“You look like you came from a meeting with Bill Gates!” announced Simon Cowell, American Idol’s irascible judge, when the 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 Desai’s competitive edge was underscored by Cowell’s perception of his squareness.

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 range of issues, not the least being racial.

The original “nerd”

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,” a connotation that has persisted till today, and is used with much derisive inflection around middle and high school lockers.

A hair’s-breadth difference between nerds and geeks does exist, and New York Times columnist David Brooks explains the difference: “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 most probably 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. Considered the intellectual capital spreading out of and from Stanford, the Valley produced and fostered the modern-day renaissance nerd: inventors, entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers, and investors. As companies like Intel, Cisco, and Sun grew in size and profitability, the population of nerds exploded in the Valley. Then came the age of startups, whence Valley entrepreneurs began to attract media coverage and wealth — considerable wealth. Bill Gates became the richest man in the world, and Silicon Valley became the mecca of success, prompting Robert Metcalfe’s comment, “Silicon Valley is the only place on earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley.” The outsource era spotlighted India, and global Indian companies like Wipro, Infosys, and TCS entered the world stage.

Changing perceptions on “nerdiness”

The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Biz Stone, and Nandan Nilekani, among others, changed putative standards of nerd perceptions. What was reviled and shunned yesterday became sought after and acclaimed today. Forbes’ “Big B” list has more than a few of the names listed above. A meeting with any one of these nerd luminaries could be part of a utopian dream.

With the election of Barack Obama, a paradigmatic nerd as head of the country, the nerd-acceptability factor grew even more significantly. No quibbling about Obama’s nerdiness, for even Michelle Obama once remarked about her 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, habits that typify being studious and square.

It used to be that the nerd of the ’50s and ’60s typically wore jeans, a T-shirt, and scruffy shoes, and was possibly tall and lanky with greasy hair and thick black-rimmed spectacles. He slouched when out in the sun and spoke with an intensity that was disconcerting. The image today is of someone who is given to tucking shirts into the waistband of trousers, jeans, or shorts and has acquired the rudiments of social polish, yet still speaks with unnerving authority on subjects. To all who judge by outward appearances, the look of a shirt hanging outside trousers can dispel long-held notions of a dorkish appearance. But, Anoop Desai was dressed in shorts and a shirt that hung loose and long. So why then Cowell’s remark?

What does intelligence look like?

In a 2002 study of perceived intelligence and facial attractiveness, Looking Smart and Looking Good: Facial Cues to Intelligence and Their Origins, conducted by Leslie A. Zebrowitz, Judith A. Hall, Nora A. Murphy, and Gillian Rhodes, the researchers concluded that “attractiveness was correlated with perceived intelligence at all ages.” For sure, Desai’s regular facial fairness falls under the rubric of “attractive.” Then, does it stand to reason that Idol judge Cowell made the subliminal connection between the symmetry of Desai’s face and his intellect? Does it also stand to reason that in the vocal talent world, intelligence is misplaced?

Now, let’s approach the racial elements of Cowell’s remark. Self-effacing Indians who win spelling bees and man technology desks are not typically seen on strobe-lit stages. Once before did a Louisiana governor attempt to combat perceptions of his nerdiness with a staged speech. The result was a disastrous reinforcement of social awkwardness, his political brilliance now dubiously regarded.

According to Benjamin Nugent, author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, one form of racism is stereotyping an ethnicity. The stereotype can be seemingly positive, but with costly side effects. Take Stacey J. Lee’s study, 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 did the model minority stereotype influence Asian American student identity?” Not surprisingly, perhaps, Lee found that even model minority stereotypes establish blueprints for behavior, and those that do not achieve model minority success can end up with low self-esteem and “silence” their own non-model minority experiences.

Brains and talent a poor marriage

The concept of nerdism is inherently built into the minority Indian model. So, as Anoop Desai stood before the four Idol judges and as the words issued forth from Simon Cowell, the stereotype was being ground into the American consciousness. An Indian, dressed like a nerd, or not, was quintessentially a nerd and had no reason to believe he could be successful on the Idol stage where the bikini-clad had possibly more right. A meeting with Bill Gates, the dream of millions, was to be disdained and had no relevance to the drama of reality television. A marriage of intellect and artistic talent makes for a pretty poor match.

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