The Problem With “Stuff White People Like”
One of the fastest-growing and most popular blogs online right now is Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like. For those unfamiliar, Stuff White People Like consists of expostulations and riffs on cherished white practices: buying expensive water bottles, raving about the film Juno, supporting Obama, driving hybrid cars, and backing environmentalist causes. Lander crafts a quasi-ethnographic prose style that casts neo-liberal white culture as a peculiar entity best explained by someone privy to the hidden meanings of white ways, and often his deadpan descriptions of the stuff white people love to do are amusing. The blog, only six weeks old, has logged over 4 million hits, and it averages over a quarter of a million visits each day.
I have hesitated to talk about Stuff White People Like because I was unsure of its legitimacy as a social phenomenon. My fears were quelled when NPR, that paragon of whiteness, aired a segment on Talk of the Nation that featured a brief conversation with Lander and a hand-full of his fans. Listening to the segment, I think, is an act that bears out some of the problems with Lander’s blog. Most of the callers responded with inane, uncritical praise of Stuff White People Like. Many delighted in the degree to which Lander’s markers of whiteness hit the proverbial nail on the head. Other white callers happily admitted that they too love coffee, wear Birkenstock sandals, like wearing shorts in the winter, or support Obama. Still others proffered suggestions and encouraged Lander to share thoughts on other white practices like, for instance, blogging (a particularly dumb suggestion, and one that ignores the important work of black writers and bloggers).
Unfortunately, in the segment the NPR host left no room for a critique of the blog. A discussion did emerge in which some of the typical complaints against the blog were broached. Isn’t Lander simply kicking around harmful, damaging stereotypes of whiteness? Aren’t there non-white people who also partake of the cultural practices in question? Does the blog’s title and its corresponding content even represent all white people accurately (Lander juxtaposed the version of whiteness his blog seeks to articulate with other manifestations of whiteness, like “white trash”)?
I’ll be honest. I appreciate the satirical element of Lander’s critique, but the various responses to his blog demonstrate the problems with such a form of critique. Satire alone doesn’t suffice in an instance when the demographic being criticized isn’t perceptive enough to understand the implications of it.
A recent column in the Los Angeles Times attempts to “deconstruct” the cultural work of Stuff White People Like by arguing that Lander brilliantly performs the same reductive work of equating a segment of the white population with ethnic group in its entirety that journalists who categorize blackness have always been guilty of. This reading of Stuff People Like is true, but I think it ignores the larger problem with the tenor of Lander’s writing.
Most white people (the hippies, yuppies, neo-liberals, etc.) who read Stuff White People Like react by saying either “so what,” “man, does that ever describe me! Isn’t that hilarious,” or “Hey! I’m white but I don’t do that, at least not on a regular basis.” Lander is articulating (via satire) some important, and problematic, facets of white culture that undergird the framework of social inequity now comprising the architecture of our society. Many of his posts, especially his discussions of water bottles, hybrid cars, and bikes, describe the larger practice of conspicuous consumption in its diverse manifestations. We’ve already seen the fallacy of smug ethnographic musings like these in David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). The result is a conservative, self-satisfying acceptance of the status quo, which is really a pastoral retreat from society that shirks real questions of how and why the left-leaning white upper-middle class maintains its position of privilege.
Stuff White People Like is a mediocre blog that could be great if it balanced its satirical sketches with some social analysis that goes for the jugular and actually articulates the hypocrisy of the neo-liberal elite. Of course, it is much harder to construct such an articulation, but now that Lander has the audience, it would be nice to see an attempt.
Even if the people writing in response to Stuff White People Like indulge in these cultural practices (and form a ritual confessional that owns up to participating in these quintessentially white practices), they should still have the motivation to stop and say, “No, gentrification is not okay” or “No, threatening to move to Canada is a wrongheaded evasion of one’s civic duty.” These statements are implied, but not expressed in the blog. And apparently, they need to be expressed.
A cultural studies-informed supplement to Stuff White People Like, anyone?
From → Politics