Chairman Wow!

November 1, 2009

Race in America and Stuff White People Like

Filed under: Uncategorized — Carly J Hallman @ 9:11 am

stuff

Lander speaking at the Texas Book Festival in Austin

In the past century, America has more or less conquered many of its pressing social and political problems– women work and vote, communism has largely fallen out of practice and returned to its place in philosophy books, and displays of (hetero)sexuality are so ever-present that it’s almost comical to think that they were once taboo. Of course, we’ve replaced these old problems with fresh ones– Islamic terrorism, the topic of gay rights, health care system woes. But one lingering social problem that’s as new as it is old is racism. While many like to pretend that we’ve collectively conquered the r-word, as a society, we have done little more than sweep it under a politically correct rug. Years and years have passed since Time Magazine ran a computer-generated image of a mixed-race woman deemed “the face of tomorrow” on its cover. And, last February, the first bi-racial President of the United States was sworn into office. So, if we are all aware and we are all awake, then why are there still no intelligent conversations about race?

But, wait, somewhere out in the ether known as the Internet, there is an intelligent discussion taking place. Many might balk at the idea of the satirical blog empire “Stuff White People Like” serving as a platform for serious race discussion in America. However, Christian Lander’s blog, book, and subsequent lectures and appearances have brought to light and made accessible (and even fun) the idea of race and discussion thereof for the average jaded-by-history-text-books American.

But how has a 30-something hipster blogger managed to do what so many scholars, activists, and professors have deemed a kamikaze-cause?

Lander, once an L.A.-based copywriter, concieved the idea for “Stuff White People Like” while joking online with a friend via instant messenger. Lander immediately opened a free Word Press account to share this joke with other friends and began typing away. With dry humor and understated wit, Lander documented the stuff he and his buddies decided epitomized white upper-middle-class culture– divorce, girls with bangs, sushi, trips in Audis and Volvos to farmer’s markets. Within six months, SWPL’s word-of-hand Internet popularity had soared beyond Lander’s wildest dreams, and landed him a major book deal. In the year since the book’s publication, Lander, who still regularly updates the blog, has appeared as a guest on Conan O’Brien and has been featured in an array of publications, including the prestigious New York Times.

Lander’s entries are written as sort of an anthropological and social guide for non-white people to gain an understanding of the intricacies of modern white culture. And to study race and whiteness in America, it’s essential not just to look at oppressed minorities, but to look at the elite oppressors. This is precisely where SWPL first seems to shine. Lander often says, “You don’t have to be white to be white. You just have to be rich.” In America, race never just been about race, it’s also always been about class. Lander bravely dives into this humor-at-the-expense-of-the-ruling-liberal-class pool, previously un-swum. Among other observations, Lander notes thats white people like and derive much pride from a large variety of luxuries that they can afford and others can’t– Vespa scooters, Apple products, lawyers, and hybrid cars.

While this class exploration is both hilarious and commendable, the primary reason Stuff White People Like has become wildly successful (overlooking its balance of light-hearted humor and stark social criticism) is its accessibility. Whereas academia is still largely a walled-off kingdom accessible to only a select first-world elite, the Internet is now available to virtually anyone in developed and developing nations. The Internet’s audience knows no social, political, racial, or generational bounds. At a recent talk in one of the nation’s white meccas, Austin, TX, Lander’s audience consisted of a sea of salt-and-pepper heads– shockingly, only about ten to twenty of the seventy in attendance were under the age of 30. Blogs have become so ubiquitous in our society that our parents and grandparents now follow them with the same enthusiasm as they once followed the Beatles. Accessibility in medium has surely provided Lander a larger audience than any race scholar or lecturing college professor, no matter how brilliant, was able to achieve in a pre-Internet age.

Medium accessibility, however, can only take a website so far. There are millions upon millions of websites concerning race that have achieved nowhere near the popularity of Stuff White People Like. SWPL’s popularity, and subsequent social importance, can also be explained in its rhetorical approach. Lander’s prose is, of course, funny but it’s also fun, and easy, to read. SWPL entries contain no footnotes, no jargon-y terms, no references to academic papers or university-conducted studies or airy theories. In social sciences, theory-ism has gotten so out of control that it’s now possible to obtain some graduate degrees by completing a course load consisting almost entirely of theory classes. The problem many average Americans have with theory is that it is, by its very nature, intangible. It’s not real. Race theory is as inaccessible, and uninteresting, to most as, say, nuclear theory. In America, we can’t see theory, but we can see racism. In SWPL, Lander provides readers tangible examples of “white culture.” Lander doesn’t need to use jargon or theory-speak, because he uses simple words and (stock) images to more effectively make his points to a wider audience. He seems to understand that race is an issue that affects and is affected by everyone, regardless of education or socioeconomic background, and accordingly, no reason exists to make race a stuffy and elite subject of study.

In the eyes of the public, race discussion has failed in many arenas– academia has slaughtered it with airy theories and inaccessible jargon, the mass media has capitalized upon it, politics has squeezed shut its eyes and attempted to just wish it away. The Internet, though, is the last true frontier. It’s unconquered. It’s wild, free, uncharted. The popularity of its websites depends upon popular opinion, not just how much money or what company stands behind it. Lander has proven this, and with Stuff White People Like, he’s proven that maybe, just maybe, race discussion and resolution in America still stands a fighting, Internet-based chance.

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2 Comments »

  1. This is a real good post.

    Comment by justin — November 2, 2009 @ 5:27 am

  2. Thanks!

    Comment by cjhallman44 — November 2, 2009 @ 10:09 am


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