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!”
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.