A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around Barnes & Noble bookshop next to the movie theater where I see many of the films that I review. I was with one of the sisters of my community. After a few minutes she called out to me and said, “Hey, look at this; it’s really funny.” She held up Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions (Random House, 2008, $14.00).
I went back last week and handed over the Barnes and Noble gift card I had received as an early Christmas present and bought a copy. It is funny. The very first thing white people like is coffee. I love coffee. The second is “religions their parents don’t belong to.” Nope. The third is “film festivals” but the author only lists Sundance, Toronto and Cannes. I love film festivals but I prefer Venice, Locarno, Berlin and Newport Beach. I’d go to Cannes, but I don’t speak French; and the other two don’t have ecumenical juries, which is what opened the way to my participating in film festivals in the first place. (I was on the jury for short features at Newport Beach once.) But I like film festivals and even ran an “in-house” film festival for five years at the mother house and then wrote a pamphlet Guide to Planning In-House Film Festivals in Ten Easy Steps.
I also like Oscar Parties (# 74), reusable shopping bags (#121 but somebody has to remind me to take them with me to the store), Nintendo Wii (#125; we don’t have it but my nephews do), and books (#138; for which Lander should be grateful).
I am embarrassed to admit it, but I may be guilty of #149: self-importance. Lander says that implied in every entry in his book is the idea of self-importance, as a kind of middle-class indicator. We blog because we want someone to notice. Perhaps, as the Susan Sarandon character says about marriage in the 2005 film “Shall We Dance”: there are three billion people on the earth and we want someone to witness to the fact that we have lived. Is it self-importance that characterizes Lander’s white people or is it an expression of the spiritual emptiness engendered by having all their needs met?
The list of stuff on Lander’s Web site, Stuff White People Like, on which the book is based, doesn’t' quite match the list in the book. If you want to see the full list, you can probably go through the check-list in the back few pages of the book when you visit a bookstore without giving into #138.
Is the book racist? Lander says no, but does say it is about stereotypes. What is the author trying to say? There is a brief interview on the Web site in which Lander resists being labeled a social critic but accepts the title of comedian. Comedians used to be called fools and prophets. On the other hand, he could be a guy with too much time on his hands.
I began to suspect I wasn't completely white, when I saw that that liking Sarah Silverman is #52 on the list. I don’t even know anyone who actually likes Sarah Silverman, but maybe I need to enlarge my circle of acquaintances. If only she were funny.
More than being about color, I think the book is about class, about access to some stuff and ideas that matter to some people and others that do not, or maybe stuff that used to matter and no longer does, or maybe it’s a book of aspiration for people with too much time on their hands. Maybe being able to like stuff like this, and even buy a book about it, says more about disposable income and leisure than about skin color or ethnicity.
To me, the book reads like a laundry list of stuff people are into just before they have an existential crisis over the meaning of life. Do people in refugee camps, or who are starving or homeless have the luxury to have an existential crisis? Or am I just ladling on a dose of middle-class guilt? What exactly is middle class guilt anyway?
Stuff White People Like is either about something or about nothing. I lean toward the conclusion that Lander is implying that nihilism is alive and well as Professor Thomas S. Hibbs (then of Boston College now at Baylor University) described so well in his 2000 book: Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld. Hibbs found some hints of redemption in the culture; however, Lander makes the preferences of the white people he has observed (and experienced since he looks white on the back cover of his book) as homogenous, predicable and possibly as boring and unhealthy, as sliced bread – white bread.
In the end, I only found 15 things on Lander's list of 150 that I liked. So, what does this make me? By Lander’s measure, I am only 10 percent white -- and proud of it!
Does anyone want to buy a used but “like new” copy of Stuff White People Like?