November 16, 2010


Colorless, Tasteless but Not Dangerous: a review of WHITER SHADES OF PALE: The Stuff White People Like, Coast to Coast, From Seattle’s Sweaters to Maine’s Microbrews By Christian Lander (DWIGHT GARNER, 11/15/10, NY Times)

The conceit of Mr. Lander’s books is that he’s explaining, like some cross-cultural docent, the absurd cultural tastes of white people — in his universe they’re as skittish and insecure as they are hypocritical and self-satisfied — to baffled nonwhites. The white people under Mr. Lander’s microscope are emphatically not those who enjoy Nascar, Sarah Palin, bratwursts, deer hunting, Metallica or “Ice Road Truckers” in any way except ironically. People who do gravitate toward these sort of things, he warns, sotto voce, might be “the wrong kind of white person.”

“Stuff White People Like” contained mini-disquisitions on things like “Wes Anderson movies,” “hardwood floors,” “making you feel bad for not going outside,” “acoustic covers,” “carbon offsets,” “public radio,” “hating their parents,” “not having a TV” and “knowing what’s best for poor people.” Funny, but also shooting fish in a barrel.

In “Whiter Shades of Pale,” Mr. Lander’s targets are more far-flung, and it’s a treat to watch him take aim. He takes note of the industries, in addition to classical music, that survive solely on white guilt: “Penguin Classics, the S.P.C.A., free-range chicken farms, and the entire rubber bracelet market.” About the chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV show — during which Mr. Bourdain eats arcane dishes and complains about tourists — the author writes, “There hasn’t been a show this reaffirming to white people since ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

He explains sea salt’s current vogue: “When white people think about regular salt, all they can think about is sodium and poor health. When they think about sea salt they think about France.”

Many of his observations are more pointed. About picking your own fruit: “When white people harvest a crop it’s known as ‘berry picking.’ ” About flea markets: “Once again white people have taken over something that poor people used to like and made it extremely expensive.” At a “Mad Men” theme party, he says, “you can severely curtail the amount of fun by saying, ‘I’m glad this isn’t really 1960 or else I’d be serving all of you.’ ”

Mr. Lander displays little knowledge of whiteness studies as an academic field, nor does he evince any awareness of its classic texts, including Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” (1992) or David R. Roediger’s “Wages of Whiteness” (1991).

But his project does toy smartly with the relatively new notion that, as put by J. Craig Venter, among the first to sequence the human genome, “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one.” In Mr. Lander’s comic universe, the bar of entry into the white world is low and open to people of every race. You simply need to develop some slightly odd enthusiasms and deploy ease and irony whenever possible.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2010 6:22 AM
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