Christian Lander, author of the popular blog “Stuff White People Like,”spoke Sept. 17 in Rose Hills Theater about the role of humor in discussions of race. The event was sponsored by the Pomona Student Union as part of a year-long theme on media and the press. Lander has achieved international fame for his blog and his New York Times best-selling book based on it.
The blog began as an inside joke with friends in Jan. 2008. After only a month online, it was receiving hundreds of thousands of hits per day. Within five months, Lander had been signed by an agent and written a book, which became a best-seller by July 14. In August, Lander appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
“I just happen to be lucky enough that my sense of humor was shared by a lot of people,” he says of his blog.
Rose Hills was packed with students from all five Claremont Colleges. Some stood in the back of the theater while even more were turned away. Fatima Traore PO ’11 was one of the many students unable to get into the event when she arrived five minutes before the scheduled start time. She thought that because of the amount of advertising around campus, there should have been space for a larger audience.
Lander began by describing his experiences growing up in Toronto, Canada, which he described as an increasingly diverse city of middle-class, liberal-minded white people. Today Toronto is “one of the most multicultural cities on earth, according to the UN. We’re very proud of that fact,” he said.
“What had happened, especially as it concerns white people, is that in Toronto, through the prosperity of the city and just the natural proclivity of Canadians, all poor white people and conservative white people left the city,” Lander said. “So what that means is, growing up, these were the only white people I knew. At all.”
Lander explained how Stuff White People Like describes the tastes of middle-class North Americans. The generalizations made on his blog are not necessarily based on race, but on social class and opportunity.
“The thing that lies behind all of it, and this is where so much of the humor comes from, is privilege,” Lander said. “You don’t have to be white to be white, you just have to be rich.”
Unpaid internships and taking a year off—both listed on his blog—are examples of the luxuries white people enjoy because they are not preoccupied with satisfying more immediate needs, like food or housing.
He acknowledged how the white people he writes about are politically aware: they recycle, drink fair trade coffee, drive hybrid cars, eat organic food and embrace diversity “to find a way out of this guilt.” Lander did not deny that these are good things, but wants people to recognize that they are not making dramatic changes. He thinks people should keep doing these small things, but “stop patting yourselves on the backs so much for it.”
Lander told the audience that he commonly receives three criticisms, one of which is the assertion of elitism, which he considers valid. The second type of racism he faces is that he’s racist against white people. “A man in Canada actually reported me to a hate crimes commission,” he said.
A third criticism condemns him for using stereotypes. Although Lander believes people have the right to make fun of subcultures of which they are members, he thinks people need to make a conscious parody and be careful not to reinforce negative stereotypes.
Shannon McCarthy PZ ‘12 said he considers Lander’s usage of stereotypes acceptable because “they’re mostly just kind of quirks.”
Max Lebo PO ’12 found it odd that the PSU chose Lander to address racial issues because he considers Lander to be a normal person, no more qualified to speak on the subject than anyone else.
According to Lander, his talks are usually of a more light-hearted nature.
“I am a comedy writer first. Everything else comes second,” he said. “Writing about what you know—and believe me I know white people, if you can’t tell—is hugely important to finding success as a writer.”
Although the discussion revolved around a serious theme, Lander sprinkled in some humor.
“He used humor really well to captivate and entertain the audience and to get his points across,” said Ellie Lipton PI ’12. “It was a good mix of stand-up comedy and a serious discussion of race and class relations in America.”