White people. They're everywhere, but especially they're in Portland. They're out there gingerly sipping their designer lattes in eco-friendly, sweatshop-free slacks, reminiscing fondly about HBO's The Wire and its authentically fictional hard-knocks Baltimore, high-fiving each other in retellings of the latest sardonically enlightened Sarah Silverman jokes and congratulating each other for not being—heaven forfend!—Republican. They're out there wearing scarves with T-shirts, appreciating fine art, riding fixed-gear bicycles, knowing whether your Snow Buds white tea is Fair Trade. They think you're inauthentic for shopping at Safeway. They like the idea of soccer, even though they don't really watch it.
Of course, this is less whiteness than it is a certain rarefied version of it, a confluence of groups constantly in brand-defined identity crisis: yuppie, hipster, granola. And Christian Lander's book Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions (Random House, 224 pages, $14) is that child of the modern age, a book born from a hysterically popular blog (stuffwhitepeoplelike.com).
While IMing with friend and eventual co-blogger Myles Valentin about The Wire—and how it's impossible to trust white people who don't like it—Lander had realized that the modern, white, post-hipster crew formed "kind of a tribe. We're all trying to differentiate ourselves, prove we're individual and superior, but we're all doing the same things." The main idea was, he says, "me making fun of me."
Thus, the tone of the book/blog is not so much biting commentary as it is a somewhat self-congratulatory archness, the reassurance of getting the joke even when the joke is you. It's the gentle, folksy humor of Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck applied not to staid family suburbia but to a newish, ubiquitous class of urban white professional. So it's likable, largely harmless, and endlessly entertaining to its primary audience of precisely the people that Lander is lampooning (e.g., almost the entire staff of WW. )
And for Lander, Portland is obviously an easy target. The city merits its own entry in the book, where Lander refers to it as a "Lord of the Flies scenario" for white people. Just for kicks, WW decided to submit Lander (who reads Monday at Powell's on Hawthorne) to a sort of infinite jukebox of specifically Portland whiteness, to solicit his commentary on just how white we really are. And as it turns out, even though he's been chronicling the phenomenon of whiteness in all corners of the continent, Portland still somehow managed to surprise him.
WW: The Decemberists
Christian Lander answers: With that label they were on [Portland's Kill Rock Stars], the sound of Colin Meloy's voice, this is a band that white people can really feel OK about liking. The Decemberists is a band that white people can really get behind.
Nutritional yeast in shakers, for pizza and popcorn
People do that? Is it that thing where the yeast makes it more nutritious, but it also makes it taste worse so you know it's more nutritious? White people love that. I live on the West Coast too, and everything's about macrobiotic and organic, but Portland is pretty far ahead of the curve on that one. You're out there on your own.
Buying premium cigarettes (American Spirit, Nat Shermans) that cost more than the Pabst six-packs you buy with them
This is a common trend for white people, pairing authentic, inexpensive things with expensive things that are exclusive. It's like wearing a $4 vintage T-shirt with $400 jeans. It's classic form.
Honestly, I mix her up with other performance artists. I can't think of anything specific. But artists, obscure art forms, that's a really big thing for white people.
This is a real paradox. White people love old buildings, but then you pair it with this mass-produced feeling. It's like when they plop down a Borders books in some old building. On the one hand, something's being preserved and they think it's great, but then it's a Borders. It really confuses the hell out of the white people.
Hummers with biodiesel stickers
Wow. That's really ridiculous. Do you think it's some kind of guerrilla joke? I'm going to have to bring a big fat notebook along when I come to Portland next time. I'm thinking I can fill it up.
Christian Lander reads from
at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Oct. 20. Free.