Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Stuff White People Like" in a Special Feature Called "Stuff Stephen Dislikes"


Above: the McDonald sandwich, at one point the Most Expensive Sandwich.

You know what white people love nowadays? They love "Stuff White People Like."

Here's some background. This website has been gaining popularity over the course of almost a year now. It purports to chronicle the things that every white person likes. This includes fancy sandwiches, graduate degrees, and girls with bangs. The site has been emailed around from white person to white person, each one laughing more than the last. The site's popularity culminated with the release of a book by the same name early this month.

But something is wrong. Sure, the site has become more and more popular, but a vast majority of white people have probably never heard of it. For instance, a portion of the white community doesn't even have internet access in their homes. An even larger portion can't afford "fancy sandwiches." In fact, the number one thing that white people like is not "outdoor performance clothes" like "North Face." It's probably NASCAR.

It's true, the white people that send funny emails to each other and spend most of their days on the internet and drink Starbucks love the things that "Stuff White People Like" tells them they love. But the white people who live in small towns and know how to care for cows and can't afford a latte every day wouldn't even understand the appeal of "Stuff White People Like."

Maybe the site is just misnamed. Maybe it means "Stuff Upper Middle Class / Yuppie White People Like," but that also might prove to be untrue. But I think the problem goes to something deeper, something more human than just the name the creators chose.

The problem comes from another thing that a lot of people, white or not, like: a lot of people like oversimplifying things. A lot of people like categorizing each other. They like other races to be homogenized, separate. They like stereotypes.

And nowhere is this more evident than on "Stuff White People Like." The site even mentions the white person's apparently hypocritical love of diversity, saying that white people think having easy access to multinational restaurants is the height of diversity. This article explains the tendency to view other cultures as something to "Experience," something definable, something purchasable. But the site's very premise is to oversimplify the white population in a similar manner, reducing the individual to a stereotype.

The black population in America has worked long and hard to overcome society's pressure on them to fit into categories, to be simple and to be what we expect them to be. Their struggle is not over, and it remains one of America's lasting problems. But a problem like that cannot go away in a society that lets our desire to describe and simplify our world affect the way we see and treat each other.

I would like to think we live in a world that celebrates diversity, not makes a sham of it, not discourages it. Sure, "Stuff White People Like" is good for a laugh. But then again so were blackface minstrel shows back in the day. Does that make either one less damaging?

NOTE: for a much more well-thought-out article hitting on some of the same themes as this post, see here. Here's a quote: "The reason the phrase 'it's funny because it's true' has become a shorthand for things that are neither (a) funny nor (b) particularly true is because humor is rarely truly satirical when its targets also make up the bulk of its audience."

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