Monday, March 10, 2008

Why I like 'Stuff White People Like'

By now, you've probably seen Stuff White People Like, a hilarious send-up of hipster/urban, upwardly-mobile and aspiring-upwardly-mobile
-basement (mostly male) white folks between 18 and 35 and their sense of self-satisfaction and intellectual superiority. (I added the link to the side of my blog exactly 9 days ago, but I'm
not mentioning that for your information so much as to impress you with how I knew about it before you did.) If you haven't, click on that link.

What's emerged in a number of the responses, of course, is how particular the author's sense of whiteness is - my specificity in the last paragraph, for instance, has a certain ridiculousness but also encapsulates their target subject (and target audience) perfectly. For instance, from the entry on '#84 T-Shirts':

"It is also imperative to understand that faux vintage shirts (”Getting Lucky in Kentucky”) are completely unacceptable. They are beloved by the wrong kind of white people, and must be avoided at all costs."

While this "wrong kind of white people" is implicitly present throughout the list, they're only mentioned explicitly in the rare entry. This makes sense since they are, within both the logic of this list and, I would argue, hegemonic racial logic on the whole, not white - or, at best, off-white. In Bobby Noble's first book, he argues that "whiteness often emerges as a distinct racial identity when it can be identified as somehow primitive or inhuman". I would suggest that there's a bit of a critical slippage between white people (in the general sense) and whiteness (in the theoretical sense) in this quote - that the whiteness Noble describes is actually the off-whiteness of certain white people that I described above. I think this is what Noble is getting at when he subsequently says that "[t]o see a white as a white rather than as just 'another person' that white needs to be marked out as different from those white who observe him/her". This sort of work is most often subtly (and effectively) accomplished through the denigration of the "wrong kind of white people" as 'white trash', the invocation of 'taste' or 'class' (in both the economic and cultural respects), or any number of similar variants. Stuff White People Like manages, in its hyperbolic way, to be quite revealing of these mechanisms.

It also manages to prevent white people from turning invisible once the passing blow is made at off-white and non-white people. Numerous critical race scholars have noted that whiteness is characterized by an invisibility - it is, contradictorily, so hypervisible that it assumes normality and a taken-for-grantedness, and so escapes notice as a race or color. A number of my white friends have admitted a certain ambivalence or discomfort with the site that they simply can't articulate, and my guess would be that some of that discomfort relates to the blog's refusal to let whiteness remain invisible and to scrutinize its taken-for-grantedness. As far as subversive gestures go, this isn't a grand one - but it's a start.

Two related but not entirely connected notes:

-One of the most amusing features of every entry is the section that tells off/non-white people how, in understanding why white people like the given item, they can turn the situation to their advantage. Often, interestingly, this advice would have the effect of rendering those same mechanisms of white privilege invisible once more - to the white person, anyway - since they encourage affirming whiteness or
assuaging white guilt. Sure, the knowing off/non-white person isn't fooled, but were they ever fooled?

It's also been interesting to see how many of my non-white friends are troubled by their resemblance to the white person that the blog interpellates - with respect to both the implied white subject and the implied (white) reader. Whiteness is, after all, a concept and a label for a field of racialized social power, and not actually a reference to an essentialized body or type of skin. That's no clearer than when someone who identifies as non-white realizes that s/he is, according to the website, white as a daisy.


entzauberung said...

Is that so, though? Here I only see a particular type of whites defining THEMSELVES. Within the normal behavior of a certain class of white peoples soft self-criticism combined with a certain class of white peoples love of list-making. I mean, I've seen this archetype displayed in numerous guises ("how do you recognize someone who works in media?" "How do you recognize a guy from Stockholm+")-

To me (as an European) this site has an infinitely bigger value as an index of North Americas obsession with race than race in itself.

neilshyminsky said...

Defining themselves, sure, but in a hyperbolic and discomforting way. 'A guy from Stockholm', while implicitly white, does nothing to specifically visibilize whiteness; but 'white people' forces us to confront it, at least momentarily. The more specific and less explicitly racialized examples you give are cliché, but generalizations about 'white people' still have some feeling of being illicit.

I also think that it has some value as an indicator of North American race-thinking, though perhaps not in the way that you might. White North Americans, for the most part, like to think of themselves as post-racists living in a post-racist world - as being unobsessed with race. The site is asking them to stop fooling themselves. (I'm not sure that it asks them to do anything more than that, but like I said in my blog - that seems to be a place to start.)

Omar Karindu said...

I quite enjoyed perusing the site, and its satirical method does an excellent job of foregrounding a certain form of "whiteness" as a race.

What bothers me a bit, however, is the fashion in which I think the jargon of authenticity creeps back in somewhere beneath the surface in exercises like this. The items, traits, and cultural signifiers that make up the list are in sme sense being taken up as false authnetication procedures, as cultural construction disguised as authenticity.

The problem is that this suggests not only the inauthenticity of upper-middle-class whiteness but also hints that there may be some proper, other location from which authenticity might be staged. Such a debate is probably beyond the purview of the site's purpose and its means, but it seems to me as if the deconstruction of bourgeois whiteness's self-articulation as cosmopolitan, post-racial, and postcultural does not frame a reexamination of whiteness as a culture and an ethnicity among many so much as deride it as inauthentic and suggest the authenticity of nonwhitenesses.

Or to put it another way, the site's own articulation of the ways in which whiteness-as-authenticity is a canard does not render it immune to another form of deconstructive analysis in which the satirist's implicit claim to possess the keys to discourse must be understood as finally untenable.

Jason Powell said...

I appreciate why you like the site, and I "get it" even though something about it kind of rubs me the wrong way, cognitively. I like a couple things on that list but not others. Am I thus a little bit "white"? I know, it's a joke, but there is something a little skewed about the point of view.

Also, having looked re-read your blog entry today, I find I am troubled by this line: "Whiteness is, after all, a concept and a label for a field of racialized social power, and not actually a reference to an essentialized body or type of skin."

Neatly expressed, but that "after all" is bugging me, as if it's the summary statement about what "whiteness" is. I understand the intellectual level on which you're defining whiteness, but it's kind of meaningless on a more prosaic level. I've seen frightening news reports of white guys beating up black guys, chaining them to their truck and then dragging his body -- bouncing and screaming -- across the road. They did that because they have white skin and he has black skin. There's nothing "conceptual" about that.

neilshyminsky said...

Omar: You're right, I think, to catch the scent of a certain kind of authenticity. The authenticity that I'm hearing seems to speak more to your latter-most point, though, about those who "claim to possess the keys to discourse". The white critic of a certain kind of whiteness or white practice seems to be staging that critique from his own grounds of implicit essence, I think - that is, his blog is not really about whiteness, but about something that calls itself whiteness. Real whiteness, or at least real white people, actually look a lot more like the author.

As for "suggest[ing] the authenticity of nonwhiteness" - well, I suppose that this is a risk whenever one side of the white/nonwhite binary is mocked or derided as artifice or nature. But yes, it seems well beyond the purview of the blog to address that and remain at all accessible.

neilshyminsky said...

Jason wrote: "They did that because they have white skin and he has black skin. There's nothing 'conceptual' about that."

Jason: By 'conceptual', I don't mean to diminish the reality of race - the body has matter, in the physical sense, and bodies matter, in the cognitive sense. What I mean is that bodies aren't somehow inherently racialized, that our fixation on race is not derived from some essential difference - that, rather, these are social distinctions that have been applied after the fact. They're conceptual, but they carry the weight - as your example ably illustrates - of irrefutable physical essence. And, certainly, when racial thinking leads to violence, it's difficult to argue that it makes a difference to those people who have been injured whether race is expressive of an essence or is socially constructed. Ultimately, what I was trying to do with that one sentence was recall that the obviousness of racial thinking is an illusion. (Albeit one that we can hardly dispel with pithy theoretical remarks - my "after all" certainly betrays that I'm aiming my comments at the converted.)

Also - my use of "conceptual" and "after all" probably sound dismissive, and I'll apologize for that.

entzauberung said...

Neil: But the generalizations sort of misses the point for me, as they generally only concern a certain type of white guy from a certiain class. I mean, the "off-whites" has to be the deafening majority of nominally white people. It's as if every entry was about Mormons, since being a mormon predominantly is a white thing.

It's not as your T-shirt preferences is the only, or even a particularly effective, way to wield structural power.

Jason Powell said...

Ah, I see. Thank you, Neil, for clarifying that for me. (And forgive me my slowness -- as I'm sure is obvious, I'm not as fluent in the language of academic discourse as you.) Now I get it.

On a more prosaic note, I don't like "Arrested Development" being on the list. That show targeted for satire almost the exact same demographic that the site does. They're on the same side!

omar karindu said...

entzauberung: I'm not Neil, but I'd argue that, for example, Received Pronunciation is hardly the majority accent in England but it's certainly the majority accent so far as mass media and exported portrayals of England are concerned.

One of the things I really appreciate about the site, my critique of it notwithstanding, is that it seems to be flagging up the distance between cultural "whiteness" and the physical feature we might call "being white." Think of the ways in which mass media portrayals of normal or high living standards, of the various "off-white" cultural formations, and so on are almost invariably from the perspective of that cultural formation that we can call "whiteness."

The sort of whiteness the site satirizes is linked to the possession of disposable income, certain minimal educational and professional status, and so on. It's culturally dominant and powerfully reinforced by hegemonic structures. As imperialism has shown us, one needn't be a numerical majority in order to be cultural and political one.

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: I think that Arrested Development is a rather clever inclusion for that reason. One can imagine that 'Stuff White People Like' would make for an appropriate item on its own list.

entzauberg: Like Omar says, normative whiteness is hegemonic but that doesn't mean that it's wielded by the majority of white people. These sorts of dominant cultural constructions are persuasive and powerful, in part, because so few people match the full definition - we're so busy worrying about being a partial match (and about how we can tap into more hegemonic power) that we forget to question why so much power is vested in those same norms.

What the site does well to illustrate is that the power vested in whiteness is also made to seem accessible and attainable - through culture, consumption - to anyone who can get their hands on it. Hence my amusement with the section in each blog that tells 'you' (an ambiguous subject - is 'you' a non-white reader who wants to access whiteness? a white reader who wants to increase their cultural capital, to get a stranglehold on whiteness?) how to manipulate/obtain whiteness. T-shirts are not obviously effective ways to wield structural power, but that doesn't mean they're entirely disconnected from exercises of power either. The blog concerns itself with the sort of stuff that, individually, usually earns responses to the effect of 'I think you're over-thinking it' - as a linked and interdependent collection, though, the blogger's point starts to look somewhat more convincing.