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.