»  The American Conservative

October 20, 2008

  Getting It White

Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions
        by Christian Lander


Our brains process information coming from our senses. Since we are social animals, a great deal of the processing concerns social information — data about the members of the various groups we belong to, and about our own place in those groups. There is no consensus among neuroscientists about the way this is done, but a number of distinct systems — "modules," in the jargon — seem to be involved. In No Two Alike, her 2006 book on "human nature and human individuality," Judith Rich Harris suggests a three-module schema, with a relationship module managing one-on-one attachments, a socialization module for group membership and awareness, and a status module to monitor who's up and who's down.

Whether this is a full and correct account of our social nature, I'm not qualified to judge; but that every human brain contains a status module like the one Ms. Harris describes can hardly be doubted. We all of us devote considerable mental energy to assessing where we stand in this group or that, calculating who's a rival and who an ally, trying to improve our own position, fretting over loss of status, and managing status-related emotions such as envy, contempt, triumph, embarrassment, ambition, and humiliation. Books and magazines offer a steady stream of advice, and advertisers tease and prod our status modules like the trainers of performing seals, trying to nudge us toward invidious consumption.

And then, once in a while, irony kicks in. We turn to look at our status striving, and mock ourselves. It's not that we have any intention of quitting the game. To the contrary, our self-mockery is at once incorporated into the status-computing algorithms, so that group members who are slow to get the joke lose status thereby. Probably that's the point. Wisdom is prized in every human group, and self-awareness is a species of wisdom, if only a minor one.

British author Stephen Potter pioneered this genre of what we might call "status irony" with his 1952 book One-upmanship. Now here comes Christian Lander with Stuff White People Like, a compilation of 150 one-page summaries of today's status markers, written in a tone of gentle derision. Lander tries for the status-irony equivalent of a somersault with tuck, encompassing irony itself in his performance: "Irony" is #50 on his list.

I can't be the first to note something wrong with the book's title. Status striving operates within some well-defined group. What's the group here? Certainly it is not white people at large. Most white people couldn't care less about natural medicine (#59), Tibet (#124), Noam Chomsky (#98), Rugby football (#93), or film festivals (#3) … while, come to think of it, there is at least a scattering of un-white people who could. I've been white for as long as I can remember, and I've never even heard of some of these items. Who or what is Mos Def (#69), LEED certification (#134), David Sedaris (#25)? Don't ask me. So who are these "white people"?

My first guess was that to the degree there is anything racially distinctive about the sensibility on display in Lander's book, it is Jewish: the reflexive leftism, the food faddishness, the moralizing, and yes, at #103, "Self-Deprecating Humor." Accompanying #64 ("Recycling") there is a picture of Lander wearing a Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto T-shirt. He tells us he's not Jewish, though, and that first name seems indubitably corroborative.

Stuff White People Like is Jewish only in the sense, described by Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century, that we have all become a bit Jewish in the last 50 years. As Slezkine noted, quoting historian Joseph R. Levenson: "A Jewish style of life … may be more endangered when everyone eats bagels than when Jews eat hot cross buns." Lander's white people would, I am sure, want their bagels to be organically produced, but they wouldn't be seen dead eating a hot cross bun (#2, "Religions Their Parents Don't Belong To").

The white people here are in fact just thirtyish grad school liberal-arts alumni, a young subset of the "bourgeois bohemians" whom David Brooks described in his 2000 pop-sociology book Bobos in Paradise. A pretty good way to get a fix on any group is to look at how its members make their livings. As part of #47, "Liberal Arts Degrees," Christian Landers lists eight careers: "Writer," "Artist/Photographer," "[movie] Director," "Organic Restaurant Owner," "Bike Mechanic," "Nonprofit CEO," "Professor," and "Brand/media consultant."

The common denominator is that these are all perfectly useless occupations, the career equivalents of conspicuous consumption. The white-people group apparently does not include civil engineers, software entrepreneurs, plumbers, farmers, the military, or the police. In fact, it hardly includes anyone without a liberal arts degree. From that same #47:

But what about the white people who study Science, Engineering, and Business? Unless they become doctors, they essentially lose white-person status (which can be regained only by working at a nonprofit).

Lander himself was an English major at McGill who then studied communications at graduate school. Here, however, as with all the material in Stuff White People Like, you need to keep your irony detector switched on. There are hints throughout the book that those careers are not so much actual as oneiric, or at best aspirational. Most of the white people Lander is talking about are worker bees in corporate offices. From #143, "Bakeries":

The bakery also inspires hope in white people. Many of them dream of quitting their 9 to 5 job and opening a small bakery …

Stuff White People Like is in fact a work of autobiography. Lander has done a clever thing: he has made a bundle of money by writing about his own tastes. The book's true title is: Stuff Christian Lander Likes. Our author has admitted as much in some of the innumerable interviews he's done. This from Alex Leavitt's web site:

Q:  How much of [the StuffWhitePeopleLike.com web site, from which the book is taken] describes the generic white person, and how much describes you yourself?

A:  Almost all of the website describes me. It's hard to fix on how pretentious I really am …

The thing wouldn't work, of course, if there were not millions of people who like the same things Christian Lander likes and are willing to laugh at themselves. While laughing, they will quietly be checking their tastes against the zeitgeist, to update their inventory of bobo status markers. Behind the laughter, in other words, if you listen closely, will be the sound of garbage-can lids closing over Asics sneakers, Pitchfork CDs, bottles of Mateus wine or Evian water, baggy T-shirts, plastic shopping bags, and DVDs not from the Criterion Collection. If caught in possession of one of these sumptuary stinkers, a white person's only hope is to claim to be acting ironically, but this calls for expert-level status-management skills.

The original Stuff White People Like web site has generated many spin-offs. Some quick googling turns up a feeble Stuff Black People Like (Their Momma, Big Butts, Being Good At Sports), a slightly better Stuff Educated Black People Like (Moving to Atlanta, Deck Shoes, Correcting Others), a far better Stuff Asian People Like (Cutting In Line, False Humility, Not Wearing Shoes Indoors), Christian Lander's declared favorite White Stuff People Like (flour, sugar, drywall), and a host of others of various quality and ironicity.

Given the audacity of this book's title, it's hard not to find oneself wondering if it is a harbinger of anything, a pointer to the future direction of racial attitudes in the U.S.A. Objections to the Stuff White People Like concept as racist are hopelessly wide of the mark, as witness #7, "Diversity," #8, "Barack Obama," and #14, "Having Black Friends." Lander's white people are liberal to a fault (#118, "The ACLU"). None of them owns a copy of Camp of the Saints or a subscription to American Renaissance; probably none of them even knows what the Confederate flag looks like.

The up-front positioning of items #7, #8, and #14 suggests, however, that there is something perfunctory about the racial liberalism of Lander's white people. These gestures aside — and Obama is the grandest gesture of all — the impression one gets is that on the whole, Lander's white people are happy to live their lives as though black people — let alone Hispanics, whose lone representative in these pages is #113, "Che Guevara" — did not exist. From #7, "Diversity":

Many white people from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York will spend hours talking about how great it is that they can get sushi and tacos on the same street. But they will also send their kids to private school with other rich white kids so that they can avoid the "low test scores" that come with educational diversity. It's important to note that white people do not like to be called out on this fact. It will make them feel even more guilty than they already do.

Can such things be said out loud? Apparently now they can, so long as they are seasoned with enough self-mocking irony.

A more interesting question is: are we looking here at the first stirrings of white tribalism? Social change often begins in the unlikeliest places. Perhaps Stuff White People Like is one more melancholy milestone on the downhill road from the hopes for integration and racial harmony that were nursed by the generation of Lander's parents to the cold racial realism of 2042, when, according to the most recent report from the Census Bureau, white people will become a minority in the U.S.A. — just about the time that Lander's children's generation take power.

Lander's white people are unhappily intermediate, raised among their parents' hopes, yet staring at a world in which those hopes have turned to dust. They can see the utter failure of racial integration — how could they not? Last week my son's football team played Commack; in two weeks' time they play Wyandanch. According to GreatSchools.net, the racial spread of Commack High School, in percentages white-Asian-Hispanic-black, is 86-9-4-1, while Wyandanch Memorial High School's is 0-0-18-82. Integration? Fuhgeddaboutit. The tension between dead hope and unwelcome reality is acute, resolvable only, as is always the case with such psychic stresses, by doublethink. Vote for Barack Obama (#8), but move to Portland, Oregon (#111), "Statistically … the whitest metropolis in the United States."

Stuff White People Like is a light and frivolous book, as of course it is intended to be. It gives the reader's status module a good workout. Meanwhile, however, our socialization modules ("Most of the work done by this system is not available to the conscious mind," writes Ms. Harris) continue their slow, world-changing transformation. Christian Lander's mild-mannered, trend-hugging, conflict-averse (#128, "Avoiding Confrontation"), ironic leftists will spawn a generation of frank white nationalists, and they will feel un-ironically terrible about having done so.