In my mind, the launch of NerdWear will always be inextricably linked to the events of May of 2020: the murder of George Floyd, the protests, and the looming presence of the COVID pandemic.
As a 19-year-old privileged white male, it was the first time in my life that I was forced to truly confront the physical and social realities of Black Americans and the injustice that underpins the ideals of the United States.
Like many people, I had gone through the public education system and had taken the required course load in the social sciences. In truth, I had a fantastic American history teacher who emphasized the horrors of slavery. But, due to the classroom setting and my own divided and distracted focus, I never had to reckon with the cascading influence that that system of oppression has had on our present institutions and our subconscious patterns of thought.
To Ta-Nehisi Coates, I am one of the “unworried boys,” with a life of “pie and pot roast… white fences and green lawns.” I’m a Dreamer who has lived a life devoid of fear, with the privilege of devoting my mind “to more beautiful things" (Between the World and Me). And it took one of the worst of crimes in a time where I was free of obligation to bring me to recognizing that.
I grappled with myself during the weeks after, as I’m sure many others did. And despite whatever guilt and frustration, justified or not, that I had with myself, I found that some aspects of my identity were unavoidable.
I see the world through the eyes of privilege. My thoughts and judgments are colored by 'white culture', the culture I adopted after moving to the United States as a child. I cannot change how I was raised. I cannot change the decisions of my past. So the question became:
What can I do now?
Around this time, my friend Khadem was moving into the final stages of launching NerdWear. It had been his passion project for months. I called him time and time again in between university lectures to devise jokes about topics ranging from the Dunning-Kruger effect to Asimov’s The Last Question. In early 2020, the pandemic hit. I went home, and eventually, my semester ended. I spent my free time helping Khadem with designs featuring “intellectual jokes, meant to spread a thirst for education through humor.” And we had a great time doing it.
But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and inspired by an incredible piece of artwork by Arya Badiyan (see above), we realized that we had an opportunity to expand the initial vision of the brand. We could use the infrastructure we had built to make a difference: we could provide people with an incentive to donate and raise money for something that mattered.
And so we launched our website and our Juneteenth shirt, featuring a new design that juxtaposed the written ideals of our country with the true reality for Black Americans. And we committed 100% of our proceeds to organizations supporting Black lives and communities of color.
I’m happy to say that we were successful - within the scope of our own networks. But we had our difficulties. It felt like our contribution was a mere drop in the bucket. Progress was slow-moving. I questioned the validity of our mission every day due to the color of my skin and my socioeconomic status. Was this our story to tell? What would someone like Coates think of me and what I was doing?
To some, these may seem like pointless insecurities. Maybe they are, maybe they are not. I still ask myself those questions.
But as I saw the money we raised and the reactions of people we cared about and respected, I realized that what we were doing was having a positive impact. We were small, yes, but we were choosing action over inaction, and we were energized to take it further.
In the months after our initial release, we set out with high ambitions to grow the brand. The result of that expansion is the website you see now, the blog, and of course, the Liberty hoodie.
The concept of the hoodie was as follows: each individual hoodie would host a unique set of names on its sleeves, and would ship with a card detailing the stories of those names. We wanted to represent the unending deluge of people, known and little-known, who have had their lives taken as a result of lynching, police brutality, and systemic racism in the United States.
We spent weeks figuring out the logistics of taped sleeves, researching cut/sew and printing methods, contacting local tailor establishments, and calculating production costs. Only to realize that a brand of our size, run by a small team, simply was not capable of producing a product of that scope.
But we still believed that sharing these peoples’ stories was valuable and important. So instead of scrapping the idea, we decided to work with our constraints and create what you see today. We had to limit the design to nine names, but we found a way to compromise: each new production cycle of the hoodie will feature a different set of names and will be accompanied with the release of a new set of stories.
We will be posting these stories every two days for the next eighteen days on our social media. They are also on our website under "Blogs -> Learn Their Stories" (Click here to be redirected there).
Through these posts and the physical hoodie itself, we hope to initiate conversations surrounding one of the most challenging issues facing our country. Because it’s true: we stand at a critical moment in our nation’s history. But we do not have to lead revolutions to make a difference. Especially as youth, we have a responsibility to be conscious examiners of our environment and shape our behaviors in alignment to the world that we wish to see.
But who am I to say this? I am young and woefully ignorant across countless domains. I cannot avoid the color of my skin and the certain amount of blindness that comes with my privilege. I feel envy, greed, pride and anger every day, and I have made many mistakes in my time.
But I have come to see life, at its foundation, as a process of continuous improvement and education, of reading, empathizing, connecting, talking, learning, and growing. And most importantly, of taking action. As Halie Selassie put it:
"Throughout history it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph."
It may feel like what you can do matters very little in the grand climate of the United States. But know this: our world is a nonlinear system. Our inputs today, however small, will produce radical, unforeseeable outputs in our futures.
I hope that NerdWear's mission and the community we are building can inspire you to take action.
Author: Liam Betts