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The TNR Q&A: Christian Lander

Microsoft Word - Memo on Senator John McCain 408.docThe 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 vegetarian sandwich at a Washington, D.C., Whole Foods, 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 out 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 that?

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 hat. 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