Acknowledging privilege the first step toward creating a more equal society.

The Single Narrative of Stuff White People Like

5 comments

Recently, my friend Cara–one of my favorite climbing, adventuring and trip planning partners–came over to vent about her father. She was in the long process of interviewing for a nursing position at the hospital, and her father had tried to help by asking her potential interview questions. I poured her a glass of wine and listened eagerly. I love father-daughter conversations because my relationship with my father has always been strange and filled with bizarre interactions. Listening to stories of my friends’ fathers helps me put my own story into perspective, and reminds me that the fairy tale father-daughter narrative (complete, of course, with a teary-eyed proud poppa walking his daughter dressed in white down the aisle) is not the only father-daughter narrative in this country.

“He kept asking me leading questions about why the hospital should hire me,” Cara said. I bobbed my head up and down, listening, but also wondering why she didn’t find that helpful. She could tell I was missing her point.

“He wanted me to say they should hire me because I’m a minority!” she blurted out. “He wanted me to say that because I’m Mexican I’ve had to work a lot harder than my classmates!”

I understood her point this time, and I thought about how she made a mean plate of enchiladas but didn’t speak a word of Spanish.

“I mean, look at me!” she said, waving her hands down her body. She was wearing–as usual–a really cute pair of yoga pants and a Prana (or maybe Patagonia) tank top. “That list about Stuff White People Like, that list is about me!”

Click on the image to view the definitive list of What White People Like
Click on the image to view the definitive list of What White People Like

I had to laugh, because it was true: she’s liberal, spends all her free time and money recreating outside, owns a MacBook Air, drives a Subaru, goes to yoga classes regularly and is extremely health food conscious. And she’ll tell you, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

When I was done laughing, I said: “I bet it was a lot different for your dad.” Her dad had put himself through law school almost forty years ago. He had worked really hard to give his children the American Dream, and I wondered if he realized how well he had succeeded. I wanted to ask Cara about this, but I could tell she wanted me to listen and not ask too many questions in the heat of her frustration.

“I mean, I’ve worked hard,” she said, “but not any harder than any of my classmates.” In just one generation, the narrative of Cara’s family had changed radically, and it made me wonder if the narrative had changed so quickly that perhaps her father hadn’t realized it.

The author of Rhetoric of the Empire, David Spurr, explains that culture is no longer “a unified and coherent construct” but instead “an ongoing phenomenon” shaped by the similarities and differences within a group of people. From my position as an observer and listener, it seemed like Cara’s father was projecting onto his daughter his narrative as a minority who had had to work extra hard to earn his privilege in the United States, while his daughter was identifying herself as different from him and similar to the tongue-in-cheek Stuff White People Like culture. As I listened, another big difference between Cara’s narrative and her father’s stood out to me. As a lawyer, he worked really hard and didn’t leave time to relax, have fun and take care of himself. Cara worried about his health and his happiness, and she had chosen a drastically different path for herself. She had chosen nursing because she enjoyed helping people, but also because the lifestyle–three days on four days off–meant she would have a lot of time to go on climbing trips.

Cara’s use of the Stuff White People Like list to identify herself adds another awesome level of complexity to this conversation. In an NPR interview from back in 2008, the author of the book (and the list by the same name), Christian Lander, explains he loves the title Stuff White People Like because it offends some people and opens the door for important conversations about race. For example, when a person writes on his blog they are offended by the list because they are white and do not identify with the list, he is able to reply that, yes, sweeping generalizing about someone’s race are offensive. Here’s a link to the full http://www.npr.org/player/embed/93962369/94200905“>NPR interview.

I watched a TED Talk last night (TED Talks are on the Stuff White People Like list, just FYI, and Cara and I both love them) about the danger of listening to only one narrative. The woman giving the talk explains how listening to only one story or narrative about a group of people perpetuates stereotypes, and she gives many examples of how people from within the same group divide themselves by listening to only one narrative about different subgroups. In the end, this is what I appreciate the most about the Stuff White People Like list. Through humor, Christian Lander is forcing anyone who comes into contact with the list to think about the impact–and ridiculousness–of sweeping generalizations and a single cultural narrative. And at the same time, he’s making those of us who fall into stereotypes on the list think a bit more critically about our actions.

5 comments on “The Single Narrative of Stuff White People Like”

  1. Chase,

    What a clever mix of several perspectives: yours, as the observer, Cara’s, as the liberal daughter, Cara’s father, as the misunderstanding old-school generation, and Lander’s ironic address of race and culture.

    I know I would enjoy an expansion of your thoughts (or Cara’s) on what culture movement Cara feels most connected to…while you gave great references (hipster liberal to overworked Republican) to it, I would love to hear how this narrative, often so common amongst separate generations, perhaps plays out on the larger scale of America. I’d also like to hear about YOUR thoughts and perceptions of the situation; as we’ve been learning, the narrator and observer bring something to the table when presenting the facts.

    I think you were right on the money when you applied Spurr’s idealization concept to Cara’s situation…the father is trying to see what he wants to see, what his own values and ideals are…and

    This summarized it really well: “From my position as an observer and listener, it seemed like Cara’s father was projecting onto his daughter his narrative as a minority who had had to work extra hard to earn his privilege in the United States, while his daughter was identifying herself as different from him and similar to the tongue-in-cheek Stuff White People Like culture.”

    Thanks for sharing, and I enjoyed it so much!

    Katrina

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  2. Your title made me want to read this post right away. I do love that list. It made the rounds when I was in Teach for America and we were so often discussing and living the rhetoric of race in America as teachers whose students were nearly 100% people of color, usually in areas of the country far from our own and working with people from all over the place and from many different cultural and racial backgrounds – but most of whom could see the humor in a book flattening the typical whites into a handy guidebook of likes and dislikes.

    I also love getting the chance to eavesdrop on a father daughter talk. They are never simple. I wonder if that is really what her father wanted her to say? It doesn’t seem exceedingly likely that you have his side of the story, but I think his side would make the telling even richer. I mean it is a common question, why should I hire you? Yet I don’t know many parents who would tell their children to work the race card in an interview, if for no other reason than its obvious backfiring potential. It would be interesting to know if that was his intent, or what made Cara so sure that was his intent.

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  3. Katrina,
    I really like how you take a silly list and use it to develop an argument about the power of a single story and how our we identify people and cultures. I agree with your last point that these lists can be seen as a message of how ridiculous our stereotypes are, and also a message directed to those who embody most of those stereotypes to think about how they are consciously or unconsciously supporting the single story.

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  4. Hi Chase,

    I really enjoyed your story and how the your experiences tie in directly with the readings. You make an excellent point about the perspective of your friend’s father versus your friend. It is sad to hear about the challenges that he faced so long ago, and so wonderful to hear that his daughter did not experience them, and that you guys can laugh about race with a very funny book. I read that book a number of years ago in a book club with my department. It was doubly fun when we would decided who was the whitest based on the topics. Was it inappropriate, sure. But not one was offended and it did make for interesting conversation.

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