Stuff White People Like
They like running marathons and eating sushi, venerating Jon Stewart and bragging about not owning a TV. They talk endlessly about HBO's "The Wire" and dance self-consciously to '80s music. They're into "irony" and have a tendency to threaten to move to Canada.
"They" are white people, and they're the subject of Stuff White People Like, a flavor-of-the-moment blog that, since appearing in January of 2008, boasts nearly 30 million hits. There are over 100 numbered entries, including Having Two Last Names (entry No. 22), Dinner Parties (No. 90), Arts Degrees (No. 47), and, yes, Barack Obama (No. 8). Think of it as a project to affectionately examine the classic conservative description of "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading" liberal elites. But despite the name, it's not about white people, not really. It's about a certain kind of highly educated, generally young, culturally liberal white person who has enough disposable income to discover an affinity for kitchen gadgets (No. 54). And it's written by just such a white person: 29-year-old Christian Lander, an Internet copywriter who recently snagged a $300,000 advance for a book based on the blog, which hits shelves this month.
Commentators and bloggers of all races have hailed the site as groundbreaking. Some have said it is edgy and deals with white privilege in a real way; others have said that it is a refreshing and funny take on racism in our culture. But this is true more on an implicit than explicit level. Even though some posts deal directly with race, such as the entries on Diversity (No. 7), Being an Expert on YOUR Culture (No. 20), and Being the Only White Person Around (No. 70), Lander didn't set out to write an academic treatise on whiteness. Rather, he set out to joke about it. What sets it apart from the hundreds of other well-written, funny Web sites is that it's hit a nerve -- especially because it appeared at a time when America was captivated by the issue of race in the presidential primary. And so it's worth thinking about exactly what this blog tells us about whiteness and why its mostly white, affluent audience has so enthusiastically embraced this gently mocking rundown of their culture.
Part of the reason Stuff White People Like is a "safe" place for white people to talk about race is because Lander fits the exact profile he mocks: He's a white, 20-something, "creative class"-type based in Los Angeles. The blog is primarily a place for white people to chortle at the oddities of race and class and then congratulate themselves for having done so, thus neatly avoiding the need to delve any deeper. Or, conversely, they may like the blog because it allows them to disassociate themselves and laugh at those white yuppies. The core message is that it's OK to be rich and white, as long as you laugh about it. No further analysis required. It's a message that, unsurprisingly, rich, white people love to hear.
It's worth wondering if such a blog could have thrived were its author a person of color. Would white people still read it and find the humor affectionate? Or would they suddenly detect a more harshly critical undertone? There are many people of color who write regularly (and yes, sometimes even with a sense of humor) about racism and whiteness, but they're not getting six-figure book deals. In effect, Lander is rewarded for being white, even though he is making fun of white people. To his credit, he is self-aware enough to mock this irony. He broke the news that he had a forthcoming book by publishing an entry on Stuff White People Like titled, "Book Deals" (No. 92). But that doesn't change the fact that, were he a person of color, No. 92 might instead have been "Calling Me A Racist."
To be sure, I find the site funny, and much of it rings true. I live in San Francisco, land of Prius drivers (No. 60), gentrified neighborhoods (No. 73), and Asian enthusiasts (No. 11), and have had many "aha" moments while reading the blog. The city is such a perfect example of yuppie white culture that it even has its own entry (No. 91). As a person of color living in a town that has been brutally gentrified and is now home to lots of white, self-described "global citizens," it feels good to read a blog that expresses a lot of what I think about the liberal white culture that dominates the city. In some sense, it's all the more powerful because it's written by a white man rather than by a person of color. We're usually the ones stuck pointing out these things.
People of color appreciate Stuff White People Like because it makes visible the assumed invisibility of a certain type of white culture. In doing so, it opens the door to the admission that, yes, white culture is a distinct, often peculiar, and even varied phenomenon. It is not simply "American culture," or worse, "the culture." I grew up hearing white friends say, "You are so lucky to have a culture," and I remember thinking, "Dude, you have a culture, too." But they didn't see it as a culture. It was too pervasive, too synonymous with "American" for them to feel ownership over it, even though it clearly excluded people of color. The mere fact of pointing out that a dominant white culture exists and has implicit membership requirements and shared references will earn you a lot of fans among people of color.
To be sure, not all white culture has escaped scrutiny. Jeff Foxworthy has been on the comedy circuit (and on TV) for decades. And what about Roseanne, or the Canadian show The Trailer Park Boys, or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour? True, this segment of pop culture examines working-class whiteness, often quite critically. What makes Stuff White People Like special is that it describes relatively wealthy white Americans, and in doing so, recognizes that their particular culture has been mainstreamed and presented by Hollywood as the norm. It's as much about class as it is about race. To consume or participate in most of the activities and products featured on the blog -- in other words, to identify with it -- you need a good amount of disposable income. The implication is that white is synonymous with wealthy. In many ways, Stuff White People Like is speaking to a class divide as much as a racial one and is helping lay bare the ways in which the two interact and are often conflated.
But if Stuff White People Like isn't mocking all white folks -- just those who are wealthy urbanites -- what about people of color who fit that profile? Many upper-class people of color can relate to the blog. We eat expensive sandwiches (No. 63) and listen to public radio (No. 44), too. But if you are a person of color who likes a lot of the same stuff white people like, does that make you white? A sell-out to your own culture? Are you not a "real" person of color?
It is perhaps for this reason that Stuff White People Like has spawned a number of unaffiliated spin-off sites such as Stuff Educated Black People Like, Stuff Lesbians Like, and Stuff Asian People Like. (I even considered starting a blog called Stuff Feminist People Like.) Part of the motivation for these sites could be that people of color are tired of being labeled a "sell out" to their ethnic group for participating in mainstream white culture. But while people of color can relate to some aspects of Stuff White People Like, they can't relate fully because of other characteristics of their identity. This is what makes Stuff White People Like so powerful. It encapsulates the potent combination of factors that define upper-middle-class white privilege. As a person of color, you may relate to these factors in some way, but you can never fully inhabit that culture unless you benefit from being class-privileged and white at the same time. (In other words, unless you're exactly like the blog's author.) People of color might laugh at and see aspects of themselves in some of the Stuff White People Like, but the relationship is an uncomfortable one, always repositioning whiteness at the center.
Some people will protest that Stuff White People Like is just a humor blog, and it need not be taken so seriously. But that's the point. When you're part of the dominant culture, you don't have to be self-aware about the assumptions in your own product. You don't have to examine how you overlap with, and set yourself apart from, other cultures. Meanwhile, the vast majority of owners of pop-culture outlets are white and wealthy, as are the people producing the content. So though it may be just a start-up humor blog, Stuff White People Like has an impact on the dominant narrative on race and class. It hinges on the belief that wealthy, white, male, heterosexuality is the central and dominant category, and everyone else is compared to that in varying degrees of whiteness or otherness. Stuff White People Like is by white people, for white people. What sets it apart is that it admits that, even if it claims to do so jokingly.
Reprinted with permission from Samhita Mukhopadhyay. "The White Stuff," The American Prospect, Volume 19, Number 7: Jully 11, 2008. www.prospect.org. The American Prospect, 1710 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, 12th Floor, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.