White People Uncovered

How a failed journalist became the Margaret Mead of white people.

The blog “Stuff White People Like” made the rounds at my office a few months ago, and hilarity ensued. Favorite things liked by white people: unpaid internships, bad memories of high school, self-aware hip-hop references, and “being the only white person around.” In the coming months we’d see spin-offs like “Stuff Asian People Like” (language proficiency, choreographed dancing), “Stuff Jewish People Like” (worrying, Florida), “Stuff Black People Like … I Mean Love” (Robitussin, saying “Let me piggyback on what [blank] just said”), “Stuff Educated Black People Like” (Facebook pre-2005, grown & sexy events), “Stuff Indian People Like” (fight sequences in Bollywood movies, the South Indian condom song) and “Stuff Ethnic People Like,” at which point the joke gets lost. “Stuff Latino People Like” appears to be under construction.

Okay, okay, enough already. Still, one has to admit that “Stuff White People Like” was pretty brilliant at its genesis. Brilliant enough that if author Christian Lander never has another idea ever again, he’ll still be remembered. The writing in his blog is spot-on: It has the pedantic tone and flat prose style of a National Geographic ethnography; it makes liberal use of the passive voice; it’s decorated with cheesy stock photos of white people with the various things they like: scarves, pea coats, copies of The New Yorker magazine, Barack Obama buttons. Not to mention it’s braver, funnier, and more self-deprecating than most other analyses that white people have written on race and whiteness. No wonder the blog started catching on within days of its inception, and helped Lander clinch a sweet deal with Random House a couple months later. (Blog entry #92: Stuff White People Like: Book Deals. “The combination of white people and books has been a pretty solid combo for the past few hundred years.”)

The idea for “Stuff White People Like” came during a conversation with Lander’s childhood friend Myles Valentin (who ended up contributing two entries to the book, “Asian Girls” and “Oscar Parties”). They were talking about the HBO cop drama The Wire, and Valentin, who is Filipino, said he wouldn’t trust any white person who didn’t watch the show. After all, how could a white person who didn’t watch The Wire have any idea what was going on in the street? Lander said Valentin is comfortably middle class and didn’t really know what he’s talking about, but he’d nonetheless posed a valid question. What were white people doing with their time if they weren’t watching The Wire? They thought about it, and came up with a few answers. “We said ‘Oh, going to yoga,” Lander recalls. “‘Having tea. Getting divorced,'” As soon as “getting divorced” got put out there, their joke rose to the next level of absurdity. It was time to start blogging.

Lander’s prior experience with blogs had been largely unsuccessful — his most valiant attempt was an elaborate fiction series based on a fantasy football game. But “Stuff White People Like” was different. It didn’t require a stretch of the imagination or a Margaret Mead-style investigation of the white race. After all, Lander was already a bona fide expert on white people — he is one — so all he had to do was look in his closet or on his shelf. He even added fake white-person quotes based on dumb shit he’d actually said: “Amazingly, and possibly depressingly, there’s a lot of people who say the same dumb shit.”

At first, just Valentin and a few other friends read the blog, and Lander would appease them with regular updates, sometimes two to three a day. At the time, he worked as a copywriter in Los Angeles. He’d dropped out of a Ph.D program at Indiana University and written a few freelance articles for a couple Canadian newspapers, but ultimately failed at journalism and academia. “Stuff White People Like” became his main creative outlet. By the time he got to post #20 (“Being an expert on YOUR Culture,” written January 23, 2008), he decided the blog was funny enough to advertise beyond his small circle of friends — so he e-mailed the link to a larger circle of acquaintances, i.e., about twenty people. They passed it on to their friends, and the next thing he knew it was highlighted on the Good Magazine and Comedy Central web sites. Within a month he was getting e-mails from talent scouts and literary agents.

“I’m not a connected dude,” said Lander. “I don’t know people at The New York Times. … I was just trying to make my friends laugh. That’s it.” His success was precipitous and a little surreal, particularly because of the self-flagellating, confessional aspect of the blog (which is what makes it funny). “The only way it was gonna work was I had to indict myself,” he said. The one entry in which he really had to purge all his insecurities was #62, “Knowing What’s Best for Poor People.” (“It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe that if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them.”) “That’s kind of ridiculously condescending and unfair,” Lander said. “But that was absolutely the way I thought. And I still do.”

“Stuff White People Like” isn’t just a cathartic spoof; it’s Lander’s entry into a convoluted and thorny discourse on race in America. Like most people, Lander was always fascinated by race (his Ph.D dissertation, had he finished it, would have compared the colonialist impulses in modern travel narratives of Southeast Asia and their Victorian antecedents), but he found it difficult to partake in the dialogue without sounding either like an apologist, or a total asshole. “Academia drove me nuts,” Lander said. “There were a lot of white grad students who were writing about race and talking about race all the time from this Ivory Tower perspective that didn’t mean anything.” “Stuff White People Like” became his way of playing with race and critiquing white privilege, but sounding believable.

Granted, not everyone buys it. Lander had to stop reading the blog’s comments early on because so many people would jibe about how unfunny or how racist he was. Indeed, there is something unsettling about Lander’s mock “voice of authority.” It’s self-deprecating, but perhaps not self-deprecating enough, since a lot of the “stuff white people like” is actually stuff with universal appeal. That might explain why it’s provoked such a strong response, and why the tone of the spinoffs often sound reactionary. The author of “Stuff Black People Like” wrote: “If you are looking for the Black-themed copy of stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, you will not find it here! … I like the concept, but it’s a bit mean and unapologetic.”

Still, Lander keeps soldiering on. These days he only posts to “Stuff White People Like” about once a week, but he’s ratcheted up the humor, especially with new features like “White People in the News.” One recent installment pointed to a September 10 New York Times article about “some enterprising white people who have decided to move into Harlem for its low rent, authenticity, and high potential for gentrification.” In Lander’s synopsis, “white plans for Harlem” include “the opening of a Thai Restaurant, wine shops, a hair salon, and a place that serves gourmet burgers and microbrews (implied).” The white gentrifiers will subsequently demolish some of the neighborhood’s hundred-odd houses of worship, replacing them with — Lander predicts — “condominiums, yoga studios, and white people churches (also known as Whole Foods).”

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