Book Review: Stuff White People Like

March 1, 2009

Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions

cover-art-landerBy Christian Lander

Published July 1, 2008

Random House

224 pp.

ISBN: 0-812-97991-5

Reviewed March 1, 2009

I have used the expression “God I’m white” many times over my life, typically whenever I try to dance, jokingly rap or act as if I know what I am talking about in an urban setting. Beyond the obvious pigmentation reason for saying so, it tends to be a useful expression for a lack of poise in social settings and a taste for things that lack risk, implying a mainstream quality that goes along with being pale.

But while I always knew I was white, I never realized just how white until taking a good look at Stuff White People Like. Started by Christian Lander in January of 2008, the site is an ethnographic satire of the light-skinned, pointing out how “shockingly predictable” they are in their love of organic food and living by the water. Lander has now made the rare leap from blog to print, producing a book of the same name and good-natured sardonic focus.

“Stuff White People Like” is exactly what it says on the cover: a guide to the preferences of left-leaning semi-affluent to affluent Caucasians of the type usually classified as yuppies or hipsters. There are 150 entries on this group’s various interests in dining, hobbies and social situations, written in an academic tone that “teaches” the reader why they like the things they do and the best way to communicate with them in a social setting.

The idea holding the book together is that while white people are loudly opposed to the mainstream and like to feel they are unique, most of them tend to like the same things for the same shallow reasons. They read The New Yorker because it makes them sound informed, support recycling because it “saves the planet” with no effort on their part and threaten to move to Canada the first time things get rough. Lander lists these and more, offering up everything trendy and poking fun in perfectly deadpan tone.

So is this a book worth owning? Well, that depends on two criteria, the first being if you think the joke is funny. I personally do, but that could be because I was able to count 83 of the listed items as things I like and Lander’s description is uncomfortably close to the truth about why I like them. It’s certainly a joke that depends on the maxim “it’s funny because it’s true,” so if you have these preferences or know people who do it’s easy to appreciate.

(Personal acknowledgment: Being a resident of Portland, Oregon, it was hard not to be amused by its place on the list and its entirely appropriate classification as “a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario … whereby a homogenous group of people is left in an area with no one to keep them in check … but there is a strong likelihood that the city will have mass riots and murder when the local grocery store co-op runs out of organic salmon.”)

The concept has earned criticism for being racist – mostly in indignant comments posted to the blog – but not a single one of the entries qualifies as such. It’s void of malicious intent or smears, guilty only of bursting the bubble of smugness white people have in thinking they are better for enjoying these things. It does caution against associating with the “wrong kind” of white person, but the difference is based on such trivial things (Dane Cook and faux vintage shirts) it can’t be taken as offensive.

The second criteria of owning the book is if you are willing to pay for something where much of the content is already free online. The first half of the book is printed verbatim from the blog entries, discussing the more traditional interests of coffee and marijuana and home renovations. It doesn’t hurt in terms of content (considering how amusing the original entries were), but does have a degree of repetition.

To his credit, Lander does include a considerable amount of new content beyond entries, making use of the book format to include charts and tables for how white people make decisions. There is a timeline of gentrification from indie coffee shop to Whole Foods, a blueprint for dinner party autobiographies and how to name children based on whether or not you studied abroad. Particularly clever are checklists on the bookshelves/DVD racks/iPod playlists of white people, as well as appropriate comments to make them feel assured in their choice of edgy yet socially acceptable media.

If you meet these criteria, then “Stuff White People Like” is worth your time – it’s a fine ribbing at a group that could use some mockery, and has the benefit of also being very cleverly written. At the very least it will be a perfect set piece on your coffee table during your dinner party, where over microbrews and cheese you can enjoy your willingness to laugh at yourself prior to a Wes Anderson film viewing.