Arts & Culture

How Stereotypes of Jews and Asians Evolved into the Nerd

Picture a continuum that runs from “really sensual” to “not sensual.” You could place animals and machines at either end: animals are all sensuality, machines all reason. Contemporary racism sets different ethnic groups along this continuum: animals, then Africans, then … Read More

By / May 12, 2008

Picture a continuum that runs from “really sensual” to “not sensual.” You could place animals and machines at either end: animals are all sensuality, machines all reason. Contemporary racism sets different ethnic groups along this continuum: animals, then Africans, then Europeans, then Asians, then machines.

The MIT-based psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that the machine age, especially the computer, has caused modern educated humans to define what is human as “emotional,” in contrast to thinking machines, instead of just defining what is human as rational, in contrast to animals. If nerds are people who have been sucked into the orbit of the machine and sapped of human emotion, then Asians—who are perceived as industrious, asexual, machinelike—are the nerdiest of ethnic groups. Modern anti-Semitism has been so varied that it’s hard to locate Jews on the animal–machine scale, but in America, the nonsensual, nonearthy Jews generally stand on the same side as the Asians, and both stereotypes are the progenitors of the contemporary nerd.

Orientalist racism, powered by the perception that Asians are too calculating and industrious, goes back at least as far as the 18th century. But in the United States it’s taken a distinctive form since 1965, when an immigration act allowed for renewed migration from East and South Asian countries and radically increased America's Asian population. Because the act’s policies made immigration much easier for educated families, and because many of those first educated immigrant parents found themselves holding more menial jobs in the United States than the ones they’d held in their native country, there was often an unusual degree of pressure on their children to enter the professions. By the early 1980s Asian-Americans constituted a much larger percentage of the student bodies at top colleges than they did in the population in general. Time heralded the new “Asian-American Whiz Kids.”

One consequence of this mildly threatening vision of Asians was the re-emergence of old-fashioned Orientalist racism, best embodied in Sixteen Candles, John Hughes’s 1984 teen comedy, in the character of Long Duk Dong. Dong shared with 19th century caricatures of Chinese immigrant labor a cheerful productivity, social ineptitude, and the problem of being attracted to women who would rather be with white men. (In the minstrel shows of 150 years ago, a character named John Chinaman always failed to get the white girl). In Sixteen Candles, Molly Ringwald’s parents remind her that Long Duk Dong excels at doing chores. Long Duk Dong stares at her with longing, and, famously, dangles upside down from the top of a bunk bed to call out, in inflectionless speech, his face all dazed oblivion, "What's happenin', hot stuff?”

Molly Ringwald hates Long Duk Dong because he doesn’t realize he’s a disgusting sexual prospect, and her parents like him because he’s hardworking and inoffensive. Inoffensiveness is the similarity between the stereotypes of the Chinese-Americans who settled on the Pacific Coast in the nineteenth century and Romantic-era stereotypes of Jews popular in England and America.

The eighteenth-century minister of Parliament James Howell described Jews as “the most timorous people on earth, and so utterly incapable of Arms, for they are neither Soldiers nor Slaves: and this their Pusillanimity and Cowardice … may be imputed to their various thralldoms, contempt and poverty, which hath cow’d and dastardized their courage.”

“They are rarely to be found engaged in any of the personal outrages that are so common in the metropolis,” observed one English writer of Jews in 1842. “And even in the very few instances in which that name of a Jew is to be found mixed up in any scuffle or affray that takes place, it will almost always be found that he is not the aggressor. A Jew is a singularly quiet, inoffensive member of society.”

In 1871, Mark Twain published an article on the Chinatowns in West Coast cities called “The Gentle, Inoffensive Chinese.” “A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist,” he wrote. “Chinamen make good house-servants, being quick, obedient, patient, quick to learn, and tirelessly industrious.” It wasn’t until Jews and Asians began their respective initiations into the schools of the American upper-middle class that they acquired reputations as “grind” cultures – but both much earlier acquired reputations for meekness and physical restraint.

In the case of Jews, a certain proto-nerdiness might have started much, much earlier. Because Jews were required by doctrine to read the Torah four times a week, Jews tended to learn to read at a much higher rate than other ethnic groups in the centuries just after Christ. As a consequence they all but abandoned agriculture much earlier than the rest of humanity began to drift away from it. They started the process around AD 200, and by AD 700 about 90 percent of Jews had moved into other trades, long before the medieval laws that forbade Jewish farming.

The Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin has argued that the rabbinical culture that developed in the Roman Empire involved a version of manhood at odds with the dominant Roman one. The Roman gender constructs associated masculinity with reception, whereas one rabbinical masculine ideal was a man who read the Talmud and understood it, declining contests of strength, declining nonintellectual professions. There was some rationale, Boyarin felt, for the stereotypes of Jews that evolved in Europe. (What to the dominant culture in Europe was contemptible was to Boyarin something worth preserving.)

Boyarin’s intent was to show how Jews subverted gender roles, but the evidence Boyarin marshaled to illustrate his point about Western images of Jewish men often makes Jews look nerdy, that is, poorly equipped to handle physical confrontation, made for the abstract realms of finance and scripture. He cites a Yiddish folksong, written from the perspective of a young woman who wants a husband, that includes the line “for Holy Torah he must be fit,” but no mention of any conventionally masculine qualities. An 1890 German cartoon of a Jewish boy with giant ears and spindly limbs falling off a bicycle seems to equate Jewishness with a lack of athleticism. He doesn’t look so different from Louis Skolnick, the protagonist of Revenge of the Nerds. These images suggest Jews sometimes played a role in the popular imagination not so different from that of today’s nerd.

As a general rule, notions of ethnic identity are deployed as politically and economically expedient. The modern concept of the nerd developed in the early twentieth century, when the WASP establishment was confronted with a threat to its position and so created an ethnicity-informed distinction between the invading force and itself: a dichotomy between the athletic man of character and the “greasy grind.” This was a precursor to the contemporary dichotomy of jock and nerd. Put another way, the nerd is the grind stripped of the immigrant/Jewish/ unknown-ethnic-identity status implied in the older term.

Shortly after a substantial and growing percentage of the Harvard student body came to be Jewish, Ivy League administrations stated to equate Jewishness with what would now be described as nerdiness. It was around the same time that the “greasy grind” became a despised stock figure in writings about student life. Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, a 2005 book on admissions policies at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, found a pile of documents that made the link.

Long after sheltering the Northeastern Protestant elite from immigrants ceased to be a major priority for Harvard administrators, the Jew-grind association persisted. Wilbur Bender, who was chairman of Harvard’s Committee on Admission from 1952 to 1960, observed that the school’s population of urban Jewish boys included “some of our most unattractive and undesirable ones, the effeminates, the precious and affected, the unstable.” Bender was painting Jews as effete intellectuals, not nerds per se. But in his status on campus, his combination of intellectual power and social powerlessness, Bender’s Jew is an ancestor of the nerd.

The Asian nerd stereotype remained a Hollywood staple decades after Jew-grind stereotypes came to be frowned upon. In the 1980s, when North American feared being taken over by the machine-loving Japanese, movies like Rambo pitted the animalistic he-man against Asians, while Blade Runner and the novel Neuromancer linked Asian corporate takeovers with the rise of androids. As the cultural critic Slavoj Zizek put it in the 1990s, the role of the Jew was now being played by the Japanese.

In Slate, Nicholas Lemann perceived a displacement of Jews by Asians in more specific ways: “Golf and tennis are perceived by the Asian-Americans not as aspects of an ethos adapted from the British landowning classes (which is the way Jews used to perceive them) but as stuff Jews know how do to…the wheel of assimilation turns inexorably. Scratching out an existence is phase one, maniacal studying is phase two, sports is phase three.” In America, the state of single-mindedly academic adolescence with no physical confrontation is something an ethnic group transcends when it becomes firmly established in the ruling class. The next phase is long afternoons at the shore club, Waspy well-roundedness.

The source of that state—of having a body that appears to have been thoughtfully designed by a benevolent God, rather than conceived as a breeding ground for viruses and a wellspring of pain—is sport. Being in the obsessively grade-grubbing phase of assimilation used to get you called a greasy grind, the implication being that your ethnicity was sinister and unwanted.. Now grade-grubbing gets you called a nerd. When kids lob cold-cuts at your head in the lunch room, you can rest assured that these days it has nothing to do with your skin or creed; it’s all your fault.

Excerpted from American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent, out May 13 from Scribner.