Christian Lander brunching at Beauty’s in Montreal.
That all those jokes about how white people drive or dance or fornicate have been exhausted has itself become a bit of a joke. Just like moaning about the prices at movie theatre concession stands or the wacky names of caffeinated beverages at your local Starbucks, it was getting tired—at least until Christian Lander came along. In early 2008, the decamped Torontonian started Stuff White People Like a WordPress blog dedicated to dissecting “the unique taste of millions.” By July of 2008, Random House had released the Stuff White People Like book, a collection of Lander’s riffs on the curious value white people place on finding a good brunch spot, watching The Wire, or pretending to enjoy classical music.
Besides being funny (and often eerily on-the-nose), Stuff White People Like etched a concept of whiteness that exceeded mere pigmentation. For Lander, being white isn’t about being Caucasian as much as it is about being a fairly well-to-do upper-middle-class liberal who values, above all else, their capacity for discernment. In Lander’s terms, “whiteness” has more to do with privilege than skin colour. (Though the thorny connection between privilege and skin colour, and especially skin colour edging towards the white, is always implicit in his writing.) These sociological threads expanded the profile of Stuff White People Like, landing its author not just on cross-continental book tours, but college speaking engagements.
Criss-crossing across North America speaking about whiteness inspired Lander’s follow-up book, Whiter Shades of Pale, which will be released on November 23 by Random House. Whiter Shades has Lander further plunging into the falsely differentiated fauna of middle-class whiteness, dissecting the differences in white people from coast to coast. Though there may be some broad anthropological imperative at play, make no mistake, Lander is a comedy writer first, and any racial fallout arising from his perhaps reductive exploration of whiteness is largely incidental.
We chatted with Lander, who is currently writing an animated sitcom for MTV, over the phone last week about his new book and various shades of whiteness.
Torontoist: Is it fair to call Whiter Shades of Pale a sequel to Stuff White People Like?
Christian Lander: Yeah. Or a continuation, I guess, is another fair thing to call it. Looking at it, it’s not really radically different from the first one.
What does differentiate it from the first book?
The new one breaks down regional white people from across North America: breaks down their strengths and weaknesses and that. The entries are loosely arranged based on which things are most applicable to people from that region.
You’ve often talked about Stuff White People Like as not being about some sort of grand, uniform concept of whiteness, but about a certain type of person, who is often white. Does the new book look to further expand this concept of whiteness, if only superficially?
That’s the joke. For sure. It’s a reminder that white people are separated by small, superficial differences, but small, superficial differences are a huge deal to white people. Just ask them what the difference between punk and post-punk is.
Was there a lot of research involved in this, or is it just based on people you’ve come across in the past few years?
In the past few years I’ve been doing book tours and college lectures, so I’ve been touring a lot all over North America. Part of it is based on just basic experiences. But I’ve learned things about Boulder, Colorado and Madison, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas that I would not have noticed had I not travelled there.
So what are some of the differences you’ve noticed, say, between white people in Boulder and white people in Austin?
Well, Boulder is full of a lot of old hippies who got in while Boulder was still affordable. You see a lot of skullets: you know, the bald head with the ponytail. Whereas in Austin, people are a lot more into the music scene and that. There’s a lot of people in band and beer t-shirts and that. The differences are sometimes very, very small.
And what things remain the same across the board? Is it this idea of distinction or some snooty level of refinement?
Yeah. All the entries definitely apply to all white people. They just apply more or less to each group. One of the things I focused on in this book is white people getting older, partly because I’m getting older. So there’s stuff like expensive versions of cheap food. And I talk about how as you get older, the passion you had for indie rock switches over to restaurants. Because you can never be the oldest guy in a restaurant.
When the blog started, and when the first book came out, you were getting pegged with a little bit of controversy about Stuff White People Like being kind of reductive or, pardon the pun, whitewashing white people. Has this died down over time? Do you expect the new book to reignite some of these flames?
The new book is probably going to reignite things, if only because the regional white person for San Francisco is an Asian woman. So we’ll see where that takes me.
Well, how do you defend that one?
I’ve always said: you don’t have to be white to be white. You just have to be rich.
When the first book came out, you did talk about how a lot of the things white people like came not necessarily from Caucasians, but from well-off Asian kids you knew growing up in Toronto.
In a lot of my college lectures I talk about how so much of this stuff comes from growing up in Toronto. And how if you liked any of the stuff I talked about and you weren’t white, people would call you white. They’d say, “You’re acting white.” They’d call you banana, coconut, Oreo. It was something that was so ingrained in my head growing up in Toronto.
“I’ve always said: you don’t have to be white to be white. You just have to be rich.”
How does Toronto compare to the rest of North America in terms of whiteness?
Well, Toronto, right up until Rob Ford got elected, was our paradise. Now I don’t even know what to say about it. I’m so bummed about that.
You’re lucky to be outside of it, at least.
Yeah, because things are going so much better here. Everything’s perfect. The Republicans are back in power, the war’s still going on, there’s going to be tax cuts extended to the richest people in America. Again. But Toronto, I mean, I love it with all my heart, is still viewed as paradise for white people. It’s funny, I watched this thing about Lake Shore yesterday, you know that new show?
Well I had to explain to everyone here in L.A. that Toronto isn’t just full of nerdy white guys. We have suburbs too. After Scott Pilgrim, everyone here thought Toronto was all Michael Ceras.
No, no. We have Turkish people! And Italian people! All rendered as the broadest imaginable cultural stereotypes!
That’s the great thing about Lake Shore—it really proves that no matter where in the world you come from, if you move to Toronto, your kids will become assholes. Multiculturalism at its worst! But still, Toronto is this amazing place where public schools work and public transit is fantastic and it really is this great mix of people and difference cultures. Despite all the criticism we might get, it’s still as close as you’ll get to a legitimately multicultural city anywhere in the world.
So what can Torontonians expect at the reading?
Oh, Torontonians get the special treatment. They’ll get the story of how everything got started, I’ll do a little reading, and then I’ll get really drunk.
It’s a bit of a homecoming too, because the bar is right in the neighbourhood you grew up, is it not?
Yeah! It’s the bar I used to drink at when I was eighteen. Well, try to. But I’d usually have to go to the Black Swan across the street.
Was it your decision to host it there? It seems like you could fill a bigger room than a pub?
No, it was Random House’s decision to host it there. But I couldn’t be happier. It’s such a positive environment to do it in. I couldn’t be happier.
Photo courtesy Christian Lander.
White Shades of Pale hits shelves November 23. Lander will be reading from his new book at the Dora Keogh Pub (141 Danforth Avenue) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 24. The reading is absolutely free.