Confessions of a white stereotype

by Kristin on July 30, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Robert Kostin

There are so many ironic things about human nature, but here’s one I’ve been pondering the past few days: We want to be completely understood by others and we long to find our “tribe,” yet we want to believe we’re unique, and maintain the image of being somewhat mysterious.

I admit it. This is true of me.

That’s why I was cringing/laughing/squirming/nodding as Jason and I looked at one of the books he brought home from the library the other day: Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions. According to Christian Lander, the book’s author, I’m not so unique. I’m pretty much a stereotype. And I’m VERY white. Almost seventy percent, in fact, according to the little survey at the end of the book.

To be honest, these are not things I wanted to find out about myself. I’m really “white,” and I’m a cliche? Ugh.

I have read the blog by the same name from time to time before, but until Jason brought home the book, I had never fully absorbed how much of me could be wrapped up in a book written by someone who’s never met me. Luckily, Jason and I had plenty of good laughs as we looked at the book together and saw such precise portraits of ourselves. That sort of softened the dismay. A bit.

So here’s the deal. The book includes 150 things white people like, 97 of which I have an affinity for. Coffee and Wine? Goes without saying. The Toyota Prius? I drive one. Bicycles? That’s how I get around when I’m not driving my Prius. Dinner Parties? We fed 12 people last night, although it was super casual…but we DID eat outside (see below). Hating Corporations? Man, this guy’s got my number.

A bit of personal commentary on stuff I really like:

- Farmer’s Markets (also Organic Food): As Lander rightly points out, “White people like farmer’s markets for a number of reasons,” and he has my reasons pretty much nailed: supporting local economies and small businesses, buying direct from the farmer, eating healthily, and the social opportunity to interact with lots of people like me. All while spending time outside! (See below.)

- Diversity (also Having Black Friends and Having Gay Friends): I love diversity in my food, in my community, in my daughters’ classrooms, in my music and movies, and especially in my friends. Jason and I happen to have a very diverse group of friends. Let me be very clear that we are not friends with these people because they are not like us. We’re friends with them for the many ways they are like us, but we’re also very glad for the diversity and broadened perspective they bring to our lives. (Please tell me I’m not getting myself into trouble here.)

- Making You Feel Bad for Not Going Outside (also Eating Outside): This one made me laugh. I’m a sucker for camping, taking walks and hikes, eating meals on the patio, urging my kids to play outside, and setting my computer up on the front porch so I can work outside. And don’t forget the Farmers’ Market!

- Wes Anderson Movies (also The Daily Show with Jon Stewart): This is about my particular sense of humor, more than anything else. And apparently it’s not just my sense of humor. As Lander says, “Wes Anderson movies have this way of being sort of funny and a little clever.” And I would add “quirky,” “dry” and “ironic.” Jon Stewart is funny and clever and also political and smart, a perfect combination. (In my defense, though, I don’t just pretend to laugh. This type of humor actually causes me to laugh.)

- Not Having a TV: I’m starting to feel sort of embarrassed here, but it’s true. We don’t have TV. Well, we have a TV, which is necessary for the Indy movies and Netflixed TV series (also included in Lander’s list), but we don’t get any channels on our TV. We’re really not trying to make a “better than you” statement, though. I just haven’t had TV in my home since I lived with my parents, so I’ve sort of forgotten what that whole thing is about.

- Apple Products: What can I say? I’m a big fan. My first computer was a Mac Classic, bought in 1992, and I’ve never looked back. (And now, because I’ve shared my personal history with Apple products, I’m even more of a cliche. Nice.)

- Public Radio: I remember hearing endless public radio as a kid, in the car on long car trips with my parents. Especially Prairie Home Companion. My parents would chuckle. I would think “This is the dumbest, most boring time-waster I’ve ever heard.” But it made its way into my blood. Now there’s nothing I love more while cooking dinner or driving in the car than a good public radio show.

- Irony: This is another one that really cracked me up—our love for turning things we hate into sweet, sweet irony. Ironic themed parties, ironic knickknacks around the house or on our desk, ironic conversations that run in circles until they turn themselves inside out. It’s all our idea of clever fun.

- Divorce: I’m not sure how this makes me “white,” and I don’t know anyone who “likes” divorce, but it certainly fits my profile. So there you have it.

- Threatening to Move to Canada: This is another one that’s in my DNA, like Public Radio. I can’t help it. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, my dad said we were moving to Canada. Then I married a Canadian (my first husband), so it was as much a possibility as a threat for a while. But those were mostly the Clinton years. By the time I reached desperation again, in the early 2000′s, my marriage was ending and I was back to empty threats.

- Modern Furniture: Ah yes, the Danish mid-century modern sofa: I have it. And the Eames molded plastic armchair with a rocker base, too.

- The New Yorker: I got hooked on The New Yorker magazine as a college student, when I was the poetry editor for the college literary magazine (aside: I can’t believe literary magazines are not listed in this book). I quickly observed that the Much Cooler, older members of the editorial staff all read The New Yorker. So I admit: I subscribed and started reading it for the wrong reasons. But in my defense (once again), I’ve been reading it ever since. What I’m trying to say is that I actually read it, with great anticipation and pleasure, every week. It’s not just there on my coffee table to make me fit the stereotype.

There are many more things on the list that fit the bill, like these random aesthetic preferences: Glasses, Hardwoood Floors and T-shirts. I not only have all of those things, I have strong feelings about them. Now I’m trying to decide which ones I can give up, to diversify my persona a bit.

My saving “not-so-white” graces

Luckily, there are several categories in the book that don’t fit me at ALL, allowing me to retain some of my sense of individuality and uniqueness: Religions Their Parents Don’t Belong To, Hating Their Parents, Marathons, Snowboarding, Veganism/Vegetarianism, Lawyers, Bottles of Water, St. Patrick’s Day, Rugby, and Having Children in Their Late Thirties, among others. Those, I just don’t get.

And Jason is even more white than me, by about ten percentage points (wait, is that a good thing?). OK, how about this: after dinner last night, we had three of our friends who were there take the survey, and they were all only in the 20-30 percent range (one of the friends who took it is black, but he’s been accused before of not being “black enough”). Anyway, that means we have friends who aren’t exactly like us. Which is a good thing, right?

Obviously, this post, like the book that inspired it, is all in good fun. But it does raise some interesting questions, beyond the hard-to-resist “how white are you?” question.

For instance, is it more important to be understood and part of a tribe, or to be unique? Is it funny or disconcerting (or both) when someone nails your type so perfectly? And if you’re not actually white at all, do you find this whole concept troubling or a hoot?

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  • Meredith

    I don’t think anyone likes being a stereotype. I think we all have this desire to stand out from the crowd and be special or better, but we also have an innate need for community and belonging.

    If I had to choose, I’d go with John “no man is an island” Donne on this one. I think being a part of a community is more important. In a community, we can still retain our unique attributes and use them to contribute to the group, using what we have individually (and maybe being recognized for that) to make the community better.

    It’s like being a part of the whole. We’re all ingredients, separate and distinct, but you have to put us together to make something really great. So one person’s the eggs, another’s the flour, a third’s the chocolate and so on. Individually, they might be great, but together, they can be even better. And leaving out even one person (the baking soda/powder) means the whole isn’t as good as it could or should be.

    I love that you asked this question!

  • Trina

    OH too funny, I was on the same track as Meredith (Hi :-)) thinking of community in terms of a recipe and the outcome being better based on the individual ingredients… often I read comments after I respond, glad I didnt today.
    I guess the book is made for Americans only though since I could never threaten to move ‘here’ haha. Where in the range of stereotype would that put me, I wonder…
    Once again, lovely perspective Kristen.

  • Blackwasp19

    Stereotype = when someone recklessly attributes generalities to individuals. I think we have to be careful how we use the word. Lander is making generalities they are only stereotypes when we start assuming that because a person is white that they like such and such (sorry I had to say it).

    I actually don’t like the book/website because it is limited and Lander is making bad generalizations. It is really only touching on one section of white America. Think about lower class white, or more blue collar whites, or inner-city whites, it isn’t really stuff “white” people like it is stuff a certain level of educated and socialized white like.

    The site is interesting because I think it someways it is actually fortifying a white culture (in the shallow sense of the word) rather than exploring one. And in fact that white culture may be much more minimal than he presents. I think Lander pulls out something he has anecdotally noticed his friends liking – i.e. Bob Marley – and then mentions it. I think when many folks read this they either elevate their listening to Marley occasionally as an actual part of their culture, think of their white friends who listen to Marley, or that think many black (or other non-whites) don’t like this so if must be a white thing. I think about the Farmers Market’s in Fort Wayne. When I go I see mainly white people, but the number of white people far from make it something generalized to broad “whiteness”.

    But there is something important int the site too. It affirms that there is white culture – more appropriately various white cultures. White folks denying that they have a culture and assuming their actions are universally normal is a big hindrance to actually multiculturalism, diversity and reconciliation. Perhaps even if the site is limited it will start more white folks thinking about their ethnic identity.

    I think it is bittersweet to see this happen. Like I mentioned, it is good to acknowledge that their are differences based on race, but it is also dangerous because we often limit it to that . We literally make things black and white and don’t examine the variations and blending. So many black folks have to fight the assumption that we ALL like, fried chicken, rap, baggy jeans, the N-word, basketball etc. and conversely fight being called “white” when we don’t like those things or happen to like NPR. Also, some white folks fight being called a “wigger” when they are genuinely a child of Hip Hop culture.

    Kris, you are fine on the diversity point. I actually think he is a little off here though. I think some white folks like to think they have diverse friends, but not really have them – I am not talking about you :).I classify our generation’s – for whites and others – and a “chopstick diversity” many know Chinese food, but not Chinese-American or Chinese values, culture etc. Diversity is cool, but it isn’t real. PLUS, I know plenty of white folks of all ages where I am their Black friend, or haven’t really every had a real relationship with a Black person. Research proves that is MUCH more the norm and that ethnic Minorities both favor and live more diversely than whites.

    OK, I am done.

  • Daisy

    I find myself a little embarrassed by my “whiteness.” I teach in a very diverse school, but our teaching staff doesn’t reflect the student body well. Aside from a few Asian teachers (Hmong), the teachers are entirely white. Maybe (humor aside) I need to take a look at this book to show me ways to branch out, better reach the families I teach.

  • Kristin T.

    Meredith, I’m with you. If I had to choose between being unique or being a part of a tribe, I’d go the “no man is an island” route, too. I wonder if that has anything to do with being an extrovert, and thriving off of deep connections with other people. Are you an extrovert? (I love your baking analogy, btw!)

    Trina, you and Meredith both bring up a great point. Even if you brought together a whole room full of people that were all more than 50 percent “white,” according to this book, there would be variances and differences that each person would bring to the group. Fitting into a group doesn’t necessarily mean you take a cookie-cutter approach to life.

    Blackwasp19, thanks for bringing up the clear distinction between “stereotype” and “generality.” That’s important. And I guess that’s what I fear most—that because I fit generally into this group, people will begin to assume things about me. It’s much more of a problem (in my mind) when it comes to me being a Christian, and the things people assume of me because of that. Anyway, you offer a great analysis of the website, the idea of white culture, the importance of considering class distinctions, and your own perspective as a black man. Thanks for adding so much to my post. (And thanks for letting me know I’m OK on my diversity point!)

  • Meagan Francis

    I feel similarly “nailed” when I read the blog (haven’t read the book yet) and think it’s hilarious and dismaying at the same time to be so thoroughly predictable. I do agree with Blackwasp19, though, that it’s not really stuff “white” people like, but stuff a certain kind of white person is likely to be into for a variety of reasons. (but does not roll off the tongue).

    Hmm, now that I think about it, maybe ‘wanting to be unique” is just more Stuff White People Like? :)

  • lbotp

    This seems to me to be about class, not race. A lot of these things are based on socio-economic status. Maybe I’m simplifying, but that’s my immediate reaction.

  • Dave Thurston

    One of my favorite jokes ends with, “First of all, she’s black” [Answer to what does God look like?] The reason I like the joke so much is because in one fell swoop, it causes people to subconsciously react, think, then consciously react.

    In blog-world it is a little different – the playing field is leveled and I can like or dislike things (and I suppose people or avatars) for what comes out of their head . . . not for what the container appears to be.

    When I meet not-yet-in-real-life-friends, I know that I’ll be a little concerned about my subconsciously reactions as it will show that I am still human and still (sometimes?) shallow.

  • Kristin T.

    Daisy, I am definitely familiar with that embarrassed feeling, but I think the most important thing is to be who you are with added doses of compassion, awareness and understanding. You seem to have that down.

    Meagan, the “hilarious and dismaying” response pretty much sums up my own. It’s important to have a sense of humor about these things, isn’t it? And you’re completely right: wanting to be seen as unique is SUCH a thing that this certain brand of white people like. Too funny.

    lbotp, very true. It more about class than race, but I would say it’s probably a combination. My black friends who are in the same general socio-economic and educational class as me like *many* of these things (farmers markets, NPR, etc.) but there are also many things on the list they would say are distinctly “white.” I guess the point is that I DO belong to some sort of generalized/stereotyped group, but “white” probably isn’t the best way to describe it.

    Dave, I like how you summed up this process: “subconsciously react, think, then consciously react.” I want/need to think more about how I process and respond to people in social media settings. Very interesting.