The unbearable whiteness of being

The author of "Stuff White People Like" skewers the sacred cows of lefty Caucasian culture, from the Prius to David Sedaris.

Published July 5, 2008 4:06PM (EDT)

To listen to a podcast of the interview with Christian Lander, click here.

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Stuff White People Like is a satirical blog about a particular segment of Caucasian culture. It's like an extended "you might be a redneck if" joke recast for a more upscale set. It gently mocks the habits and pretensions of urbane, educated, left-leaning whites, skewering their passion for Barack Obama and public transportation (as long as it's not a bus), their idle threats to move to Canada, and joy in playing children's games as adults. Kickball, anyone? (A list of the white stuff is here.)

It's likely I don't have to tell you about the Stuff White People Like site, because the odds are someone -- someone white -- has already forwarded it to you. Christian Lander, 29, who grew up in Toronto and now lives in Culver City, Calif., created the site to amuse his friends when he was working as the associate manager of corporate communications for an Internet agency last January. He doesn't do that job anymore, because 32 million hits and a book deal later -- "Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions" was published July 1 -- Lander's become a professional mocker of whitey and himself.

Lander is firmly in the demographic he's ribbing. By his own definition, he screams white. A grad school dropout, he studied film and literature in a master's program at the University of Arizona before bailing on a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. In his author's photo, Lander illustrates a number of things he spoofs in the book: He wears a beard, chunky glasses, shorts, a performance athletic vest, New Balance shoes and an iPod, while riding a bike and carrying a reusable water bottle, a Macintosh laptop, organic vegetables and a copy of the New Yorker.

Not surprisingly, Lander's site has been embraced by the white culture that he lampoons, complete with an appearance on public radio's "Talk of the Nation." The site's success supports Lander's theory that, as he writes in his book, self-deprecating humor is all a part of whiteness. Lander's site has also inspired copycat sites, such as Stuff Asian People Like, as well as hate mail accusing him of racist stereotyping and critiques that he's pretending to poke fun at white people while actually giving them new ways to feel superior.

Salon spoke with Lander by phone from his home office, where his fixed-gear bicycle hangs on the wall, near the shelves of books, proudly displayed.

What led you to launch your site Stuff White People Like?

My friend Myles Valentin and I were both at work, and we were just having an IM [instant messenger] conversation. We were talking about "The Wire." We're both huge fans of the TV show "The Wire." And then my friend Myles, who is Filipino, said he didn't trust any white people who don't watch "The Wire."

From there we ended up talking about what are white people doing instead of watching "The Wire"? And we threw back a few responses, like doing yoga, getting divorced, going to therapy. And I thought it was funny.

So I went to Word Press, and I just started writing, never expecting it to be popular, just expecting Myles to read it, and maybe a few more friends back home. And that was it. It wasn't any more of a grand scheme than that.

Obviously you're not talking about all white people. Which white people are you talking about?

I think it doesn't take long reading the site to figure out which white people I'm talking about. It's mostly left-wing, upper-middle-class.

In the book, you also occasionally mention "the wrong kind" of white people. Who are the wrong kind of white people?

There are a lot of the wrong kind of white people. You have, obviously, poor, right-wing white people, and rich, right-wing white people.

Yet a lot of the stuff you write that white people like, obviously many other people like, too.

When you create a site called Stuff White People Like, it's easy for people to make an assumption that it's actually about stuff only white people like. It's not meant to be exclusionary but rather a focus on the things that, well, white people like.

Let's talk about some of them. What is the significance of bottles of water?

It's all about ranking. It's essentially a contest. It used to be that bottled water was a status symbol. You drink Evian, or you drink Fiji, or what is the most expensive water.

But advanced-level white people, the higher-ranking white people, realized that they were creating a lot of waste, and so they switched over to the Nalgene bottle. That also reminded them of going camping. So then they could take a stance of superiority over the people who were drinking bottled water. And then, that whole story came out about Nalgenes leaching I don't know what the exact toxin is [Bisphenol A]. So then super-advanced white people went even further and got those metal Sigg bottles, and now you have this really solid hierarchy and ranking of white people of commercial bottled water, Nalgene bottle and either the glass or metal, twist-top bottles.

What's the significance of an eco product, like the Toyota Prius, the carbon offset or the reusable shopping bag?

That again is another way to claim superiority over regular-level, or subpar, white people. You're saving the environment, you're making a difference. It helps remind you and others that your lifestyle is making things better.

Why is it important to hate evil corporations, except for Apple, Ikea and Target?

That's one of the great contradictions of white people. For the most part, all the world's ills are based on large, evil corporations -- government corruption, American expansion through the use of corporate contracts, pollution, globalization, every bad thing that's happened. But if it happens with nice design, it's acceptable.

What happens if you point out these exceptions?

You're going to really annoy white people. They do not need to be reminded. It's like with the Prius. It's not a good idea to remind Prius owners that the car still burns gasoline. That really pisses them off.

You are a graduate school dropout. What is the significance of graduate school?

Graduate school -- it's very important, because you sort of get this impression in the rest of the world that getting advanced degrees helps you get a higher-paying job. But interestingly, within white culture it actually gets you lower-paying jobs.

Why is that?

A Ph.D. in English isn't going to get you a higher-paying job than, say, a Ph.D. in chemistry or law, but it does give you one important thing, which is academic credibility at cocktail parties.

But obviously, there are a lot of white lawyers.

Oh, yeah. Some of the white people, who are not quite advanced enough white people, have sold out.

What does going to law school represent?

It's what you do when you finish with your liberal arts degree, and you start to panic about realizing that the careers available for someone who knows a lot about Proust are very limited, and you realize that you still want money. So you end up going to law school. There are people who enjoy law school, because then you can work for a nonprofit organization, and you can be very helpful.

Why is working for a nonprofit important?

White people have the constant and unabiding need to feel as though they're helping, and because this gives them the ability to hold it over other people.

Who are the whitest celebrities?

Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Rosie O'Donnell.

Is the whitest TV show "The Wire?"

It's not the whitest TV show. It's just a TV show beloved by white people, because it was really well done, and it got low ratings. These are two very important characteristics for white people to like a TV show. In order to be known as an ultimate white TV show, you have to make sure that you don't last more than five seasons.

But isn't it kind of a contradiction, because isn't bragging about not having a TV also a sign of status?

Yes, because do you know how white people consume "The Wire"? Netflix subscription watched on their MacBook.

What do you think is the whitest TV show ever?

"Twin Peaks" is a contender. "Mr. Show" is definitely on that list. "The Simpsons" is on there, although in recent years it's also declined a little bit.

A very important concept when you're dealing with white people is this idea of "jumping the shark." And "The Simpsons" is one of the best examples of that. You have to make sure that when you talk about "The Simpsons" you know exactly the appropriate moment to say when you stopped liking it.

If you say you stopped liking it too early, you look too snobby. If you say you stopped liking it too late, you kind of look like an idiot. So, the best answer is you say the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episodes.

What's the whitest movie ever?

This one is a challenge. "The Royal Tenenbaums" is up there. "Garden State." "Donnie Darko" is on there. "Fight Club."

The problem is that whatever is liked by white people, advanced-level white people have to hate it, because it was popular. The advanced levels have to have some sort of French film in there from Godard. Some people need a Japanese film that hasn't been translated yet. You'll get some white people who are like, "I only watch silent film." It's difficult.

What about the whitest band?

Right now? I have to say Vampire Weekend all the way. They're pushing it to levels unseen.

Let's talk about food.

Food is another important area of competition, and being able to show up other white people. Some white people get their status based on how much they know about food, like expensive ingredients or foreign cuisine. Whereas other white people gain their status based on how many things they've cut out of what they eat, like gluten and sugar and refined things and dairy and meat, trying to reduce as much as possible.

But universally, throughout, shopping at Whole Foods is considered the best way to go.

But what about farmers' markets?

Unless you're in California, where you have year-round farmers' markets, you need consistency throughout the year, and Whole Foods provides that.

Definitely organic, when you're talking about fruits and vegetables?

This isn't even a question.

What meals are important?

Breakfast on the weekend, I guess you'd call it brunch, too, is one of the most important white meals, because it allows white couples to get together. Some people even bring their dogs, if they have outdoor patios. During the week for working white people, the expensive sandwich lunch is essential.

What do you mean by the expensive sandwich?

Anywhere you will find a predominance of white businesses, such as advertising agencies, nonprofit organizations, hedge funds, there will undoubtedly be a store nearby that sells sandwiches that cost between $8 and $12.

You've already mentioned eating outside. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the outdoors?

It's just where white people want to be. From the time white people are raised, they're taught that being indoors is a bad thing, and that it's always better to be outside. So they're always on this constant quest to be camping or bicycling or eating outside, whatever it takes to get outside. The more time you spend outside the more credibility you have to dump on other people for not going outside.

And even if you're not outside, you might be wearing what you call outdoor performance clothes. Why is that?

White people need to know that if someone calls them up, and says: "You want to go camping?" they're ready at the drop of a hat. Bam, out they go. You could be in the Ikea, just leave the cart in one of the aisles, head up to some campsite.

Can you talk about the deep love of David Sedaris?

It's hard to talk about it. It's like talking about a love of oxygen. It's just there.

Why David Sedaris?

They love him, because he's funny, and he lives in France, and he's gay. He's like everything you could possibly want in the ideal friend. Oh, he also writes for the New Yorker. He hits so many things on the list it's unbelievable.

On the site, I've been getting all these e-mails from people who have gone to his signings, and they said that it's just like this sea of white people and huge lineups usually reserved for rock stars.

You have this quiz in your book to calculate how white you are. So, how white are you?

It's tough for me to say this, because there is the answer based on my quiz, and then the fact that I wrote the book gives me like a bonus score. So, I'm going to say 91 percent.

So, are you like the ultimate, advanced, elite white person, because you are categorizing all the rest of them?

I think, but I know that people are gunning for me, and I don't think that it's going to last much longer.

Do you see yourself as critiquing this white culture, or are you kind of celebrating it?

I think I'm critiquing it, as well. I make fun of myself a lot on the site. That's why I put my photo on there to let people know that I'm making fun of myself. It's been a great chance for me to call out so many of my pretentious leanings.

There is such a strong belief among this type of people that you're right, of being unwilling to listen to anything else, and I think that's one of the things I'm trying to point out. There is a critique in there, but the top priority is to be funny.

But don't you say that even self-deprecating humor is a marker of the white culture?

Yeah. I was trying so hard to sound smart there, and you totally called me out on it.

White people figured out an awesome way to use self-deprecating humor to compliment themselves. Like, when you talk about being "broke," what you're really saying is that the people with money are sellouts.

Haven't you gotten a lot of hate mail about the site?

Yeah. I used to read all the comments on the site, when it was getting like 30,000 hits a day, and I was getting comments every couple of minutes. I was reading them all, because it was fascinating to me, and there are so many funny people out there. But as it got bigger, people left a lot of mean comments about me, about the site, so I stopped reading them entirely, because I was trying to write the book, and I just wanted to stay positive. Reading the comments broke my spirit. I'd just feel so down. But I still read every e-mail that comes in.

Are the angry commenters mad about the idea of the site, or do they feel like you're making fun of them?

A lot of them just hate me for the fact that the site got popular. A lot of people just hate it because they think I'm being racist, but they don't really think it through. The people who write in think that I'm perpetuating hate, and that all stereotypes are evil, and I think that they're kind of missing the point.

The white people who like your site -- are you just giving them another way to feel self-congratulatory?

Possibly. That might be part of it. It's a funny concept that is open-ended. A lot of people can add their things that I'm missing.

To some extent I'm sure there is some self-congratulation in there, and that's fine. I'm not a performance artist here. I'm really trying to make people laugh more than anything. If it leads to questioning, that's great, but I think a lot of people are quite proud with how white they are, which is certainly an unintended consequence.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

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