Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Flap Copy Interview: Christian Lander

Last Tuesday, we hosted a booksigning for Christian Lander, author of the blog and subsequent book Stuff White People Like. A sizable and enthusiastic crowd stopped in to hear Lander talk about his unexpected rise to Internet fame, and then joined him afterward for drinks next door at Mac's Broiler & Tap, and even later at Four Peaks Brewery. He was generous enough to sit down with us pre-booksigning to answer a few questions about his taste in literature, Xbox, and the future for white people in a floundering economy.

Tessa: How would you define white people as they’re described in your book?

Christian Lander: You don’t have to be white to be "white," you just have to be rich. There’s the right kind of white people and the wrong kind of white people. Generally the white people I’m talking about are post-wealth. You don’t seriously worry about money if you spend your time pursuing being the most altruistic person possible or being artistic or being recognized as artistic.

Tessa: What are common misconceptions people read into the blog or book?

Lander: The people who need to have it cleared up are a really small minority. What’s amazing is that people look at the title and have one of two reactions. Either, “This is going to be really offensive and I’m going to get really upset” and then they look at it and they think “Oh shit, this is actually true,” or they look at it and they’re expecting “Stuff white people like: polo shirts, awkward dancing, mayonnaise.” You know what I mean? The old stereotypes that don’t apply or are so milked to death by really bad stand-up comics. And then they look at this and think “Oh, these aren’t the white people I’m used to seeing parodied; this is me.” Some people misinterpret it by thinking it means Stuff Only White People Can Like, implying this elitism. And that’s a mistake. Because this group I’m talking about are desperate to bring diversity into their friendships and into their class. They’re desperate to shed their elitist tag.

Tessa: But doesn’t the book also say that this group wants diversity, but only as long as they don’t have to step outside of their comfort zone? White people want diversity, but they don’t want to do anything too hard or painful to get it.

Lander: Yes, that's the hypocritical part that comes along with it. You always want to go to a place where you’re the only white person around -- except a nightclub.

Tessa: You said you didn’t meet your first Republican until you came to Arizona for graduate school. What are your experiences with the other half of white people, the social group your book doesn’t describe at all?

Lander: I also lived in Indiana, so I met a lot of other Republicans, and I met some eighteen-year-old Republicans. And that blew my mind. I didn’t understand how anyone can be 18 years old and that bitter. Don’t you want to save the world when you’re 18? I understand when you’re forty and sick of paying taxes. But at eighteen, don’t you want to help everybody? And I learned from my students really quickly -- no. So that was a bit of an eye-opener. And pretending to validate some of their opinions was very difficult. I had to be careful because if I attacked them instantly they were filled with this rage. Here’s this white liberal douchebag shutting me up. And then they get this feeling of victimhood again. I think that was what Sarah Palin was all about; about trying to tap into people who felt like they were being victimized by other white people. Victimized as stupid or as backwards or as racist, and they played into that. It worked, to an extent.

I have an entry in the book called "Knowing What’s Best for Poor People." That was what I learned living in Arizona and living in Indiana: that I really believed that if these people had the same education and money as me they’d be exactly like me. Its pretty fucking egotistical, right? My eyes were really opened to that, to the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of that, so that's why I try to point it out in the book.

Tessa: That was an entry that really stuck out for me. Most of the book is funny and light-hearted, but then every once in a while you point something out that rings as really uncomfortably true.

Lander: My favorite thing that someone can say about the book is I laughed at half of it and I cringed at the other half.

Tessa: Is the prognosis grim for white people now that the economy’s in a recession? They’ll have less money to spend on Apple products, and might suddenly be unable to afford being artists.

Lander: No this is perfect for white people, because its going to open up new neighborhoods to gentrify. And its going to drop property values, so you’re going to get more credibility for living in these neighborhoods again, and they’ll be gentrifying faster. Also, if you live in a city like New York or Chicago, you can stay while things get worse, while the other white people you hated leave to go back to the suburbs. So the neighborhoods will get rough again. White people want to be back in 1982 New York, and this is going to be the way to make it happen.

Tessa: What about white people in the age of Barack Obama? It was easy to be a white person during the Bush administration, when the country’s leader was a figure so easy to hate and want to distance yourself from. Now that person is Obama, who white people genuinely love but who they also aren’t allowed to hate.

Lander: The Bush thing is funny, because for eight years, white people felt oppressed. They felt like, I am oppressed in my own country, I’m not represented by my government, I’m going to pretend I’m Canadian when I go to Europe. So this one’s going to be interesting, it’s like you’ve got everything you want, and white people are never happy when they get everything they want. We have to wait just a little bit of time. Some people will figure out when they really push Obama on gay marriage that he never really supported it. Like, Oh my God, I wasn’t listening, I was too busy looking at the stickers. So the honeymoon will be over eventually.

Tessa: Would you mind telling us, since this is a bookstore blog, what you like to read?

Lander: It’s going to be as pretentious as you’d expect. I just read all the Douglas Coupland books: Generation X and Microserfs, Eleanor Rigby and Girlfriend in a Coma. I loved William Burroughs’ stuff before he started taking acid. If you read the compiled work of William Burroughs, you can see when he took his first hit of acid. Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote American Wife. She’s amazing. On the literature side I like really unpretentious writers who write in a really straightforward way that tells a story. Of course I read Michael Pollan’s stuff and Barbara Ehrenreich’s stuff. And I read a lot of books on Los Angeles history. Mike Davis wrote some books -- City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. No one in L.A. cares about L.A. history. L.A. history is like if a gas stationed opened in ’82. George Saunders, I like some of his stuff, sometimes it’s just a little too whimsical for me. Kurt Andersen -- I absolutely adore Kurt Andersen. He’s the guy who did Heyday and he was an editor at Spy back in the ‘80s. Spy magazine was The Onion before The Onion. It's beyond brilliant. And it’s actually discouraging to read because it’s so smart and bang-on hilarious.

Tessa: Give us an honest assessment of how white you are.

Lander: I wrote the book.

Tessa: So you would say most of the stuff applies to you?

Lander: Everything in there except the nature stuff. I don’t like camping or outdoor performance gear. I hate North Face stuff with a passion.

Tessa: Do you like expensive sandwiches?

Lander: I love expensive sandwiches. Tucson has some awesome expensive sandwiches. Bison Witches, that’s my favorite expensive sandwich in Tucson.

Tessa: Do you own a TV?

Lander: Of course. I play Xbox all the time.

Tessa: Do you have any entries on your blog on Xbox? Is that a white person thing?

Lander: Nintendo Wii is in there, that's a white person thing. Xbox bridges all cultures.

(Thanks for the photo, Sara!)

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