Posted by: coloradokiwi | March 21, 2008

So white it’s invisible

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you’ve seen Stuff White People Like, a blog that needs no further explanation. And of course with the inevitable success and meme-making that is that site, it’s seen its fair share of criticism and praise in many incarnations. This morning I read yet another critique, at The Root, which argues that SWPL is really nothing more than a smarmy, lame extension of smug whiteness, far inferior to the cuttingly smart Black People Love Us! and so forth. But unfortunately, this author, like I think nearly everyone who goes to that site, still doesn’t get it, not really. What makes Stuff White People Like so funny to me is not just that it’s a (sometimes clever, sometimes obvious) list of white accoutrements and behaviors. Its true charm lies in something more subtle: a critique not only of “whiteness” but of late capitalism (whether or not author Chris Landers is really fully aware of this himself).

First off, the site doesn’t trade on “whiteness” as skin color per se: it trades on a specific kind of white privilege. Notice there is nothing on there about NASCAR, for instance. If you were starting a list of things “white people” like, wouldn’t you go straight to (or at least include) stuff that rednecks like? Certainly this joke has been done to death (there is a reason Jeff Foxworthy is now primarily a game show host), but wouldn’t such things count as “white”? So this is not just any whiteness, this is a specific kind of whiteness. This is stuff that upper middle class, milquetoast Democrats in their 20’s and 30’s like. And this is the crucial part of that satire: the stuff they like sets the trend for establishing power and consumer trends in our society, of what “everyone” aspires to (and paradoxically, marketers help inculcate this market to convince white people of what they like). The new American Dream is not about having a ranch home with a picket fence and 2.5 children, it is, essentially, Stuff White People Like. “Whiteness” is therefore coded as being much more, and much less, than skin color, and is instead about a particular taste culture that for the moment is the hegemonic form of “success” in this country. This is borne out in the blog’s mode of address: advice to someone who isn’t white on how they can move in white circles and take advantage of white people. The base assumption is that everyone wants to be white, or hang out with white people. Why? In order to get ahead in life.

This requires an extremely brief discussion of the core of what is meant by “white privilege“: although intimately connected to race, it is not limited to race. After all, you can be white and not really be able to capitalize on white privilege (and vice versa). It is not merely skin color, it is a set of attitudes, behaviors, cultural norms, and a host of other socially advantageous attributes. It is rooted in being “white” not merely because white people have historically been the most advantaged group, but also because its boundaries and elements are largely established and maintained by white people, as a whole way of being, as praxis. Most importantly, these qualities are what become the standard for “proper” behavior and attainment in our society, from relatively banal things like the stuff listed on SWPL, to extremely important things like how to conduct yourself at a job interview. And the most important thing about it is this: it is entirely normative, meaning that it establishes norms, and it is regarded as being “normal” when it is in fact a culturally, socially, and historically specific set of elements. How do you know whether you have white privilege? Well, when Katrina hit, and you saw the footage of the refugees in New Orleans, did you say or think, “Why don’t those people just get the hell out of there?”? If so, you “suffer” from white privilege in the sense of not being fully aware of how privileged you are or how privilege works in our society.

So, SWPL is not just a means of making fun of whiteness—it’s about exposing the normativity of this kind of taste culture, and how it’s not actually “normal” at all, and is based instead on incredible socio-economic power (which may or may not be “earned” so much as granted to those with the right connections and/or skin color—although certainly anyone can attain it). To this end there is no contradiction between being a “person of color” and doing/buying/enjoying all the things on SWPL. SWPL also therefore exposes the politics of such so-called liberalism for what it is: being mostly vain and unthinkingly consumerist. The site further exposes the real truth of this kind of liberal: whether or not they truly realize it, they “celebrate diversity” as an end in itself, not as a means of actual social empowerment; their means of “protecting the environment” is not to advocate fundamental consumption and lifestyle changes, but to merely recycle and buy “green” products. And so on. In short: their politics is not a real politics, it is a commodity fetish. It is an ultimately arbitrary set of signifiers of social power, which in its normativity and banality, not only hides the source of that power, but ironically puts it on display. Meanwhile, it is also ultimately somewhat bereft of meaningfulness (though not meaning), in that it is almost entirely based on conspicuous consumption. In short, this demonstration of social power, while in its way less of a barrier to social mobility than in years past, is still a means of maintaining a class system, only in this case it is also the privileged in society who become dependent on and beholden to capitalist ideology. The problem with confusing social relations with commodities is that it masks the true nature of these social relations, and with it any truly liberatory politics. It is also a problem in that every aspect of our lives becomes commodified, and we are rendered incapable of being social without buying something (or buying into something) first.

Or, as a non-academic translation: remember Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club? He lived the life of a white person, as articulated on SWPL. The point of the film was about how empty he felt living that comfortable life. And of course while a lot of audiences and critics alike were fixated on the problems of defining “authentic” and meaningful masculinity according to fighting, they missed the point of the whole last third of the movie: about how that morphed into an anarchist organization, where at the very end they blow up the buildings of credit card companies. At base Fight Club‘s argument is therefore that our malaise stems not from the fact that men don’t get into fights anymore, but rather that this malaise is a function of living with/in capitalistic postmodernity.

Although it’s clear that practically nobody “gets” either SWPL or Fight Club at that level of detail, there are signs that people understand the humor of SWPL well enough that it’s not just a list of things that white people do—lots of people, it would seem, are prone to at least a little bit of critical reflection about what they or acquaintances of theirs do, and therefore recognizing that it’s no more or less “normal” than any other culturally specific thing. But it seems pretty clear that the underlying critique of white privilege is still not really getting through, which, ironically, demonstrates its power.

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Responses

  1. Excellent analysis that confirms that the “Ouch” comments on SWPL site are really “OMG I do that” without any insight as to why it is funny. I would suggest Christian does understand the critique of white privilege as a result of a partially completed Phd in Communications and Culture at the University of Indiana, Bloomington.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Richard. You’re probably right that Christian does get it, although in interviews thus far he hasn’t riffed on this theme at all, where it would be a good opportunity to do so. Although to be fair: this sort of race cum class issue is difficult to articulate in that kind of setting. Cripes, look at some of the wingnut reactions to Obama’s Tuesday speech, which was very straightforward by comparison.


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