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The Problem With “Stuff White People Like”

February 27, 2008

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?

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From → Politics

15 Comments
  1. Starla Solan permalink

    Andrew,

    Does this mean I can have your new red Sigg bottle??

    Starla :-)

  2. Ian permalink

    Stephen Colbert’s parody of the Bill O’Reilley/Laura Ingraham/Sean Hannity Conservative media types needs no explanation.

    The same came be said about “Stuff White People Like”.

    In Mr. Lander’s case, the satirical sketches ARE the social analysis. Moving away from satire and entering into a more academic discussion will only scare away the yuppies who will excuse him as another right-winger while those who actually “get it” will simply walk away because it isn’t funny anymore. If people can’t understand irony, than that’s their own problem.

    Just a disclaimer, I only moved to Canada because I got into a really good university here. I’m still an American and I know where home is.

    Thanks for linking to his blog, it’s a fun read.

  3. Ian permalink

    He Andrew, add me to your blogroll. I’m trying to improve my communication skills through blogging.

    http://optionaltoaster.wordpress.com/

  4. I’m going to agree with both of you. (And not Starla, sorry, what’s a Sigg bottle?)

    I read the blog a little the other day and reacted similarly: his real criticism is of yuppies and the bourgeois self-indulgence, and it’s a good one. But I also think Ian’s right; it’s more effective in its funny state. I don’t think the internet (or America) is ready for Stuff White People Like to make an organized argument.

  5. Phil and Ian…

    Did you listen to the NPR segment? It’s just sad that no one at all who called it seemed close to understanding Stuff White People Like, even though the message seems pretty clear to me.

    In our world, social inequality and class boundaries too often get packaged as part of entertainment programming. I think this lets yuppies off the hook completely.

  6. optionaltoaster permalink

    Then I’d say that’s NPR’s business. I’ll give it a listen.

  7. Johnny1 permalink

    if you’re pointing out how there are black and asian bloggers too, it looks like you actually don’t get the idea behind the “Stuff White People Like” blog…

  8. optionaltoaster permalink

    I don’t think that is what Andrew was arguing at all.

  9. optionaltoaster permalink

    …in the context of your question.

    Now I’m just spamming.

  10. academics are also a strange bunch
    http://www.stuffacademicslike.com

  11. Kevin permalink

    ” I agree, shallow and pedantic. ”

    ” I agree, as well. Shallow and pedantic.”

    that what you remind me of for some reason. you feel all high and mighty because you are an english lit phd, so you feel you have to put down an obscure writer, who in all likelyhood has not formal training yet people read his blog..and not yours.

  12. Kevin, et al.: Maybe so, but apparently I am not the only high and mighty academic who feels this way about “Stuff White People Life.” See the Chronicle for Higher Education on April 18, 2008, and see also Alex Jung’s blog response:

    http://www.racewire.org/archives/2008/02/much_ado_about_stuff_white_peo_1.html

  13. Aimee W. permalink

    Hi Andrew! I just remembered about your blog, and as I have recently mastered the art of “feeds,” I just added you to my Google Reader.

    “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.”

    Personally, I think Stuff White People like is a laugh riot, and I tend to side with the LA Times’s reading of the blog. But it does bring up an interesting question about the efficacy of satire as a sociopolitical tool. For instance, many of my right-wing students adore Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Does that compromise the satiric projects of *The Daily Show* and *The Colbert Report*? It’s hard to tell. If anything, it’s testament to the resilience of ideology. Still, I have to believe that Stewart and Colbert are doing important work: they highlight the ironies (and the hypocrisy) embedded in American culture and politics. I think, to a certain extent, the same could be said for “Stuff White People Like.”

    And besides, comedians in the vein of Chris Rock (and more recently, Carlos Mencia) have long benefited from well-intentioned satire that relies primarily on racial stereotypes. Why should Whitey be any different?

  14. Woz…. Well said. I think I am increasingly becoming frustrated with (or skeptical about) satire as an effective medium. Many times, people need things to be spelled out in order that hypocrisy can get exposed. See my post on “Charlie Wilson’s War” for a similar reaction.

    Stewart and Colbert are slightly different from SWPL for a couple reasons. First, the quality of their satire is much better, and second, they hold a valuable role as a news medium on cable television that is an alternative to FOX, CNN, and all the rest. Yet even so, at times I wonder if the bottom line of these shows is simply entertainment, just like all other news outlets.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when Landers’s book comes out in a couple weeks. Will there be any sort of informed critique at all?

  15. Sam permalink

    Man are you pretentious. All I read was a bunch of words ranting about how we should revolutionise the way we address social issues, while you pretended to criticise SWPL. Basically I think your blog is just a way for you to make yourself look smart to a bunch of strangers on the internet by using big words.

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