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

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

Apatow Productions

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.

I wasn't being bullied because I was sensitive, in other words. I was being bullied because I was privileged. At the time, my dad tried to comfort me by telling me that all the kids who were giving me trouble would end up much more miserable than I was through the remorseless workings of class (though he didn't put it quite like that, of course), and he was, as far as I can tell, correct. As the most obvious example, the leader of the boys who jumped me eventually shot himself in the heart. He died a few years later—whether from complications or from a second, successful suicide attempt I never found out.

This isn't to say that "geek" is solely a class marker, nor that geeks experience bullying solely because of class resentments. On the contrary, I think people get bullied for lots of reasons. Most notable of these, perhaps, is homophobia, which is used not just against kids who are gay, but against kids who don't fulfill gender roles in any of a variety of ways. Said failure to fulfill gender roles including, for example, being more into Dungeons and Dragons than football. For that matter, class status and gender issues often map onto each other—so that intellectual interests of any sort can translate, in the schoolyard, into being seen as insufficiently male.

People can also take flak for their hobbies, of course. I've had people in comments on this very site dismiss my writing on the grounds that I'm interested in comics. But I think people who identify as geeks can tend to emphasize such interest-based friction while underestimating class and gender tensions which may have a lot more explanatory force. Thus, for instance, this piece from the Guardian on Alan Turing argues that he was ostracized in school because of his Asperger's and his genius—which is no doubt true. But it completely fails to mention his homosexuality, which is, after all, the main reason the British government decided to hound him to death.

The impetus here seems clear enough. Better to be persecuted as a misunderstood genius than to be persecuted because you're not sufficiently manly or because people resent your class advantages. And better to be persecuted because you as an individual are special rather than because you are caught in the same familiar cultural prejudices that make lots of people miserable, whether geniuses or not.

Every persecuted group resists its persecution in part by reaffirming or touting its own worth. That's natural, and even useful—and certainly the geekish pride in intelligence is a welcome corrective to our society's compulsive anti-intellectualism. But without a better understanding of why one is victimized, and of how that victimization fits into other systems of power, the assertion of specialness by geeks becomes not a defense against those systems, but simply an excuse to perpetuate them. Thus the unenlightening spectacle of geeks, long sneered at for not being real men, sneering at women for not being real geeks. And thus too the insistent refusal to realize that geeks, from Bill Gates on down, have a lot of power, and that that power is not necessarily simply a function of virtue or genius, but is often importantly linked to educational and cultural opportunities—to class, in other words.

I certainly understand the impulse to romanticize my seven-year-old self: to say that he got beat up because he was smarter than his peers, or because he was the only one who could see the construction-paper giraffe. The problem is that this can lead you to a place where suffering, or persecution, only matters when, or because, the victim is special. This, in turn, can make it hard to see the ways in which violence is not special, but routine—and if you can't understand the violence directed against you, how can you stop it? Ultimately, clutching those colored pieces of paper doesn't validate your worth. It just makes it harder to defend yourself.