Saturday, May 10, 2008

Stuff White People Like

A couple of months ago, several of my friends sent me a link to the blog, Stuff White People Like, which has since gone viral and will soon be out as a book. While the friends who sent me the link accompanied the link with words such as: "Ohmigod. Hysterical." "This is the funniest thing ever.": I found myself unamused, and, yes, offended.

The conventional wisdom has it that critics of the blog are not getting the humor, or are too close to being the kind of white person portrayed on Christian Lander's blog. I don't necessarily discount that, but I think it's worth examining further into the issue, or at least for me since I find myself rather deeply disturbed by the blog in a way that I cannot pinpoint.

First off, a short list of biographical details about Christian Lander:
1) He is a 29 year old white male.
2) He is originally from Toronto Canada, studied at McGill, and then went onto grad school somewhere in America's Midwest where he learned to resent the two coast Americans who thought of the Midwest as not-them (the us and them construct).
3) He now lives in LA, as part of "us", and works as an internet writer.
4) One can find him on Amazon where he writes about a MP3 player that is not an Ipod, because it's important to his sense of alternative hipster, to not own an Ipod but a nice MP3 player. His wish list includes a history of bicycle, a book on learning to dress for permanent fashion for men, along with assorted geeky computer games, and graphic novels, particularly by Adrian Tomine.

So, basically, he sounds like half my Jewish male friends in New York, except he's not Jewish and doesn't have a nasally accent nor an off the wall sense of outrageous humor. Instead, his humor is rather gentle.

And perhaps that's what I initially didn't understand about the popularity of his blog. I thought: okay, done that, thought that.

And I don't find the humor offensive, as it is rather infused with Canadian politeness. However, I am offended by the idea of the blog. Here's the way I am reading it in terms of power and race:

1) Lander is parodying the humor of black comedians (latino comedians and asian american comedians are basically following the same path black comedians pioneered), which is to use racial stereotypes, claim it, and therefore subvert the power dynamics of race. However, Lander as part of the mainstream power that be, white male working in the tech industry, can only reaffirm the current power dynamic by assuring white people of their privileges.

In writing about white people who go to liberal arts schools, who have black friends, who go to eat at "ethnic restaurants", isn't he basically claiming power? Ethnic and race comedians have been making fun of what they have and therefore, don't have. Besides the continual nonsense about affirmative action, what can a decently well-employed professional white person say he doesn't have in this country? (Although I did go to one party in Boston where one WASP woman told me about the lack of warmth in her family. Oh, and I suppose, along with everyone else, he can complain about the lack of a democratic government.)

2) Is Lander skewering the alternative hipster or gently mocking, and therefore loving his own kind? Overall, I am inclined to say he's loving his own kind. The worst his kind has done in his posts is have an inclination to fall for Asian chicks and be not fully learned. Otherwise, they seem like a conscientious group of people who recycle, ride bicycles, ride Prius, have ethical and intellectual goals....what's not to like about them?

3) In defining a certain sect of traits and claiming it for white people, where does that leave the rest of us who recycle, go to do grad school in the humanities, and ride bicycles? This might sound rather harmless, but it's actually quite pernicious. Tiger Woods supposedly said to Will Smith when Smith was doing Legend of Bagger Vance something along the lines of how much he, Woods, had done to get black people in golf noticed and Smith had to go play a black caddy. For decades, white people have been laying claim to different facets of culture, including all of high culture, a great deal of sports such as tennis, golf, gymnastics, figure skating. It's only in the last couple of decades that minorities have finally broken into those sports. When I went to college to study English, I was mocked by both my high school advisor as well as certain professors in my college department.

4) Perhaps this is what offends me most of all. As someone who has had to struggle for my privileges as a non-white person, who has had to pay a great deal of debt in order to attend college at a liberal arts college and then grad school, it's offensive to watch someone take their privileges as a white middle-class person and mock it. It's a little bit of a "screw you" while eating food right in front of a homeless person and making sure the homeless person is watching.

5) Finally, take some lessons from the great Jewish comedians. People like Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld because they are outrageous comedians, not because they are gently loving their own kind and reaffirming status.


Christel said...

Damn you for making me think! I posted a response at my LJ. My brain hurts now :P

Arnold said...

Good post, but it should be noted that Lander conceptualized the site with his Filipino friend (while discussing the merits of HBO's "The Wire." When I first started reading the site, the general tone led me to believe that the posts were written by an Asian American male, and I was actually surprised when I found it was a white guy.

Postillion said...

Gary Dauphin from has a good answer to that one:
Borrowing from the Hot Ghetto Mess playbook, SWPL not just monetizes dime-a-dozen and banal observations, but relies quite directly on an uncredited, nameless class of people of color. Landers grew up in Toronto's Chinatown and credits the experience as having made him "aware of whiteness right away." In a Los Angeles Times interview, he goes on to explain that he "came up with the idea for the blog after talking to a Filipino friend about how much they both liked the HBO police drama "The Wire."" That's a great secret origin, securing Landers' bona fides as a whitepeoplecoloredpeoplelike, and yet the SWPL entry on The Wire (#85) summarily disappears (or is that assimilates?) the Filipino friend, this even as Landers seems to write in his non-white voice. (I guess didn't have that magic ring.)