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My life as a black geek

11 May 2016

To be a BLEEK (a black geek) is to force yourself into the spaces that are otherwise denied to us: that of the straight white male. Representation matters, because we need to see ourselves in these futuristic, fantasy landscapes. We exist in reality whether the mainstream chooses to acknowledge us or not – we influence their stories and futures too.

When I want to illustrate to people how white the nerdy world of sci-fi & fantasy can be, I’ll often refer to the hugely underrated but brilliant Attack the Block, because it asks the question: “What happens when aliens invade the earth but don’t conveniently land in Buckinghamshire or that tiny pocket of London that doesn’t have any non-white people in it?” It’s a good question because it’s ridiculous to speculate about the future and exclude people of colour (PoC), but it happens all the time. The internet near lost its damn mind when John Boyega was cast as one of, I repeat one of, the leads in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  l literally had people telling me it was part of a white genocide – yes, all because one of the group of main characters was a black man.  Apparently you can have a giant planet sized death machine, an army of tiny tribal bears and fat slug like criminal overlord, but a black man in space?  Now that’s a stretch too far.

By being BLEEK, it means you are acutely aware of the metaphorical fourth wall of modern life. By this, I mean that as black people, we are constantly aware that we are being watched and judged by a society that holds us to a higher standard than that applied to other races. As PoC, in a similar way to actors in a play, we are aware of the fourth wall. We interact with our “audience” (society) that often only observes us. We know we are expected to be a certain thing and act a certain way, when in fact we are more than that – some of us are BLEEKs.

We are comic book aficionados, we are anime lovers, cosplay designer & creators, worldwide gamers, we are introverts, extroverts, worryingly obsessed and generally rejecting of the mainstream media.  Those are some of the hobbies and attributes that connect us, but behind that we may be scientists, journalists, data analysts, style gurus, streetwise or not. The point is, we are as diverse as the shades of brown we come in, and our BLEEK-ness is just another aspect of that. Our BLEEK-selves, however, much like the rest of us, is ignored by the media, by school, by society because it doesn’t fit headlines, it doesn’t fit the stereotype, and even our own communities can find our BLEEK-ness hard to digest.

As a female BLEEK, it can be even harder. Society doesn’t want articulate, analytical women. It often begs us to dumb down and get our tits out for the lads.  Further, what do you do when not only society rejects you but also your own community, as if they’ve lost the ability to dream and imagine the possibilities because they’re too busy trying to not get their heads kicked in. I sometimes wonder if the lack of overt BLEEKs in the older generations, isn’t due to lack of imagination, but because they were too busy trying to keep their jobs and take care of their families that there wasn’t time for speculative fiction? Or perhaps that is too simplistic of me? Perhaps it was about survival and the belief that in order to survive there needs to be a cohesive community, a shared narrative? Anything too “out there”  may have been misunderstood or interpreted as traitorous, trying to “act white”, the “Uncle Tom” house slave.

Look closely though and you will see that BLEEK has always existed in our communities, from Afrika Bambaataa through to Cannibal Ox’s Iron Galaxy. You only have to watch a couple of the pop videos of Hype Williams to see the Afrofuturism influence, a great example being Missy Elliot’s The Rain. Black people have always been imagining themselves in a technologically advanced future  or fantasy world, we’ve just never openly connected the dots in the way that we can now. Now we have something that’s straight out of the sci-fi books to thank for that – the world wide web, the ultimate oracle of our times sending out its knowledge tendrils.  The web connects us not so much spiritually, but via our synaptic impulses, codifying our ideas and interests and manifesting into a fandom, a cosplay, or a meetup.

By leading a BLEEK life, we can hope and dream through our favourite characters. We can be shown all the different paths our lives can take that society says is not for us. Within the world of BLEEK you are more likely to see a black scientist or engineer and a black leading character, see Ms Marvel, Black Panther and Bitch Planet for some great examples. These characters are important because we need to have our thoughts expressed, our emotions aired and feelings exposed in a way that doesn’t expose us to hostility and rejection – we need to see ourselves as the hero/heroine, not just the villain.  Within the world of sci-fi and fantasy you can process the darkness that exists in life, lay it bare and strip it down in ways that purely text based format cannot. Sometimes you need to literally see the ugly face of reality to demystify it.

By exploring the theories and ideas in geek culture you gain access to science that the classroom can shut down for you. Learning about gravity in school was as dull as the story of the apple falling on Newton’s head. But when a starship is being sucked into a black hole? Now that’s some gravity I want to read about! Exploring science in the world of BLEEK can make it more accessible, by showing you real world applications and introducing concepts in fun and magical ways. To be BLEEK is to delve into a world of sci-fi, that allows you to explore the wonderful applications of science without the pressure of academic achievement. It shows you all the ways science infiltrates our lives that we take for granted.  It’s dreaming, but with a basis in reality that means it might actually happen one day – like hoverboards and air pumps from Back to The Future!

Finally, let’s not forget it’s also about fun and escapism. This world can get you down and sometimes you need to believe that there is someone better, somewhere better, more magical, fantastical and wonderful than you could hope to see. BLEEK is about imaging the possibilities, it’s about transformation. BLEEK is the manifestation of our imaginations filtered through science, technology and history – and it’s here to stay.