By now you've likely been forwarded the link three, maybe four times. The nation may be divided by the war in Iraq, the Democratic Party may be lumbering towards a Denver apocalypse, mortgage-meltdown tent cities may be springing up while lenders collapse, but, look on the bright side: At least everyone loves Stuff White People Like. The blog, started this past January by 29-year-old L.A. comedian and "internet copy writer" Christian Lander, cheekily promises "a scientific approach to highlight and explain stuff white people like," Barack Obama (#8), for example, or traveling (#19), or "having gay friends" (#88).
On the basis of such offerings, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com (SWPL) has easily become 2008's first legit web sensation, the faux-encyclopedia (89 entries and counting) generating nearly 14 million visits, garnering a few thousand blog mentions (including a standing link on the front page of TheRoot.com), spawning a handful of copycat sites and inciting several favorable nods from old media.
The giant pile of consensus about SWPL could easily be cliff-noted in four, exclamatory words: "Funny!" "Brilliant!" "Insightful!" and (from white folks who claim SWPL cuts a little too close to the pale bone) "Ouch!" Me, personally, I can't stand the thing. That's not to say I think SWPL is particularly evil or nefarious; it just annoys and bores in the precise measure needed to land it on the list of "stuff gary dauphin can't stand." (It's a long list, let me tell you.)
I'll confess that part of my antipathy is just old-fashioned player hate. Nothing gets under my (colored, nearly-middle-aged) skin like the spectacle of a twentysomething white kid doing what twentysomething white kids do all the time, namely, play on some or another aspect of their race for smug fun and profit. Lander has already reportedly been offered a $350K-plus book deal from Random House. (Can a VH1 Special be very far behind?) People of color are constantly accused of playing various race cards, but "White boy makes good by being white" is hardly a man-bites-dog story.
Envy aside, though, SWPL also smells like a classic racial con-job. It goes without saying that the specific entries (Oscar parties?) don't really apply to anyone. That makes Lander's overall pose—and the uncritical response to it—the real action. You'd think from the approving hubbub that SWPL had discovered (white) America or something, but white comedians, academics, and artists have been thinking and cracking wise about "white" culture since before Lander was in, well, short pants (#86). Usually, even jokey talk about whiteness has a whiff of danger to it, but SWPL is likely the safest, most affable racial satire ever, a loving high-five between friends passing as critique.
If you want an instructive flipside to Lander's wan irony, try tooling around the archives of Race Traitor magazine ("treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity" must be the most bitchin' magazine motto ever), or try to get your hands on a copy of Julius E. Lipp's 1938 ethnographic study "The Savage Hits Back."
A German Jewish anthropologist aghast at what he saw as the twinned projects of Nazism and colonialism, Lipp compiled mocking, ribald and ironic depictions of whiteness in the visual arts of colonial west and central Africa. The end result is an early classic of engaged anthropology, a kind of proto-whatwhitepeoplearelike anchored not by snark, but by the perceptions and experiences of the colonized. Closer to home, Black People Love Us!, a highly targeted experiment in "contagious media" by Chelsea Peretti and Jonah Peretti, covered essentially the same ground as SWPL (only with more concision, accuracy and comedic skill) way back in 2002, a lifetime ago in web years.
If SWPL has an immediate precedent, though it's not the gleefully absurd Black People Love Us! but the direly depressing Hot Ghetto Mess. Like SWPL, Hot Ghetto Mess presented itself as an "inside" look at a given demographic's "mess" for the purported purposes of humor, education and uplift. It was, of course, nothing more than the worst (best?) kind of Internet hustle, the site riding repackaged and cheaply available (as in free) web photos and video all the way to an ill-fated BET TV tie-in.
Borrowing from the Hot Ghetto Mess playbook, SWPL not just monetizes dime-a-dozen and banal observations, but relies quite directly on an uncredited, nameless class of people of color. Landers grew up in Toronto's Chinatown and credits the experience as having made him "aware of whiteness right away." In a Los Angeles Times interview, he goes on to explain that he "came up with the idea for the blog after talking to a Filipino friend about how much they both liked the HBO police drama "The Wire."" That's a great secret origin, securing Landers' bona fides as a whitepeoplecoloredpeoplelike, and yet the SWPL entry on The Wire (#85) summarily disappears (or is that assimilates?) the Filipino friend, this even as Landers seems to write in his non-white voice. (I guess stuffmeandmyfilipinofriendslike.com didn't have that magic ring.)
Seen in that light, SWPL's innovation on Hot Ghetto Mess is a classic blue-eyed soul (white) power move: take a colored discourse, eliminate the messy colored bits, and watch the hits roll in. Does every discussion about identity have to be about colored folks? No, of course not. Talk amongst yourselves, white folks, really. By all means. But to paraphrase Al Sharpton, (whose own groundbreaking work in the area of racial satire continues to be underappreciated) "don't piss on me and your Filipino friend and call it rain."
Ultimately, Lander's site echoes an exchange that writer Greg Tate recounts in his recent anthology Everything But the Burden, where a family member observes that in a world of wiggers, Eminem and Bill Clinton being called the first black president, white people are taking "everything but the burden" from black culture.
Stuff White People Like could easily go on that list as well. Lander's site is not just about white people, it's also the sum of a thousand little fruitful encounters its author self-reports having had with the people of color. That small, metaphorical act of theft (and, who knows? maybe even love) would make a great entry, but don't expect to see it on Stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. Lander is too busy joking about sandwiches (#63).
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.