Boston Pops so I could teach myself to play along. I happily built literature-themed dioramas, and wrote short science fiction stories and bad poems in my gifted classes. In my case, pretty much every nerd stereotype applied, right down to the thick glasses.

None of this would have been unusual had I not been a black girl growing up in a small southern Georgia city in the 1970s and ’80s.

I knew boys, black and white, who were nerdy, including a neighbor, whose "Star Wars" action figure collection I coveted. But if there were any other “Justice League”-loving girls who looked like me, either in my working class neighborhood, at church or at school, they must have been deep in hiding. I knew other black girls who were nerds in the academic sense, but that’s where we parted ways. I was the full package of geek, and a double minority in that subculture, to boot. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Maybe because my parents were bookish opera lovers, they never suggested that I was weird, and I’m forever grateful to my mother for feeding my comic book habit so steadily.

But by pre-adolescence, I had internalized a lot of ideas about what it meant to be black, from the music to listen to, to the people to hang out with, to the hobbies to practice. It didn’t matter that the rules were bogus or perpetuated by people who were insecure about their own identities. All I knew was that my unintentional eccentricity played a role in making me a target, and not in the general you're-a-dork way but the you’re-a-dork-and-you’re-too-white way.

Geek Out: What it's like to be the only black nerd in the room

Maybe it would have been less of an issue if I’d grown up in a large city, or if I’d been born in the late '80s or '90s, but in the time and place of my youth, there didn’t seem to be a category for someone like me. So I went underground for a time. I certainly didn’t stop being a nerd; I just got a lot better at keeping certain things to myself.

By the time I went off to a historically black university in the late 1980s, I decided that my geekier tendencies were best shared on a very limited basis. I didn’t go to college so much to find myself as to be more like the person I thought I ought to be. Only my closest friends really knew the girl underneath the sorority jersey was a raging nerd who would take ’60s pop over new jack swing any day.

Only one of them ever went with me to the store near campus that sold comics.

Maybe time will prove me wrong, but if my kids turn out to be nerds — and my son is well on his way — I doubt that they’ll have to wrestle with the same issues that I did. It’s a different time, one where ideas about racial identity are thankfully less rigid. They’re also growing up in a suburban environment where the 12-year-old me wouldn't have stood out much.

I put on a decent act for a while, but my authentic self eventually emerged with a vengeance. I’m glad she did because, in an unexpected turn of events, my friends now consider my geek status to be kinda cool. Just a few months ago, another mom asked me to take her then-10-year-old son to the comic book store to show him around and help him pick something out.

Being a nerd has always been a big part of who I am; the only difference now is that I think it’s something to celebrate, not tamp down. I wear my "Star Wars" and Wonder Woman T-shirts in public with no shame, and they’ve earned me a high-five or two. When I see other black women in full costume Dragon*Con — and there are far more than I once thought — it does my heart good to know that I’m not alone. Maybe I never really was.

My geek flag is now fully unfurled, and it’s flying high.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Erika Peterman.

soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. NefariousDrO

    The internet has been the best (and arguably the worst) thing to happen to nerds. First it allowed us to make contact with more of our own, then it became lucrative. What's nice to see is how much what used to be fringe and nerdy is now mainstream. Kids will always be kids, and those who are different definitely run into periods of hostility from their peers, but the fact that hundreds rallied behind a girl when she was picked upon, or rallied behind the boy who defended his younger brother's desire for a purple game controller and a game his father considered "too girly" means that kids have more room to be themselves, and that's a good thing indeed. Glad you're letting your flag fly proud, and even more happy you're willing to share what you've learned with the next generation of geeks and nerds.

    January 27, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  2. aisha

    Thank you sister for writing this article. I also grew up kind of lonely...inheriting my father intelligence and eccentric habits. While other girls were playing with barbies...i was reading Lanston Hughes and playing with chemicals in a virtual lab on my Commodore 64......

    December 15, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Court

    Finally, we can jump up and say its ok to be this way. I swear I caught hell growing up, mostly from other black girls, for hanging with the guys and doing the geek thing....why is she hanging with our boyfriend, or our boyfriend spends more time with you doing dumb !@#$ than with me. The guys were cool and had interesting things to to and talk about besides make up, gossip and boys. I was a trek fan because of my dad and a computer geek, also because of daddy! WHOO HOO FOR SHEGEEKS!

    December 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • lkeke35

      Same here. I caught a lot of flack from mostly black girls, (the irony) usually in the form of sneering contempt such as ,"Why do you like that s***? Just generally denigrating whatever I happened to enjoy. After a while, I just kept it to myself and all the things that other geeks went through with their friends, I just did it alone.

      I am glad to see that it's gotten better, not just for me but for other black girls to express themselves freely.

      July 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mal924

    Another Black Girl Geek here!

    Yes, we exist!!!

    December 10, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. MissouriBoy

    Finally in the last 10 years, it is OK to be smart. Even white kids have the problem. In high school if you are smart, the football players and cheerleaders avoid you and call you Poindexter. If you are smart, you are not cool. Now because of the internet, and because you see 25 year old nerdy kids who are internet billionaires, it is OK to be smart, be a nerd. I was the geek kid from Missouri. Got a degree in Engineering, moved to Silicon Valley, started my own company, and now I'm the richest guy from my graduating high school class. Smart guys and girls win! Let your Geek and Nerd flag fly!

    December 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  6. J

    Why for me such a touching story, cause even in the 21st century we still struggle with race, religious and political issues/atrocities. In the end it is the human in all of us, some good, as here, mostly bad, that we must focus on

    Yes we must not forget, but the now is now and as Iraq kids sing metal and hip hop, African Americans run businesses that keep the wealth at the top, Caucasian criminals steal life savings, African American women are geeks we must all get to the point our founding fathers who kept slaves but eagerly slept with them knew, we are ALL human, of the same lineage, with the same hearts and the same ambitions in life.

    November 27, 2011 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
    • tmh44

      very well put

      November 29, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jackie

      Our founding fathers may have been eager to sleep with their slaves, but were the slaves eager back? I wonder.
      Otherwise, dead on. I can totally agree with everything else you said.

      December 11, 2011 at 6:00 am | Report abuse |
  7. kiwiyogurt

    Great article!

    In addition: What we need is more geek media that prominently features female and non-white characters, that is popular with everybody. Then we would see much more diverse geek spaces.

    November 24, 2011 at 7:02 am | Report abuse |
  8. Opieasy

    I had to say something and thank god me being a afro-american male and also a nerd we need more of you please come out and play!

    November 22, 2011 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. Lost

    Bravo!! I'm a nerd and extremely proud!

    November 22, 2011 at 2:18 am | Report abuse |
  10. jerri finkley

    i really enjoyed this article,because this was me many years ago,and to a certain degree,this is who i am today.i am a proud black woman,in touch with the geek in me.thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

    November 21, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • ANGEL

      This is me too, ever since I was little my family and friends new I was a Geek, I agree, thank you for the article!!

      November 21, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
      • Nurd

        I thought geeks were supposed to be good at spelling? You 'new' you were a geek?

        Come on Angel...push yourself!!

        November 26, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
      • Mal924


        At least she can spell "Nerd" correctly.

        December 10, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Hepburn

    Erika! Thanks for this!
    You are not alone and you never will be!
    Way to go! : )

    November 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Clarissa

    LONG LIVE FEMALE GEEKS!!!!!!! ...and hey if your black too that's awesome! Glad Im not alone anymore!

    November 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Lan Pitts

    Ericka is quite the awesome. I say that not only as a co-worker at Newsarama, but as a friend and a drinking buddy. She's witty, sharp, and knows her stuff. Great write up, E.

    November 21, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  14. G. Allen

    I had been doing a lot of internet dating trying to find someone like you. It took me years to realize that I was looking for a geek. I used phrases like: "looking for Women who uses tools.", " Women who reads." , "Women who were called tomboys when they were younger.", "Women who played musical instruments or sing." All these phrases and more are in my profile as well as, "I am not for the average women." I am glad to know that there are more of you out there, I just wish someone would start a club...

    November 21, 2011 at 3:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Erika

      G. Allen, we are out there — I promise you. What a heartfelt, sincere comment. Thank you.

      November 21, 2011 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
      • Clarissa

        YEAH WE EXISTS! ...we are easy to spot. We tend to hang out with the "girly girls" but we will be the ones wearing the jeans and fitted hooded seaters cause we rather spend our time learning, reading, or geek'n out than put on makeup and heels! lol

        November 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
      • Clarissa

        I too joined a sorority. Thought it might help me "dial down" my "tomboy/geek" needs .... NOPE! lol

        November 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
      • Mark Gibbs

        Not so much in the UK, but it's getting better... girls in comic stores are becoming much more common, and the steampunk thing is on the rise – I'm seeing smart ladies enthusiastically taking the plunge. They had to wait until I'm pushing 50, naturally...

        November 25, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
  15. SomeGuy

    @DC, that's because being white is evil. Don't you know that?

    November 21, 2011 at 3:53 am | Report abuse |
    • A true black girl geek

      You're noth dumb!!!!!

      November 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
      • A true black girl geek

        Sorry, both dumb!!!!!

        November 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • kiwiyogurt

      White is not evil, but white is unfairly privileged in our society. Not realizing that, and acting in stupid oppressive ways (like this comment), well, THAT is actually what's evil.

      November 24, 2011 at 6:40 am | Report abuse |
  16. DC

    So a black person can called themselves a 'black-girl-geek' but don't anyone else even think about it! Gosh, don't you just love these minority-imposed double standards?

    November 21, 2011 at 3:02 am | Report abuse |
    • kiwiyogurt

      Of course she can! And she should. Why does no one call themselves a "white-boy-geek"? Because that's the assumed norm. Because practically every nerd character on TV, and certainly the stereotyped ones, is going to be a white boy. When white and male is the majority of a group, and especially when it's the assumed default, then guess what. It isn't interesting to hear about your experience being a nerd and *also* a white boy. So go away please, articles like this need to be read and written, because we need to expand our idea of who a nerd can be.

      November 24, 2011 at 6:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark Gibbs

      Better than majority-imposed double standards, eh? Erika's from Georgia, I expect she's had enough of them. It's pathetic if you see this as some kind of 'white victimisation', genuinely ridiculous.

      November 25, 2011 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  17. tom

    Geeks kinda rule don't they? Maybe in middle school & high school geeks are socially dis-advantaged, but when one becomes an adult, the geek thing means more money, a better job & many of those things the "cool" or "athlete" types miss out on. And the fact you're "black" & a "girl" makes you a triple threat. I'm an old white southern guy from Texas, a redneck (meaning I worked outside all my life), to boot. I say more power to ya gal. Fly your flag proudly.

    November 21, 2011 at 2:16 am | Report abuse |
  18. Emma

    Good for you, Erika! People shouldn't be expected to act a certain way just because of their race or gender. Everyone should be free to be themselves and do what makes them happy. You sound like you a very happy and well-adjusted person who is proud of who they are, and what more could you ask for?

    November 21, 2011 at 1:52 am | Report abuse |
  19. CNNTom

    What about Asian geeks? Why the discrimination?

    November 21, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • lee

      The series is called Black in America. It's self-explanatory.

      November 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
      • CNNTom

        Yes, but Asians are a much smaller minority and need of better representation. Isn't what this is all about? Where's Asian history month. Where is the equality? I don't think I've ever seen CNN post stories like about Asians.

        November 25, 2011 at 4:14 am | Report abuse |
  20. Mike D

    Bl.erds unites! Black male geeks are becoming more common (after a long period after Urkel), but a Black female geek is a rare bird indeed.

    November 21, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  21. Richard S. Russell

    Erika, check out WisCon, world's leading feminist SF con, over Memorial Day weekend every year in Madison, WI:
    You would feel right at home.

    November 21, 2011 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  22. Daryl Davis

    Wow. I was a black nerd/geek too; the only black guy in my high school who wanted to work for NASA growing up in the 70's, I was a serious Star Trek fan from that time. You'd think at least one other person of color who was a SF fan (read any Octavia Butler, btw?) would turn up in a town with two universities, one a historically-Black college, but I was too shy to ever bump into one. And like you, I was the only African-American among my fellow geek friends. Of course, I went with my heart for career choice and I got a degree (after some digression) in physics/astronomy.

    Go figger, though; grew up in Tallahassee.

    Live long and prosper, kiddo, and keep that flag flyin'! There needs to be MORE African-American geeks & nerds out there, along with more diversity and acceptance.

    Might see you at a Dragon Con some day...

    November 21, 2011 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  23. SomeGuy

    The author doesn't seem to understand that being called a geek or nerd isn't about liking Star Wars and comic books but about being an intellectual who likes science, math, or technology.

    There are lots of morons who like Star Wars and comic books. You wouldn't call them geeks or nerds.

    November 21, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark Gibbs

      What you don't seem to understand is that 'geek' is not limited to your definition... remember, geeks would be outlandish and bizarre performers in freak shows, that's a far cry from the tech/science enthusiasts. Wiki lists various definitions, as the meaning has shifted over time... it's not a 'one-size-fits-all' term.

      November 25, 2011 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
      • jessica

        I think she understands it quite well, thank you

        January 21, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
      • Mark Gibbs

        Jessica, the misunderstanding is yours... my post was in reply to a rather snotty note, to the effect that true 'geeks' were tech-heads and science wiz's. It wasn't directed at Erika, it was for the critic who felt 'geek' was being misused. I'm not seeing that post anymore, maybe deleted?

        January 23, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Jeepers

    You sound awesome!

    November 20, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
  25. Emily

    Great article! I really enjoyed it!

    I have also really enjoyed the commenters so far. This is what "lively and courteous discussion" looks like! 🙂

    November 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Tresie Kinnell

    Thank you for this article Erika! I graduated from a predominantly white high school in 1986. I was the only black girl in the Honor Society and the first black girl at my school to be a Key Club Sweetheart. My favorite hobbies were reading, reading and reading! I was a geek to the 100th degree. I was an honor roll student and I loved playing my alto saxophone. I live in an all-black neighborhood, but my mom paid for me to attend school in an all-white district. My three best friends were one black guy and two white guys. Now that I'm older, I still love all things geek and I've found a new love for four wheelers! While many see me as that acceptable black girl because I seem white (my 6th grade English teacher pointed out to my whole class that I talked like a white person), I know who I am and I love my blackness. It's okay for me to have stereotypical behaviors of both whites and blacks because that's who I am. I have been a divorce attorney in Birmingham, Alabama for the past 18 years. One day, one of my older white male counterparts introduced me to a new attorney in his firm as one of the "good ol' boys." One of my clients introduced me to her mother as "a tough sister." Both of them were right because I am who I am!

    November 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Harry Baung

    You're brave people for daring to be different. I know the peer pressure is high in the African American community to be a certain way, and distance yourself from being like white people. The real truth is, everybody's different, although we tend to want to collect in groups around a certain set of common traits, I guess becuase we feel safer that way. It's important for people to decide what they want to be rather than be pressured into fitting into "going along to get along". But always ask yourself the question "Am I the way I am because I am trying to please others or is this what I'd be like if I didn't care what others thought of me?"

    November 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  28. Falina Williams

    Thank you for writing this article. Though I am white, I can empathize with growing up nerd, liking comic books (still do) and doing well in school. I grew up in rural NC where in my small public school excelling in school meant being a nerd and singling you out. It amazes me how certain experiences are shared not only in certain regions, but across the whole nation. You are not alone!

    November 20, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Bob Ernst

    Great column. You sound exactly like someone I'd love to know. Keep celebrating you. The world needs a lot more people just like you. Thanks for your honesty.

    November 20, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Vlsmitty

    I find it quite refreshing that at a young age you were able to embrace who you were and what you liked. It's also commendable that you were only willing to temper your "nerdness" a bit instead of trying to follow the crowd or what the expectation of the young african american habits and behaviors. Kudos to you for being you loving yourself without reservations.

    November 20, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
  31. madderkayne

    I only wish more women were into comic books and star trek, the world might be a saner place 🙂

    November 20, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  32. A. White

    Thank you for writing this article!! 🙂

    November 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  33. Chaos Mom

    Please tell me you have blogs on livejournal.com and dreamwidth.org! (you can cross post to them from DW).
    You are not alone!

    November 20, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
  34. lyn johnson

    I had to check the by-line to make sure I didn't compose this. I wasn't a band geek,–it was orchestra. I acted ,spoke and did eerything"too white". Jr and igh school were torture. i've alwaysa accepted who and what I am at my current age of 47 , I don't care if anyone else likes me. My life is rich, always has been.

    November 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
  35. Stan White

    I'm right with you, although as a boy in the 70's and college in the 80's I had a little more freedom to be a nerd. Plus my mother never pushed me to be anyone but myself. Maybe if we let more of our kids be nerds they'll turn into the next Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, George W. Carver. Who knows?

    See you at the next Dragon Con.

    November 20, 2011 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |