The definitive guide to white people
Christian Lander talks to spiked about the self-important, ironic, Tibet-pitying, Wire-loving American liberals that he parodies in his book.
This article is republished from the December 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.
‘It amazed me when I looked around and saw the reaction of all these people who considered themselves open-minded… They all thought the exact same way and I wanted to tell them “you’re not open-minded, you’re progressive and there’s a difference”. The same people would assume that every single conservative point of view was wrong and evil. I’m not a conservative by any means, but I see value in discourse and actually listening to the other side, whether they’re wrong or right. But they wouldn’t listen at all. They were as intolerant as the people they hated.’
Christian Lander, author of the hit blog and bestselling book Stuff White People Like, is telling me about the time Ann Coulter, the skinny, blonde, right-wing American commentator, came to speak at Indiana University when he was a student there. His fellow, right-on students only attended Coulter’s speech so that they could shout abuse at her and try to shut the whole event down. They had little time for anyone whose outlook clashed with their own liberal sensibilities and passion for ‘tolerance’.
‘That contradiction just really irritated me’, the Canadian-born Lander says from his home in Los Angeles. ‘And it really stuck with me and I guess inspired some of the anger that comes out in my blog and book.’
The very funny Stuff White People Like holds up an unflattering mirror to upper middle-class liberals. You know the type: dressed in shorts and Free Tibet t-shirts, they drive their Obama bumper sticker-adorned Toyota Priuses – iPods blazing ‘black music that black people don’t listen to anymore’ – to their local farmer’s markets. There, they stuff organic veggies and free-range chicken into reusable shopping bags, before getting ready for yoga class, followed by an oh-so-ironic 80s night or a dinner party with friends.
Of course, you don’t have to be white to be one of the ‘white people’ that Lander satirises. As he says, ‘this is fundamentally about class, though there is a race element to it for sure’. He explains that ‘white people’ is shorthand for those ‘who don’t have to worry about paying the rent, who have followed college degrees that are based more on their interests or appearing smart than on any actual economic application. They are people who are doing things that appear to be beneficial to the world but are essentially just being used as status symbols.’
One such thing is working for non-profit organisations, which, as Lander’s book explains, ‘white people like doing for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that it gives them a sense of self-importance. They can tell their friends and parents that they are “helping” society, not just working to make money.’ In the long run, however, such work can become lucrative, because ‘nonprofits retain their top executives by paying a salary competitive with similar positions in other industries. So you can be working at a non-profit and still make six figures, and you don’t have accountability or pressure. White people can’t lose!’
But some white people find easier ways of being charitable. As Lander’s entry on ‘awareness’ explains: ‘They firmly believe all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness” – meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, magically causing someone else, like the government, to fix it.’ The fact that you can raise awareness through things like dinner parties, marathons, t-shirts, concerts and wearing bracelets allows white people to ‘keep doing the stuff they like, except that now they can feel better about making a difference’, whether it’s to the environment, poverty, Africa or political prisoners.
Perhaps it is white people’s fondness for self-deprecating humour (entry #103) that has propelled what Lander started as a jokey blog for his friends (‘I only have about 25’, he jokes, self-deprecatingly) into cult status in less than a year.
It all started with a silly Instant Messaging chat between Lander and a childhood friend about what white people could possibly be doing when they’re not watching the HBO show The Wire. They bandied ideas around and came up with things like ‘going to therapy, watching plays, getting divorced, going to yoga’.
It’s not just white people, Lander tells me, who engage in these kind of activities, but they’re ‘branded as white because they require so much money’. He believes part of the appeal of his blog is that it updates the yuppie concept. Yet his hilarious list of stuff white people own, do, say and think doesn’t only apply to urbanites; it also applies to people who live in suburbs and college towns, and who hate all the ‘commoners’ they are surrounded by.
Whereas the yuppies of yesteryear worked hard to obtain flashy expensive cars, watches and briefcase-sized mobile phones, the stuff white people like today reveal a desire for, as Lander puts it, ‘an altruistic status’.
Lander explains that The Wire, set in Baltimore and widely praised for its realistic portrayal of the gritty side of urban America, is loved by white people because of its authenticity. This theme – the search for authenticity, and the lengths white people go to in order to be recognised as an appreciator of authenticity – runs right through Stuff White People Like (which is subtitled ‘The Definitive Guide to The Unique Taste of Millions’).
The problem, says Lander, is that ‘authenticity is not a renewable resource. We’re not building any more Brooklyn brownstones or cities that look like London or Paris. We’re building cities like Dallas. Authenticity is finite – and there’s a lot of people with two last names competing for it.’ (Note: for Lander the double-barreled surname is not, as it might be in Britain, a signifier of upper-class poshness, but rather of a person born to ‘progressive parents’ who see it as sexist only to pass on the father’s name to their child.)
The mass-produced, mainstream and modern might be described as the three forbidden Ms for the many white people who strive to express their individuality in strikingly similar ways. But behind their often conceited struggle for uniqueness there is, paradoxically, a desire to conform. These two desires are not easily united, and the impossible pursuit of being an individual while at the same time fitting in leads to a particularly angsty, narcissistic, snobby, duplicitous and guilt-ridden personality type.
White people don’t want to be seen as elitist, yet they are at pains to elevate themselves above the masses. They care about the poor, but frown at doing anything that bears a whiff of ‘redneck’ behaviour. Sometimes, their love of irony (entry #50) inspires white people to get together for ‘white trash’ night, where they will do things like eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and drink Bud Light. ‘These events allow white people to experience things they are supposed to hate, all while feeling better about their own lives, decisions, and cultured tastes’, writes Lander.
White people also love to hate chains and big corporations. But of course, they prefer to direct their ire at corporations that make stuff that they (and Naomi Klein) don’t like, such as Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Halliburton, rather than at corporations that make stuff they do like, such as IKEA, Apple and Whole Foods.
White people are also sensitive about appearing racist. To this end, they love to have black friends (entry #14) and dream of being invited to ‘an authentic “African-American” experience such as a Baptist church or a barbecue restaurant in a neighborhood they are afraid of’. White people love ethnic diversity (entry #7) when it comes to food and cultural events, but they send their kids to private school ‘to avoid the “low test scores” that come with educational diversity’. And of course they feel guilty about this fact.
In the world of the class of people Lander writes about, things like iPod playlists, DVD collections, sneakers and juice brands take on a strikingly fetishistic character. Such things are seen as revealing a person’s true nature and world outlook and are even thought to help make the world a better place. In truth, of course, such a highly individualistic, lifestyle form of politics doesn’t effect any real change.
Ultimately, the white people Lander pokes fun at (and, as he admits to me, a lot of the time he is poking fun at himself) belong to a social strata and generation that has had a very easy ride. Society has been so good to them that they have very little to complain about or revolt against. Their protests, therefore, either take on a very personal character or they are done in the name of ‘other people’.
So ‘hating their parents’ (entry #17) – either for being too strict or too laid-back – is compulsory for white people, and this is something they can only come to terms with by going to therapy (entry #146). They are also keen to liberate other people, like Tibetans, even if they know little about such peoples’ history. Tibet is the ultimate white cause; it has ‘celebrity endorsements, concerts, t-shirts, bumper stickers, Buddhism, and a simple solution’, writes Lander. (T-shirts are a recurring theme in Stuff White People Like.)
Lander believes that today ‘there is a profound distrust in politics’: ‘For example, I can’t imagine that we can really fix the environment in my lifetime. And so the only response is to try and control everything in your immediate environment as much as possible. So if your house is green, you’ve done your part and you can sleep at night. That’s what seeds so much of the selfishness of all of this.’
What bothers Lander is not green politics in itself but the way people do minor things in the name of ‘saving the planet’ and then use this as a way of proving their moral superiority. On vegetarians, he says: ‘I think it’s fantastic when people cut back on red meat because it contributes to a whole host of environmental problems, but I think taking it too far, constantly trying to guilt people who eat red meat into thinking that they’re awful people or using it as a status issue, is a mistake and it’s so full of pretentiousness and so ripe for satire.’
What Lander has got a beef with is that ‘green issues are so class-based’ and that white people only want to be green because they can afford to. They don’t really want to sacrifice anything, but ‘just want some sort of new technology that allows them to maintain their lifestyle, like drive a car with a different motor but not get rid of the car’. ‘I live in Los Angeles’, he says, ‘and I don’t drive a car’.
Though he is right to criticise the moral posturing and superiority complex of trendy, recycling cyclist types, it’s a shame that Lander doesn’t seem to recognise that material comfort and not having to make sacrifices are in fact laudable goals.
One of the ‘money fixes’ Lander brings up in his book is carbon offsetting. ‘As much as white people would love to be able to do everything in an Earth-friendly way’, he writes, ‘the reality of their needs sometimes just doesn’t match up to current environmental options. For example, when a white person needs to travel to India for a yoga retreat, they are going to have to get on a plane and in the process release tons of carbon dioxide into the air. Though simply avoiding air travel would be a good way to solve this, that’s just not a fair thing to ask. Fortunately, there are carbon offsets.’
Unfortunately, Lander seems to laud a society in which people suppress their desire to experience the good life in favour of the obscure goal of ‘saving the planet’. His focus on the hypocrisy of ‘white people’ gives the impression that their goals are honourable, but their means of achieving them are not. I would say the opposite is true: there is nothing honourable about wanting to reduce one’s footprint and presence on the planet, but there is something admirable in buying new gadgets and stuff to make our lives more comfortable. Fortunately, however, humour rather than political campaigning was always Lander’s number one priority with Stuff White People Like. ‘What people do with [the book] is up to them’, he tells me. ‘It can’t change the world, but if it gets people talking about class and race, that’s great.’
At the very least, Lander’s book is certain to provoke laughs. Written as a guide for how ‘to exploit white people’, this book will make for one handy gift. And if you happen only to know ‘white people’, just bear in mind that one of the most common suggestions Lander gets for ‘stuff white people like’ – and one that people apparently always think is very original – is, yes, Stuff White People Like.
Lander says he has a bunch of new entries for the blog in the pipeline, including ‘British slang’. Well, his own observations are the dog’s bollocks.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
Read the Stuff White People Like blog here.
Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to The Unique Taste of Millions, by Christian Lander is published by Random House. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
This article is republished from the December 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.