NBA Stars and Nerd Glasses: A New Image for African American Boys

I’m not a young black male myself, but it sure seems that there’s a lot of pressure for those who are to embody a particular image. Think about movies, commercials, television shows, even Youtube videos. It seems that African American boys are expected to ooze the rough and tough characteristics of masculinity. Among many other things, they need to be physically intimidating, quick to fight, athletically inclined, self-assured, and always ready with a cutting remark or witty comeback. Doesn’t quite leave room for much diversity, does it?

Let’s say you’re 14 and you’re shy. Maybe you spend more time with Yu-Gi-Oh cards than a basketball, or you’re more interested in getting extra help in Math or Spanish at lunch than macking on the girls in the cafeteria. You might get accused of being a nerd or a weakling. Maybe your friends will assume you think you’re too good for them. Still others might call you out on “acting white,” as if studying, or showing a more intellectual side excludes you from “being a real man” or causes you to betray your race. Stereotypes are narrow by definition, but somehow this type of pigeonholing doesn’t seem productive or fair to a population already lagging far behind in graduation rates, employment opportunities and pay scales.

Enter Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire, Lebron James, and other big name athletes. Steven Dubner reported on American Public Media’s Marketplace that a recent trend has NBA stars (the ideal rough and tough African American males) sporting big, nerdy, non-prescription glasses. Why? Some, like Lebron James, claim it’s purely for fashion, along with bowties and checked shirts. Dubner suggests another plausible theory, ostensibly from conversations with Harvard economist Roland Fryer. Dubner:

Well it may be much more than [fashion] as well…Fryer has also studied the ‘acting white’ phenomenon, right? Which is when black kids who study too much get called out by their peers, as if there’s a stigma in trying to accomplish too much. So now, with all these black NBA and NFL stars wearing their big nerd eyeglasses, it may be that they’re sending a message that the ‘acting white’ stigma is over–or at least that it should be over.

Obviously being smart isn’t just a white thing, but for an African American boy growing up in the inner city, sometimes it might feel that way unless there’s someone explicitly proving otherwise. Having these big-name athletes don a classic symbol of bookworms and the academically inclined may give young African Americans the courage they need to show their nerdier side. Dwyane Wade on Marketplace:

Yeah, it is cool. You try to go out and talk to kids, you try to let them know that it’s cool to be smart, it’s cool to be educated, you know? So it’s a message behind the madness, you know?

This isn’t to say that Dwyane Wade and his nerd glasses are going to single-handedly close the achievement gap (and the employment gap, and lower incarceration rates, etc…). I’m not quite that naive. I have seen the trend catch on among my middle school students, though. Several of them have multiple pairs of big, thick-rimmed glasses that seem to make the rounds among their friends. I told one of them they looked just like Amar’e Stoudemire in their brownish tortoise-shell, 1980s specs the other day, and I got the biggest smile imaginable in return.

Some of them even put tape on the bridge of their glasses (all non-prescription, fully intact) to look even “nerdier.” Not a bad start, I guess. Here’s hoping the bottom line — that being black and being smart aren’t mutually exclusive — endures a little longer than the split-second lifespan that most fashion trends seemed doomed to have.

What do you think?

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Photo Credit: ndanger via Flickr


Patrina H.
Patrina H5 years ago

I agree with Will R., the "images" of *blackness* that proliferate *white* media are not *real*,, however, they are taken at face value and widely accepted. "Black" people are just as diverse as any other group--some are "nerds", some are "cool", some are regular guys/girls next door, some are conservative, some are liberal, some are moderate, some are radicals, some are policemen, some are doctors, some are construction workers, some are basketball players, they don't teach their children that doing well in school is *acting white*, many are college educated and have read the oft quoted and oft misapplied study by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu about a *small* group of students from a (singular) school in D.C. where *some* of the black student chided other black students for doing well in school by saying they were *acting white*, some (black) people know that you can't *generalize* about *millions* of people based on studies of small groups of students in one neighborhood school, some (black) people know there are many *rough* communities--e.g. South Boston--where kids are chided for doing well in school/not being tough...

Will Rogers
Will Rogers5 years ago

White mans heaven is a black mans hell.

Reginald C.
Reginald C.5 years ago

I was definitely one of those nerdy black kids with the big glasses and thick lenses, all held together by tape, more interested in doing well in math and science and playing sax rather than sports, so I'm all too familiar with the whole "acting white" concept (my youngest sister as well; I blame mom as she is a big time Star Trek and Star Wars fan and passed all of that on to us).

I really do thank you for this article; the so-called black nerds are often times overlooked and shunned in ways most people don't understand. And I give a big round of applause to the athletes for pushing this kind of image, whatever their reasons might be. Teaching our youth that it's ok to be smart will go a long way towards making things better for all Americans, in the long run.

By the way, I'm STILL quite nerdy: comic books, video games, Dungeons and Dragons and building computers in my free time, when the wife doesn't have me doing "honey-do" projects around the house, that is.

Carol H.
Past Member 5 years ago

I am not black but to think a pair of glasses could do harm to anyone to me is insane.

I think they are cute but it is to mom to make that decision as to what the your childern wears not the child.

Wendy Johnson

Sorry for being cynical here, but wouldn't an NBA star with a book under his arm, or talking about what he's been reading lately be a little more effective at sending a message that learning is cool? This doesn't strike me as sending any message at all, it's just a fashion statement.

I work in the school system. I've seen kids with those "nerd glasses" on. Somehow it's never the ones who actually care about their work, who seem to have them. And I haven't seen any transfer between wearing a pair, and making any more effort in the classroom.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers5 years ago

Black Americans look so cool, they are handsome, very very good looking people, strong and athletic. But considering our history against them, this is a scary image, and so people want them to look nerdy, weak and unthreatening. This is something euro-Americans should look within for, to confront their fears and break with the tradition of stereotyping other races and empathise. I watch American programmes, and have noticed in the past 30 years the shift from demonising blacks, to demonising Mexicans to demonising Arabs, but there always seems to be a special place in your patronising hearts for the black man.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers5 years ago

Why should African Americans have to live up to some European American standard? And why are they being criticised like this? All this crap about being described as acting 'white' for studying yet they are chided for having snappy retorts/comebacks'? The only people that accuse black people of acting black are white people, that's like black people accusing white people of acting white! A black parent doesn't tell their child that learning and education is a white thing.
As an English man, an outsider reading this article, it seems racially biased, and even worse, Patronising. Once again it looks at a whole race through race tinted glasses, mentioning stereotypes, and treating anything outside of that as unusual, when in actual fact is very usual.
That they think that Education betrays their race is Bullshit! Otherwise no black people would have voted for Obama, or admired any black intellectuals, or black comedians or black scientists or black writers or black rappers/poets or black inventors get the picture.

Rosie Jolliffe
Rosie Lopez5 years ago

interesting thnx

Winn Adams
Winn Adams5 years ago

It's good to have the mind set that studying, learning and having experiences that are outside of your normal life is a good way to learn about many things. Turn off the TV and the video games. Stop texting and participate in life no matter where you live, what color you are and how much money you have. Get involved - it's your life, go and live it.

Megan S.
Megan S5 years ago

Interesting. Probably a good way to promote motivation in school for inner city boys and girls.