Out in the Open

Are you a nerd? Your ethnicity, not your grades, will determine

For Asians, the 'nerd' label isn't a choice

Do members of certain ethnic backgrounds get labelled nerdy more easily than others?

In CBC's Out in the Open conversation with Junot Diaz, the author revealed how many don't consider him a Marvel or Tolkien fan because of his Dominican background. Many assume that only white people enjoy those "nerd" interests; while other ethnic groups, like Asian-Americans, automatically get the "nerd" label assigned to them by others, regardless of their interests.

That struck a chord with Out in the Open producer Karen Chen, who was often seen as a nerd growing up in Canada, whether she wanted to be a nerd or not.

She revisited a scene from her childhood, going to a Kumon centre in Toronto to explore this issue with current Asian-Canadian students. Kumon is an after-school tutoring program, where students can practice and strengthen math and reading comprehension skills.

[T]he downside of being called a nerd is that people think that you're just that one thing.- Julia Pham, Kumon student and instructor

While many do the worksheets and attend the twice-weekly sessions to improve their skills, it's often seen as a way for kids to get ahead and excel beyond their grade level.

Karen spoke with Julia Pham, a Grade 10 student and an instructor at Kumon, who admitted that she is kind of a nerd.

"I'm not always into my textbook, but I'm still pretty academic," she told Karen.

According to Julia, these days nerds are rarely bullied in school, but there are certain assumptions made by their peers and teachers about their intelligence.

"In school, we don't call people of other backgrounds—white people, Latino people—we don't call them nerds. It's always the East and South Asian," Julia explained.

Karen and Julia reflect that while "smart" is not the worst label to receive, it makes it harder to do poorly or ask for help in school, and difficult to be seen as an individual.

"I'd say the downside of being called a nerd is that people think that you're just that one thing, who doesn't do anything else," Julia said.