Thursday, February 21, 2008

What white people like...

Yesterday, Jill, over at feministe, made a very short post about Stuff White Poeple Like, which is a blog, aptly, about the stuff that white people like.

There were a lot of different reactions to the site, both in the comments there, and at feministe. While some people thought it was pretty insightful, there were a number of people who thought it was offensive. And then there were the people who took the site as a call to act like racist idiots (which you'll see a lot of if you read the comments there). One of the biggest complaints seemed to be that the site, itself, encourages racist thought, or that it's bad because it encourages silly stereotypes about white people, and that this is divisive and harmful.

Initially, I was a little torn abo...
That is, I was...

Oh, damnit. Wait. I'm sorry, I'm just a little distracted. I just have to take a moment to recommend a few things.

First: If you haven't seen it, I strongly suggest watching Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). It's absolutely brilliant- given how things have been going in the United States, it's hard not to see shades of General Turgidson ("I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed. Tops. Depending on the breaks.") in some of our leaders.

Second (and for much the same reason): I have to recommend the novel Catch 22, by Heller. In the face of stop loss, the absurd catch 22 of the novel* starts to seem disturbingly real.

Third: Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy A Modest Proposal? Genius.

So, anyway. As I was saying, initially, I was a little bit torn about the site. I couldn't decide if it was just kind of stupid, or if there was something really good going on. When I read it, #71 (Being the only white person around) was at the top, and, well... I just didn't get it. I reread the post a few times, and thought "I must be missing the joke..." I kept reading other entries, though, and by the time I had read a dozen of them, I sort of got it. It wasn't really "Stuff White People Like" it was "Stuff (young middle/middle-upper class, college educated, 'hipster') White People Like". Understandibly, that doesn't have quite the same punch that "Stuff White People Like" does.

As I said, there were a number of commenters at feministe who weren't thrilled by the site, or who were made uncomfortable, or unhappy by it. There was a sense of feeling like there was some double-standard at play, or criticism about the narrow focus of the blog- that it claims to be "Stuff White People Like" but is really about a certain sub-section of the white population- that it conflates race with class, or that it misses a lot of other things that "White People" like- NASCAR, country music, etc.

Which is important, and very obviously deliberate. The point of the site almost certainly isn't just to list stuff that we, as white people, like. And it isn't a general criticism of white people as a whole; it's a criticism of a very specific group of people- generally, white liberals. That's why the comment about double-standards probably misses the mark. Unless the point of the site is to actually list the Stuff White People Like- which, again, I suspect it's not. The site is a criticism- but the criticism isn't that we actually like the things listed- I mean, really? Divorce? Difficult breakups? Lawyers? Not having a TV? No, I don't think that it's actually about "Stuff White People Like".

And if it's obvious that the point isn't what the site says that it is, it ought to make us question "Okay, so what is it really about?"

It seems to me that the point is less about the things that we, as white liberals, like, and more about social commentary. It's about, I suspect, making trying to make us uncomfortable with and more aware of our own racial blind-spots. And if that's the case, then it's important for the site to do exactly what it's doing- keep the "stuff" of a pretty limited nature. In order for it to work as satire, it has to take the forms of stereotyping that happens to other racial/ethnic groups, and subvert them, by applying them to a specific segment of the white population.

I don't think it's because, as some people suggested, that including these other segments (the stereotypical Republican, or "Southern red-neck", etc) would let hipsters pat themselves on the back about how cool they are or what-not. I suppose that could be part of it, but my read is more about who we expect to be racist, anyway. That is: given how frequently republicans or southerners are portrayed as racist assholes, is there a lot of value in targeting them? If the point is to make a group who generally think of themselves as "post-racial" aware that, "Hey! You're not there yet!", it doesn't make sense to target people who society already condemns as being racist.

So, yeah, the list isn't inclusive- it's not supposed to be. By conflating "white" with "middle-class liberal", the blog completely employs the all too common trope of conflating social traits with race. That, for example, "black" is the same as "low-income inner-city". And I think that the point is to make us uncomfortable with ourselves (assuming that we're middle-class white liberals, obviously)- we're supposed to recognize:

1. That we're guilty of some of these things.
2. That we're not guilty of a lot of them.
3. That it's a really unflattering picture.
and most importantly
4. That it's the same kind of thing that we're guilty of doing to other people.

And, honestly, a number of entries are pretty damned awesome in how close to home they hit. Take 18, for example:

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.” Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.

This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges. Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware. In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem. End of story.

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets. In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference.

Raising awareness is also awesome because once you raise awareness to an acceptable, aribtrary level, you can just back off and say “Bam! did my part. Now it’s your turn. Fix it.”

So to summarize - you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?). Once again, white people find a way to score that sweet double victory.

I imagine that hits a little close to home for some of us. Which is not to say that awareness raising isn't important. Rather, that raising awareness should be a part of the journey, not the end of one.

Which is to say, if it's making you a little uncomfortable in places, that's probably good. That's part of the point of satire.

*Yossarian is trying to get out of a flying combat missions during WWII. He can't stop flying missions because they keep raising the tour of duty limit, which was 25 when he started, but is raised to 80 in little over a year.

However, regulations say that he can stop flying missions if he submits a request to his flight surgeon demonstrating that he is insane, and therefore unfit to fly. Regulations also say that any sane person wouldn't want to fly combat missions because of the dangers involved. Ergo, any person who submits a request not to fly missions is acting in a sane manner, and is thus fit to fly. Further, the regulations state that any person who expresses a desire to fly missions is clearly insane, and ought to be excused from flying, as that person is unfit to fly. In order to be excused from flying, such a person needs to submit a request to his flight surgeon demonstrating that he is insane...


Anonymous said...

From #48 - Whole Foods and Grocery Co-ops

These stores are excellent for bringing children, as there is nothing that they actually want.

“Oh, mommy, look chocolate!”

“No Joshua, that’s carob.”

“I want it.”


The child will then take a bite and realize that nothing in the store can be trusted.

This hits very close to home. Now that G has an Ypsi co-op membership, I know exactly how this kid feels.

Moody said...

I love satire. A couple of other satirical sites are Landover Baptist & Black People Love Us.

About Fundy X-tians & Racist Yuppies. :)

Katy Tukcer said...

I'm kinda in love with "What white people like" ever since they talked about bicycles and how white women dream of living in a small European village and bicycling to market with a wicker basket. This is my dream. I love that the site lets me laugh at myself and that it does draw attention to many raises awareness! *laughs*