Why Geeks Get Bullied (It's Not Necessarily for Being Geeks)

Privilege, class, and gender are bigger factors than some want to admit.

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I was a nerdy, dreamy kid, and like lots of nerdy, dreamy kids, I occasionally got bullied. One memorable incident occurred in second grade, on one of the days when we had art class. We were doing a project involving construction paper. At the end of the period, the teacher was going to throw out the scraps, but I asked her to give them to me instead, because they all looked like animals. I remember explaining to her that one large shapeless colored bit was a giraffe, and pointing out the nose and the neck. I also remember her slightly (though not cruelly) incredulous expression as she gave me the pile. I gathered them up happily and headed for home a half-a-block away. I needed two hands to hold all the paper—which meant that I was completely unable to fight back when three boys in my class jumped me a few steps outside the school. I just sort of crouched over and took it...until, luckily, a fifth-grade crossing guard came over and pulled them off.

Though there wasn't any permanent harm done, the incident was somewhat traumatic—I do still remember it, after all. And it certainly fits neatly into narratives about bullying. The geeky, sensitive kid who loves art gets singled out and abused because of that art. An idiosyncratic cultural passion—in this case, for construction-paper scraps—ends up also being the grounds for stigma and abuse.

This is, broadly, the narrative through which geeks justify their defensiveness about, and their aggression towards, fake geek girls, as I wrote in an essay last week. Cultural passions define geeks; geeks have suffered for those cultural passions. Fake geek girls pretend to take up the passion without having actually experienced the suffering. Thus they are poseurs, and must be condemned.

As I said in my earlier post, I think the fake geek girl meme is a poisonous myth. But it's tied to an even more prevalent myth: that sensitive geeks are oppressed because of their passionate sensitivity.

Which is not to say that geeky kids aren't targeted for violence. I certainly was. But I don't think that that violence was tied to my love of construction paper animals, or to the fact that a few years later I'd be obsessed with comics and Dungeons and Dragons.

So what was it tied to? Well, in my case, it was probably tied most directly to class. I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, and my family lived in a fairly low-income neighborhood in one of the towns attached to the deindustrializing, city of Wilkes-Barre. Most of the kids in my school came from families that had lived there for generations; many of their grandparents were coal miners. My dad, on the other hand, was a college professor and my mom was a social worker—they'd moved to the area for my dad's teaching job. I came, in short, from a much, much more intellectual background than my peers, and as a result I was a lot better at school than almost all of them.

Americans have trouble seeing class, and the intersection between class and intellectualism—or geekishness, if you prefer—can be especially invisible. Yet that intersection exists, and is, indeed, fairly obvious when you look for it. As I said, it wasn't an accident that I, as the son of a professor, got better grades than most of my classmates. Our family didn't necessarily have more money than our neighbors, but we certainly had more cultural capital—and the fact that I got good grades was in part a marker of that. And while in some settings, that class marker would be a huge advantage, in small town Pennsylvania, among lots of kids who didn't share my background, it made me different...and inevitably, it made me a target.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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