Monday, March 24, 2008

Stuff White People Like: Redux

LAST WEEK, WHEN THIS site was mentioned in a Houston Chronicle story about the web-phenom, Stuff White People Like, The Weekly Rader received more hits in one day than it had received for the entire calendar year of 2008. Clearly, the interest was less in TWR and more in what TWR had to say about what white people like. One thing I do know, white people like Stuff White People Like.

There is no question, the site is crazy, over-the-top, steal your beer popular. In fact, at the time of this particular post, Mr. Lander's site had over 17 million hits since whitening up the web in early January. Indeed, the main question the reporter had for me was why SWPL is so popular. Though I was quoted correctly, there is much more to say about this site and why it has struck such a chord.

The first reason it's popular is because it is benign. The topics are funny, the photos are oh-so-recognizably vanilla, and the tone is non-threatening. In short, as I say in my previous post and as many others have observed, the site is not really about race but about other things like class, yuppiness, and coolness.

Because the site is innocuous, people feel free to post unfettered. Were the site really about race, racial politics, Affirmative Action, slavery, Native American genocide, Japanese interment, or modern day hate crimes, the site would have a different look and feel. It would lose its breezy self-mocking tone. Right now, the site does not ask to be taken seriously. If it confronted true racial problems (racial profiling, graduation rates, anti-Arab sentiment), then it would have to change its presentation.

So, one reason the site works is because it points to harmless signposts of racial differences that we all know exist. We are all painfully aware of racial divides in the United States (see my post about Obama and race, for example), and SWPL gives us permission to laugh at the commodities that are the fetishes of a certain kind of whiteness--the whiteness of San Francisco, Austin, New York, Seattle, Portland, Boston, and Chicago. These signposts of whiteness are iPods and coffee rather than the Stars and Bars or the swastika. In other words, they are more about consumption than skin color, more about acquisition than Aryans.

The site pokes fun at cultural affluence as practiced by left-leaning college educated people in urban areas. As I write elsewhere, I grew up among many White people in rural Oklahoma, and almost no White person I know in Oklahoma fam land likes anything on this site. Stuff White Oklahomans like (which, as I type this sounds like a winning Web site), would include Chicken Fried Steak, trailer parks, iced tea, OU football, the 4th of July, watermelon, The Old Testament, and Ronald Reagan. I don't foresee any of these on SWPL, though I guarantee that in the United States, more white people like Chicken Fried Steak than Asian Fusion.

One more reason SWPL has resonated is due to its very smart awareness of what I call "Overculture," which is the subject of my next book. Stuff White People Like is fantastic at mapping the icons of Overculture--those popular texts that indicate an ubiquity in American consumer and popular culture. For example, Starbucks plays music heard on The Wire, which gets written about in Slate, which has an agreement with NPR, which reviews books available in Borders, which sells coffee and expensive sandwiches. Overculture is a new kind of cultural map that circumscribes everything that has hit a tipping point, everything educated people should either consume or be aware of--any text, whether it is a book, a film, a TV show, food, a city, or a belief that can help shape identity.

Stuff White People Like has struck this chord of Overculture like no other text, so it will stay popular as long as there are icons of identity formation out there that make their way onto America's cultural playground. As long as they stay on the playground (and not the battlefield), this will continue to be fun. If SWPL really turns racial, though, play time will be over.


  1. I like your idea of overculture. Maybe you could talk more about it in future posts. I think SWPL does not intend that, but it doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

  2. Most posts are, like you say, benign. But some resonate with me precisely because they touch on subtle liberal racism (and misplaced priorities).

    It's not cross-burning, murderous racism, but then there's not much of that left anymore. Instead we have a college educated/liberal class (conservatives would call us the "liberal elite") that often approaches racial relations in a patronizing, presumptuous way. While not directly addressing the implications for race relations, some posts on the "white people" blog touch on those presumptuous attitudes.

    -diego g.