Do you believe in status?

Unlike my fellow contributor, Aaron Pidel, S.J., who reads genuine sociologists like Mary Douglas, my tastes these days run toward the trivial musings of Christian Lander.  In 2008, with an unfinished Ph.D. and an office job, he started writing whimsical posts on a blog he titled “Stuff White People Like.” Don’t immediately think the worst: it is not the rantings of a white-supremacist, or some strange fashion guide.  It is faux-sociology, written from the point of view of a non-white guide who describes the strange traits of white people.  Amusing, short, and often sloppily written, the posts went along for a while attracting little notice, until, as they say, his blog “blew up.”  Now he has a published book, and stuffwhitepeoplelike.com claims to have been read 62 million times.

What’s the hook?

Lander is great at pointing out what is inconvenient to notice in upper-middle-class white society.  For example, Moleskine notebooks (#122): sure, they have a helpful elastic band that keeps them shut.  But Lander is not interested in their functionality.  He’s interested in status.  Moleskines have cachet, and subtly indicate participation in a certain level of culture.  As Lander writes:

This particular type of notebook is very expensive and was quite popular with writers and artists in the olden days.  Needless to say, these are two properties that are highly coveted in the white community.   In fact, it’s a good rule of thumb to know that white people like anything that old writers and artists liked:  typewriters, journals, suicide, heroin, and trains are just a few examples.

Beware: white people get offended by Lander.  If you are white (and let’s face it, dear WD readers, you probably are) you will likely find, as you read the blog, that you are saying to yourself, “But X [perhaps #64 recycling, #8 Obama, #41 indie music, or #85 The Wire] is/are in fact better than the alternative.”  Right here, the joke is on you. Lander never says that any of these things are or are not in fact better than the alternatives.  He wants to point out that they often become ways of marking territory and defining status.  By itself this might not be very interesting.  What makes Lander so amusing is that talking about status highlights two things that upper-middle-class white America is in deep denial about.

First: a lot of white folks are in denial that there even is such a thing as status.  A huge part of what white America wants to do is to flatten class distinctions and identify itself with victims.  Lander loves pointing out just how often this (perhaps noble) idea gets twisted right from the start. Take the article on Bicycles:

A good place to find white people on a Saturday is at a Bike Shop. Bike shops are almost entirely staffed and patronized by white people!… The combination of rare bicycles and expensive parts makes it easy for white people to judge other white people on the quality and originality of their bicycles.

Bicycles might seem on the surface to be about environmentalism and building community, but they become quickly something that we spend lots of money on and use to judge each other.  In this sense Lander is the comedic complement to David Brooks’ book “Bobos in Paradise.”  The new symbols of status are often devised to make one feel that she is returning to “authentic” or “natural” or “non-commercial” life, even as the stuff actually makes life smoother, more comfortable, less natural.  Lander on Camping #128:

It is worth noting that white people are unaware of the irony of using a gas burning car to bring them closer to nature and it is not recommended that you point this out. It will ruin their weekend.

The second thing Lander exposes is that in and through all the talk about relativism are passionately held and deeply repressed views that some things, acts, and thoughts are better than others. “X is better” is the sort of non-ironic truth-statement that makes white people dramatically uncomfortable.  Stuffwhitepeoplelike helps white folks like me turn that discomfort with truth into laughter.  That’s not a bad place to be.

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9 Responses to Do you believe in status?

  1. Sarah Fetterhoff says:

    Hi, Mike! Gigi tipped me off to your collaborative blog and I’ve really been enjoying it. I wanted to let you know that I actually cited this entry in a journal I wrote for a course I’m taking called “German Studies, Cultural Studies.” We’ve been talking about the commoditization of culture and how it can be used to exclude at best, manipulate and oppress at worst, and this post illustrated that point really well. Bet you’ve never been cited before, eh?

    Are you still at St. Joe’s? Hope all is well!
    Sarah

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

      Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for reading! True, I don’t think I have ever been cited before and I’m not even sure this post is worth citing in the “lofty halls of academe”. But I’m glad you enjoyed it all the same. I hope you are writing your journal in a Moleskine notebook.

      To your point: It is so sad that the very things that we try to use to break off from consumer culture end up being sold right back to us. I suppose unless we think there is something true and good beyond what’s merely for sale, it’s hard to break away from total commiditization. Maybe the fights against relativism and consumerism are basically the same battle. Yay for truth and social justice!

  2. Kadiane*francophone says:

    How and why is this particular to white people or should i say american white people? Can we go deeper in the reflection? Tx

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

      Great question, Kadiane.
      I don’t think it is particular to white people or American white people to turn what they love into a commodity.
      But three things make it both amusing and important to highlight American white folks’ commoditization of life. For one thing – American white folks are used to doing this, to giving pseudo-objective diagnoses of other groups, but they rarely hear it done to themselves. It is important socially and as Christians to turn the mirror on those in power. For another, a strong subset of upper-middle class white folks pride themselves on being free from the commerical, the capitalist, since it is considered inauthentic and unnatural. It’s good to point out just how bad a job they (um… I) do in living up to these ideals. Finally, as I mention at the end of the post, there is the fun implication that relativism is actually bogus, and that we should be talking about what is really beautiful and good instead of clinging to originality and personal authenticity. Any thoughts?

  3. Kadiane*francophone says:

    ”Any thoughts?”

    I’m not american so… yes i can not give a solid opinion but i think the real explanation comes from what you said about those who are in power and i will add the wealthiest. Your answer helped me figure it out. So it is a behavior that those who already have a lot of commodity in todays society are prone to have in an attempt to follow the anti-capitalist and green trend. Now you probably have your american particularities that i do not know of. About white people in general, since for historical reason they are in power and the wealthiest everywhere on the planet then…

  4. Kelli Garner says:

    Great site, how do I subscribe?

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

      Hi Kelli –
      Not sure whether you’re talking about our site, Whosoever Desires, or the site I refer to in this post, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.

      If you mean our site, you should be able to find, on the right-hand side of this page, a box that says, “Share, Subscribe, Stay Current.” There we link to various popular ways of keeping up with our blog.

      As for stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, you’ll see at the top right of their home page a place where it says “Feed on” and then the option to click on posts or comments. Click on whichever you prefer.

      Keep coming back to check us out here at WD!

  5. Jay Hooks says:

    Mike-

    Thanks for the entry, and for letting me know about the website. On The White Scale – which, as we all know, goes from “zero” to “Like, totally organic”, I would likely weight in at about 88. (Let’s start a band, folks. We could call it “White Goes Green”.)

    I like his playful indication of the pervasiveness of the drive to compete and consume, which looms large even as folks try to swim against such influences. Can our motives ever be pure?? Alas. It makes me want to crawl, defeated, to Whole Foods, where I can blow Somalia’s GDP on jojoba soap and white asparagus.

    If you’ll allow me, I’d like to draw readers to yet another entry on the “Stuff White People Like” blog. I couldn’t help but be struck by this one, given the preponderance of scooters in my current locale… and given that I myself would consider procuring the vintage model. Mutatis mutandis, of course.

    http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2009/06/02/126-vespa-scooters/

    Peace.

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

      Jay,
      I hear ya – as an old spiritual director of ours likes to say, “I’ve never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” So we’re all of us involved in the sinful patterns of the world. But that also means that we’re all pretty hilarious, laughable people, even white folks who take their hemp man-purses very seriously. So all that goes to say, hope you can laugh at yourself while you’re at Whole Foods and the Vespa dealership. I’m off to REI.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. And yes, let’s start a band.
      in corde Jesu-

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