Unedited: An Interview with Christian Lander
February 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions presented in this interview are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the 138.
Photos by Michelle Mosqueda
The138: You have a new book out. What was the inspiration for the title Whiter Shades of Pale?
Christian Lander: Well, it actually came from a friend of mine who is an editor at Gotham Books. We were kicking titles around and he threw that one out. His name is Patrick Mulligan. He does the Chuck Norris books and he’s done a lot of really great Internet print books. He had the title idea. He’s a great guy. When he threw that one out I knew it was the one. Patrick Mulligan deserves all the credit. I’m more than happy to give it to him.
The138: What can we expect from the new book?
CL: The new book is more of the same [as Stuff White People Like] in some respects. It has the same kind of entries that the first book and the blog have. What we added was the regional guide with drawings of the regional white people from coast to coast. Some of the strengths, weaknesses, secret strengths, secret prides, things like that—and drawings outlining what they each person looks like.
The138: Do you feel any pressure with writing a second book?
CL: Yeah, of course. When the first one came out I thought it was going to be a failure. I never thought it would last this long. I never thought it would work out well. I thought everything was going to be taken away from me, that I would wake up one morning and someone would say, “Nope, it was all a joke. You can’t have any of this.”
I’ve always been ready for the other shoe to drop so that at least keeps me sane. I know how lucky I am. With Whiter Shades of Pale there was definitely some stress. I felt pressure to keep it up. I went in with realistic expectations. I know Whiter Shades of Pale couldn’t sustain the same type of momentum that Stuff White People Like did because of the speed of everything and the amount of media that was out here for it. With the second [book] all I could do is write as best I could, be as funny as I could and see what happened. So the book came out. It’s done pretty well. [It’s] growing in popularity. It got an amazing review in The New York Times, which is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me (laughs). So, that kind of alleviated the pressure.
The138: Stuff White People Like has been published on at least three continents. What do you think is the unifying factor?
CL: The unifying factor? Uh, white people are pretentious (laughs). That’s the unifying factor. I mean, that’s the whole book. So much humor comes from contradiction—the humor of someone believing one thing and completely going against it.
The lies white people tell themselves: how unique we are, how creative we are. Ultimately, the fact is we are doing all of this stuff out of ego and we don’t want to admit it. We’ll be the last ones to admit it’s all out of ego. When you do something that points it out, there is a humor to it because it’s true. Truth is such an essential part of comedy.
Really, [the unifying factor] is white people being pretentious, but more than anything it’s truth-based humor. That’s what great comedy is. All the best stand-up comics do it. They take something, look at it, and present in a different way and it’s hilarious. Louis C.K. does it. Chris Rock does it. All the great stand-ups do it. I think being able to find the nugget of truth you can expand out into a comedy concept is the key to anything working.
The138: Do you think being pretentious is just a “white thing?” Can you spot it in other cultures?
CL: It’s a class thing more than it’s a white thing, without a doubt. I have said before, “You don’t have to be white to be white. You just have to be rich.” It’s funny, when I explain that concept to people who aren’t white and grew up in an upper middle class environment they get it right away. “I may be Chinese but I am a pretentious white person.” Those are the [only] cultures to which I can really speak. I don’t really know how it works in, say, Indonesia or aboriginal cultures. I don’t really know what the “Whole Foods” equivalent is in Malaysia. I just know it’s very much a thing that comes with class and it comes with where we have reached in the world.
As white people, the amount of wealth we’ve accumulated is so much that we don’t really have any real concerns about the basic necessities of life. Worrying about rent, food—all things white people have not worried about for four generations. So instead, we practice self-induced poverty as white people. You know, grad students doing unpaid internships. It’s very much a white thing and it’s what happens when the pursuit of money is gone. You pursue something else, whether it’s artistic fulfillment, being seen as “progressive,” being seen as not racist, or being seen as helpful to the environment.
We are still competing with other white people; we just don’t compete over “crass” things like money anymore. We compete for cultural things. “Look how smart I am, look how many languages I speak, how many countries I have been to. Look how Eco-friendly my Prius is.” (Mine’s over there. It’s a used Prius, even more Eco-friendly than the other ones). We are more competitive than ever and what is amazing is we are using altruistic things.
I think vegetarianism is a great thing myself. It’s a good thing to cut down the amount of meat we are eating. But we still use that to compete! You win if you’ve cut more stuff out of your diet. “Oh what, you’re vegan, you’re not gluten free?” We are still competing; that drive is there and we have transposed it. Instead of wealth it’s all these other things.
Ultimately, the end result is the same: “Look at me. Look how great I am.” That’s what’s behind all of it. That’s what the joke is. That’s where so much of the humor comes from; when you’re doing altruistic things for selfish reasons you are doing something that is inherently good for your ego, which violates the entire spirit of charity. That’s what’s so funny. I am guilty of it. That’s the other thing that comes with the book: the self-resignation. I do it; that’s why I pointed out my Prius to you guys. I do it myself and I don’t think I can change. I don’t know what the alternative is. I’m not going to become a Republican (laughs). I don’t know what I am to do otherwise, so there is a resignation and a self-loathing that comes out. I am guilty of all these things too. I am not just pointing and being critical, I am saying look at what an asshole I am.
The138: I’ve heard you say before that people have called Stuff White People Like racist because it points out stereotypes in culture.
CL: Well, it’s funny. I always say that there is never a scenario where it’s not okay to make fun of white people. If you’re ever in a situation where you’re like, “Should I make fun of white people?” Do it! Always do it. Here’s the reason why: there is no derogatory term that hurts a white person. If you call a white person a honky or a cracker, that white persons says, “Yes! This is what oppression feels like! Soak it in!” It doesn’t really hurt because it’s not based on anything. White people, for the most part, have never experienced true suffering as a race, and whatever we have has worked out great. The potato famine sucked for Ireland, don’t get me wrong, but it worked out great! People in Ireland work ten hours a week now and have all these vacations and all the Irish in America are doing fine. The scars of the past are very thin ones compared to that of other races. So that’s the reason why it’s always okay to make fun of white people.
The138: How do you think political correctness effects the conversation of race in America?
CL: So many times people want to put the blame of our inability to talk about race in America on the political Right. They say, “Oh, it’s racist Republicans! They’re the problem!” Not true at all. Malcolm X brilliantly said he would rather talk to a Klansman than a liberal because at least the Klansmen is honest. I was in grad school at the time I read that and it really resonated. I would be sitting in these grad classes where everyone would say exactly the same thing. People were too afraid to say anything different, anything that might possibly get them called a racist. They would just shut up.
So you have these thoughts inside that might be “racist” and you just bottle them up and say, “Look at me, I’m a progressive liberal. Blah blah blah but I’m not going to send my kids to public school.” You’re going to make up all these lies about why you won’t send your kids to public school. But race is a key part of it and you won’t say it? You don’t progress. You’re paying fake lip service when you still have these tendencies inside.
We have this huge problem on the Left of people being too afraid of being called racist to actually say what’s on their mind. So many of the institutions we have—I noticed this especially during my time grad school—are just pushing this liberal, uniformed thought onto everyone. I think that shuts down dialogue as much as anything else.
One of the things I hope comes from the book is recognition that we as liberals spend too much time blaming the Right—especially with what just happened in Tucson, Arizona. “They are the ones with their rhetoric! They are the ones who caused all this.” The truth is the Left is as close-minded as the Right. I would hope that the book points out some of these contradictions and that people will stop patting themselves on the back for a minute and just listen and try to figure it out.
The138: You mentioned Chris Rock earlier. I feel like you have a black comic’s approach to race, which is to say you approach it an obvious and explicit manner. How did you get this sense of bravado?
CL: I don’t know if it’s bravado. I think so much of it comes from growing up in Toronto, Canada. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. Different languages are spoken everywhere. The difference between Canada and America is America was the melting pot and we [Canada] preserved all the other cultures. My high school was made up of kids who were first generation immigrants from China, Sri Lanka, Africa, and Eastern Europe. We also had third generation Asians, Indians, and Africans who had acquired wealth in Canada and sort of became white. So the group of friends that I went to high school with was this amazing mix. Everyone was there together.
Our friends would get together and ethnic slurs would just go everywhere. Just left and right. No one got upset because they knew that deep down that we didn’t really believe [the slurs]. We would have fun playing around with it because we knew each other so well. Because we had grown up with each other we had a really strong understanding of everyone’s culture. We would have dinner at their houses. We would have a sleepover and learn different things about everyone’s culture. We just grew up with it. We were always aware of [race] and we were never taught to ignore it.
The138: White guilt. White shame. White pride. How are they created and what sustains them?
CL: White shame and white pride are created through the history of the planet. Sometimes people say, “Slavery was 200 years ago. I don’t know how that affects me. I don’t own slaves. My dad didn’t own slaves.” You end up having to get into an argument with these…they’re idiots. There is no other way to put it. Saying that when slavery ended everything was fine is the most ridiculous thing ever. That’s like saying you are going to run an eight hundred meter race and white people are going to start at the six hundred mark, black people are going to start at the zero mark and since the gun goes off at the same time, everything is fair. That’s not how it works.
Look at Congress. Look at the richest people in the world. Look at the richest countries in the world. White wealth and white affluence didn’t come about through being kind. We generated wealth through trading human beings, through colonization and atrocities. To fail to recognize that is the most ridiculous thing ever. As a white person, I don’t know how you can’t be filled with that guilt. You definitely have the guilt, especially if you’re on the Left and you’d like to one day possibly do something about it with a history degree. I’m not sure how you can be Right wing and have a history degree, at least not with any [history majors] I’ve known.
The other thing is we are inherently a guilty people. We have Catholic guilt. White guilt, wasp guilt. It’s always there and then if you have any form of success it’s hard not to feel guilty about it. “Why me? Why did I get all these advantages?” The way I see it, you have two options: either you are filled with guilt or you say, “I worked for what I have, so screw everyone. I don’t want to pay taxes.” We usually take the guilt side.
White pride, that’s a different world. It’s very strange when people take some pride in [Stuff White People Like]. I’m not really writing about a culture here. I am writing about a shopping list. You can’t take pride in our race. You don’t do that. We have to take pride in ourselves and our gifted children and our dogs. You can’t in any way say I am proud to be white and get away with it. That’s not how we roll.
The138: Shouldn’t you be allowed to? I can say I’m proud to be black in a very casual manner.
CL: Here’s the thing, there was a time when you would feel ashamed to be black, when you weren’t proud of it, when you wished you were something else. For any group that had a period where you felt ashamed of your race, you should be proud now in hopes to make up for the past. There has never been a period where people felt ashamed to be white. The closest thing we had was that in the past people would change their name if it sounded too Jewish to something that sounds a little “waspier.” I mean that’s the closest, or something too Italian to sound more “American”. But ultimately at the end of the day, with that kind of change you became a “white American.” Your “Italian-ness” went with the change of your name.
I guess you can be proud of some things. I guess we use the World Cup as an opportunity to be proud of things. “Oh my grandfather was from Finland and my grandfather was from England so…Go England!” That’s about as close as we are going to get. It’s hard to be proud if you are familiar with the history of our race. I mean, we did some great things, don’t get me wrong. We did some good shit but we also did a lot of horrible shit too. So, you have to find a balance. It’s safer to err on the side of, “Yeah we did some good stuff but we also did some terrible stuff.” It sort of balances out.
The138: So there’s a balance you hope to strike? I’m sure you don’t go around everyday whipping your back.
CL : No no no. It depends on what I’m watching (laughs). It depends on what documentaries are on. If there’s a story about Andrew Jackson then, yeah, I whip my back a little bit.
The138: The world is changing. I don’t know how often I’ve heard in the last five years, “China! China is developing! China is coming!” Other countries like China that were formerly Third World nations are taking a more prominent place in the global market and on the world scene. How do you think this will affect white culture?
CL: Here is my belief on it. The same debate came about a hundred and twenty years ago when Europe was saying, “America! America!” America was a scare. [America] had cheaper labor, looser regulations, all this stuff. It all worked out fine for Europe (smiles). Europeans get six weeks of paid vacation, they work less hours than anybody else. So that’s what I’m hoping is going to happen with America (laughs). That we’re going to become the next Europe and it’s going to be awesome.
I mean I don’t know. If the world lasts that long it will be great; we’ll see what will happen. I have no idea what will happen but I can predict without a doubt that white people are going to be fine.
Christian Lander’s latest book, Whiter Shades of Pale: The Stuff White People Like, Coast to Coast from Seattle’s Sweaters to Maine’s Microbrews is in bookstores now.