The TNR Q&A: Christian Lander


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The website Stuff White People Like has inspired a new bestselling book,
along with misgivings
that its satire is ultimately toothless and flattering to its target Yuppie
audience. Over sushi and an expensive
sandwich at a Washington, D.C., Whole
, author Christian Lander discussed his message, Barack Obama, indie
rock, and the white quest for authenticity.

The New Republic:
Was there a particular message you wanted to get across with Stuff White People Like?

Christian Lander: Yeah, the message is that this generation
isn’t impressed by wealth anymore. It’s not about a bigger house or a more
expensive car. It’s about more “authenticity.” And there is a competitive
aspect to this. There’s a sense of superiority that comes with saying “I don’t
need an SUV” or “I don’t need an 8,000 square foot home.”

Still, the site strikes
me as a being pretty cynical. You’re
pointing out that what you think makes you unique is actually shared by
everyone else in your class and from your background.

White people are a group that loathes the mass media and the
idea of mass culture, but are being forced to recognize they are a part of a
mass culture. This [he points to the aisles of Whole Foods] is a mass culture.
It’s interesting to see that so many people for so long believed that this is
uniqueness. But it’s sold the same way as every other product out there. Matador Records
makes money at the end of the day, just the same way that Universal does.

As you’ve pointed
elsewhere, Stuff White People
Like has as much to do with class as to do with race.

Any person of color who likes stuff on this list has been
accused of being white at some point in their life. And a lot of people think I’m racist for saying that. But when I
grew up, people of color who liked this stuff were called “banana” or “Oreo”
or “coconut.” And fundamentally, all of them were generally of the same class.

Well, that brings up
a question I wanted to ask you about Obama and “post-racialism.” A New York Times article
the other week suggested that the idea of a post-racial America might be exclusively a white perception, and
that blacks in this country feel that an Obama victory wouldn’t do that much to
heal old wounds.

White people want overwhelmingly to believe that their class
and their group--the upper-middle-class left--is color-blind. It’s sort of interesting
to see that desperation for post-race emerge out of this group.

Is this solely
because of white guilt? Or is there a “coolness” factor at play here--with
tolerance being a way to prove how hip you are?

There is a coolness factor to it. And there’s some kind of
idea of competition--that you can find a way to become authentic enough to buy
your way out of whiteness. “Oh, you married an Asian girl and you adopted a kid
from Africa. That cancels everything out. You
taught in Japan,
too? You’re a person of the world. You’re not actually white.” There is this
sense that through travel and marriage and adoption you can buy your way out of
being white.

One theme you return
to is that when white people try to be more “aware” of social issues or more “just,”
they often end up coming off self-righteous.

The white solution to problems reminds me of that South Park
episode with the
underpants gnomes: step one, collect underpants; step two, question mark; step
three, profit. There’s a missing step. Like with a “Save Darfur” t-shirt. It’s
fantastic to give some money to this cause. But what’s going to happen?
T-shirts embody it all: “I’ve given money and I’m telling you what I’ve done.”
The concept of anonymous charities is completely lost on this generation. It’s
like a tree-falls-in-the-forest thing: If a white person does something
positive and doesn’t tell you about it, does it happen? This comes from the
competitive aspect of it.

Are you rebelling
against the culture of our generation?

Yeah, but how can I do it? I indict myself on every post. Our generation is pretty selfish.
We’re all gifted. We’re all special little children. And it’s hard to break
away from that. Where does all of our generation want to work? In all of these “look at me” professions,
like media. High prestige, low-paying professions. And there is selfishness to
that. We do honestly want to help, but we also want to be recognized as
helping. And there’s this weird thing about mass culture. I think that’s why
everyone latches onto indie music, for example. It’s like: “I need to
desperately feel like I’m not a part of this sinking ship. That I’m a part of
this smaller lifeboat that’s going to make it.” And then this leads to a crisis
of authenticity that has people like us fighting for hours over who liked Cut Copy first. Ultimately, as this
search for authenticity becomes a real thing, it just becomes a circle-jerk.
What can we do? What else can you do but become selfish in a situation like

One of my favorite
posts is the one in which you dissect white folk’s love for irony, as
exemplified particularly in the phenomenon of the trucker
. Are you afraid that your site will go the way of the trucker hat?

Oh, it will. And it should.

James Martin is an editorial web intern for The New Republic.

By James Martin

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