Unpacking the white man’s burden

Q & A | published in Real Change on Dec. 15th, 2010
Interview with: Christian Lander

Christian Lander, author of “Stuff White People Like,” shares his not-so-secret shame


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What would you do, say, if you came across a group of people who’d never been studied before? Some yet-to-be chronicled civilization of homo sapiens who acted in ways that, on the surface, made little sense but whose internal logic demanded deeper explorations? Would you apply for a research grant to study them? Or would you write a blog? Well, if you’ve got a penchant for comedy and one-liners, you’d go for option two. That’s what Christian Lander did and people can’t get enough.

Maybe the ethnographic works of Christian Lander don’t spring to mind as easily as those of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who upended the notion that savages exist, or Margaret Mead, who presented successful, war-averse matrilineal societies. But chances are, if you do yoga, drive a Prius, watch Mad Men or The Colbert Report, read The Onion, love the ACLU, Noam Chomsky or reusable shopping bags, Lander knows you. And he’s written about you on his blog, Stuff White People Like, which, to date, has had more than 71 million hits (a factoid that would impress many white people.)

But hold on, white people. Before you get your hackles in a tizzy and throw your glass of organic pomegranate juice with acai across your IKEA-furnished living room, just know that Lander has the heart of a humorist. What he’s really doing is holding up a mirror, at times, a pretty funny one, to what he sees in the circles he’s travelled in. Which are largely circles of white people. And his observations have obtained a white-hot popularity. His first book, “Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions,” enjoyed a healthy life on the New York Times Bestseller list. Perhaps the same future will arrive for the just-released “Whiter Shades of Pale: The Stuff White People Like, Coast to Coast, from Seattle’s Sweaters to Maine’s Microbreweries.” (Random House, $15)

With Seattle in the subtitle, Lander had little choice but to visit our little hamlet for his book tour and, in a little afternoon study session at the Alexis Hotel, Lander and I got down and dirty on the notion of whiteness. I learned a lot from his ethnographic research, as we touched upon topics ranging from the humorous (over-priced sandwiches, anyone?) to the serious (why is the progressive class so, well, white?). Field notes from our conference follow. But politically correct students should be forewarned: References to the “w-word” abound.

Do you remember the first time you saw a white person?
Yes. I was just out of the womb and I saw my father. I believe that was the first one. But the first time I really remember meeting a white person was when I got home from the hospital and I met my next-door neighbor. And from there, my brother. So I’ve been noticing them for quite some time.

Did you know that you were going to be doing this kind of work?
No, no. I was literally born into the field. I was under the impression that I was going to grow up and follow a typical white career: documentary filmmaker, journalist, nonprofit administrator, possibly some sort of fundraiser for an opera company. Little did I know it was heading toward this anthropological study of this world. And I don’t think I can escape it. I’m like Kurtz [in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness.”] I’m in “The Heart of Whiteness” here.

Well, Seattle is sometimes known as a heart of whiteness.
Yeah, I’ve noticed that. Although I’ve recently been to Portland, which might have taken over.

So why do you think it’s important to understand white people?
They’re very difficult to understand. They do things that don’t make a lot of sense. One of the examples I use is Moleskin notebooks. White people, they’re all creative and need places to write down their ideas and they like to carry it wherever they go. Now, they could get notebooks, such as that [points to my reporter’s notebook], which are very inexpensive, that provide all the functionality of Moleskin notebooks, that are 1/20th the cost. Yet white people will pay a premium for binding and the ability of other white people to see them carrying a Moleskin notebook. Because ultimately, you need these signifiers that you are creative. This helps the Apple computer company stay in business. Why would you ride a bike with no gears? We spent all this time inventing gears to make it easy to ride around the city. Why would you make it harder on yourself? Because ultimately you want to be recognized as someone who’s better than the person riding the bike with the gears. It’s just such a challenge to get it across, that people understand this isn’t some sort of mental disease: This is just how white people operate.

Now, no offense, but you’re white. Or at least you look white.
I am white. I don’t deny.

Are you like the white people you find yourself studying?
Yes. I mean, I ride a fixed-gear bicycle. I’m an idiot. I wait in line: I went to Salumi [the Pioneer Square artisan meat restaurant and deli] today for lunch and I waited in line to get my sandwich. The joke I have in the new book is that white people like waiting in line. In most other cultures when you see people waiting in line for food, something horrible has happened, like a dictator has taken over or a natural disaster has struck. But for white people, a new bakery has opened. And so I was right in there, all excited, couldn’t wait to eat my sandwich. So I’m a part of it.

I think that I wouldn’t have the ability of observation if I weren’t really examining and making fun of myself. Because if you do these observations without a kernel of truth, they fall flat. And so the fact is that I’m going after the pretentiousness of me, of what I do that’s pretentious, ridiculous, my need to be recognized as progressive. I’m just attacking it viciously. And I think that’s what connects with people. If I wasn’t going after myself, it wouldn’t nearly have the same power.

Is it upsetting to skewer yourself? Or humbling?
What’s more humbling is I thought I was making fun of myself, I think I’m the only person who goes through this and everyone is like, “That’s me, that’s me, that’s me.” We’re all exactly the same. But the truth is, a humbling experience like that is good for me, for sure, because if unchecked, white people become some of the most obnoxious people on earth.

[Laughs.]
I know I’m more obnoxious than I’m supposed to be, I know I’m more full of myself than I’m supposed to be. I’m aware of this. And I feel like, by writing and skewering myself, maybe I can become a better person. I mean, it’s not working. But I’m hoping that eventually, I can back off and stop spending so much time thinking about how great I am because I eat at Salumi instead of a chain restaurant. I wish it worked better than it did. I really do.

You talk about these other people who are, “Hey, that’s me.” Why are there so many of the “Hey, that’s me”?
I think we can blame the baby boomers for that, for raising us that way. It’s very strange being raised in this generation where, “We’re all unique, we’re all special, we’re all unique, we’re all special.” Over and over and over and over and over again. It’s amazing. As self-obsessed as we are, we’re not as self-aware as you would think.

I don’t know. I think we’ve reached this weird end of history of whiteness, because I’ve traveled to Australia and the U.K. to promote the book, and white people there are exactly the same as the ones that I’m writing about here. We get to this point at the end where all we have left is this selfishness and this idea that we’re this perfectly unique being. And I don’t know where we go from here or how we got here. But it seems to have set in across the world. With white people. Maybe this is late-stage capitalism.

It might indeed be. So you were going to school for—
I was getting my Ph.D. in film and literature.

And what happened?
I met my wife, got married and dropped out. And moved to Los Angeles. I was getting fed up with the intolerance of graduate school and it sounds weird, because you think, “Open mind, culture of the mind,” everything like that. Everyone thought exactly the same way, everyone was far left liberal. And I don’t have a problem with that: I’m a leftwing liberal. I won’t ever deny that. But I just got to the point where the smugness and the patting themselves on the back, just absolute conviction that they’re right and there is no other way to think, this isn’t open-minded at all. That was starting to drive me absolutely nuts. And yeah, we bailed. We packed up and left and I haven’t regretted it.

What prompted the move to L.A.?
I always had dreamt about being a writer on “The Simpsons” and “The Critic” and all of these TV shows that I loved. But I realistically felt, “How am I going to get a chance? How am I ever going to get a break?” It was a dream I just kind of gave up on, even at fourteen. I focused on journalism and that didn’t work out because I wasn’t very good at that. And then I went to academia, so when I met my wife and we dropped out, we were in the middle of the country, we had no debt because we taught the whole time in grad school, we had her car and we could go anywhere we wanted, just free to the wind at twenty-six. New York was one option, but it didn’t scare me. L.A. scared the hell out of me: The driving thing scared me, the city itself scared me, the fact that I was going to figure out how to be comedy writer. And then if it failed, which I actually expected it would, I would know forever.

White people love to take the shot at the dream.
Of course we do. “Following their dreams” is in the first book. It’s often a huge mistake. But also white people like, when their dream doesn’t come true, to blame it on someone else: “It wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of society or additives or vaccines.”

But look, if you’re white and you have the free time and the money to go for it, why not take a shot? Worse case, move back in with your parents, which I know for white people is the worst thing ever, but that’s an option. I was kind of floating when I took my shot. It wasn’t like I left behind a wife and kids to go pursue my dream as a porn star.

Which one could do in L.A.
Exactly.

So, here’s kind of a serious question: Do you think you’re writing about race or writing about class? Or are you writing about the intersection of them?
I think I’m writing about both and I think that the two are linked, that to talk about either in a vacuum doesn’t make any sense at all. And so I’m talking about white people and it’s not all white people across the board. I’m not talking about Republicans, I’m not talking about poor white people. I’m talking about upper-middle class wealthy liberals. And specifically, I’m talking about the class that they’re in: the upper-middle class left. And what’s interesting about them as a class is that, part of it is this desperation to believe that we’re the most progressive class of all time, the most progressive people in the history of white people. And there’s a desperation to sort of get away from being recognized as white and being, I’m a child of the earth now, you know, I don’t see race, or all that stuff.

But the fact of the matter is that the progressive class, as progressive as it is, is still so overwhelmingly white, that a list like this can come out and people get it right away. Yeah, these are all white things. Because white things are: privilege; having the time, money and lack of urgency to get something like an English degree; the time, money and lack of urgency to do an unpaid internship. All of these things, they count as white, because white privilege still very, very much exists. And so this class, in spite of how progressive they are, and in spite of their progressivism, they’re whiteness and their class are still mixed. And the fact of the matter is that non-white people are not moving into this class quickly enough. I’m always amazed at how progressive we are, but our inability to make real sacrifices for real change. What do white people do when they move to a gentrifying neighborhood but the public school isn’t quite how they want it, because of the test scores or whatever other reason? They put their kid in private school or they move to a different city with a better public school system. Which isn’t really a way to progress the class or allow anyone else to join. And so I think the two things race and class are so mixed, that when you say, Upper-middle class liberal, it still means whites.

In this book, you list people from various cities and you have little images of them. And there aren’t a lot of— Well, I can’t say that. There are people of color in these cities, they just seem to be lost in the idea of that city.
Yes. Although the white person entry in San Francisco is actually an Asian woman. And the white person for D.C. is Obama. Because that’s the other thing when talking about class: If you’re not white [but] fortunate to have entered into this class, your tastes and your attitudes will get you branded as white. And this is something that I experienced in high school. We had a guy named Long, who’s third-generation Chinese-Canadian. Liked camping, jam bands, everything, all that sort of stuff. And people would accuse him of trying to be white, that he was ashamed of being Chinese. Not true. Farthest thing from the truth. Very proud of being Chinese, loved his family, loved his heritage. He was just rich and he’d acquired these tastes along the way. But that, again, is another message about where we are with class: No matter how progressive we think we are, it’s still white to be a part of this class.

Well I’ve driven across the country twice and I have some relatives who are like, “That is so white.” But I’m a big fan of road trips. And national parks.
There’s an entry on camping in the new book. I don’t do camping; camping is not my thing. In my book I say that to die at the hands of animals, of nature is as noble a death as you can have in white culture. We’re not going to die in military service.

Last question. What is your most favorite white possession or activity?
Oh, boy, this is tough, because— I know what it is. We have a mid-century modern Danish-built wall unit that I can actually say is my favorite white possession, because not only can I claim superiority over other white people because I got it on Craigslist for nothing, but it can be used to hold books and various arts and various accoutrements of my lifestyle. The white activity I like the most is waiting in line for food.

[Laughs.] Which you experienced here in Seattle.
Whites also like expensive versions of cheap things, food-wise. So $25 macaroni-and-cheese and things like that, which wouldn’t be too hard to interpret as a giant middle finger to poverty. It’s like, “Here, we’re going to take all the food that you make, because you had really no other option, we’re going to make it $40. Hey. Fuck you, poor people.” But waiting in line is something that I’m very guilty of doing. I did it today; the last time I was here, I was in line for Salumi for literally an hour-and-a-half to get that sandwich. And here’s the crazy thing: It was worth it. That gives you an idea of how much free time white people have.

Well, when I come across a $40 plate of mac and cheese, I’m gonna give you a call.
No one should be paying— Well, that’s not true. I’ve had a $20 plate of mac-and-cheese, and it was awesome. Awesome. I’m addicted. I can’t help it.

Photos by Micheal Clinard (michaelclinard.com)


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