On Race, Markedness, and Stuff White People Like

Many of you will be familiar with the blog Stuff White People Like. For a long time I have had a problem with it, but it is only recently that I have been able to pin down what about the site bothers me so much. I had thought before that it might be its mean-spiritedness; hiding self-righteous moralizing behind a veneer of sarcasm doesn’t make it any nicer. I also knew the race factor played into it somehow. Clearly the author, Christian Lander (who, it is often noted, is white), does not actually mean all Caucasians when he says “white.” He doesn’t even mean Caucasian Americans. For example, although John McCain is ahead by 8 points among non-Hispanic whites, Barack Obama is listed as a Thing White People Like. So if nothing else, there is the problem of inaccuracy, which pervades the site (“this blog is not filled with hateful or negative stereotypes and it’s not meant to incite anger or demean white people.“)

But in reality it’s a far greater problem than that. I figured out the other day that my aversion to Stuff White People Like can be explained through the sociolinguistic concept of markedness. Wikipedia calls markedness “a very fuzzy notion”; that may be, but it’s also easy to grasp and extremely useful. It is easiest to explain through examples. Linguistically speaking, the unmarked form is the least specific. An example from English is the words “lion,” “lioness,” and “cub.” The first is unmarked: it could refer to a male or a female of any age. The latter two are marked for gender and maturity, respectively.

Socially speaking, societies tend to have an unmarked identity for a range of characteristics. For example, in modern, continental America, it is unmarked to be white, to be a native English speaker, to be unaccented (which is really just saying to be unmarked with respect to accent), and to be straight, among other things. All of this is highly contingent and historically specific, of course. Some relatively obvious examples: in Ancient Greece, which we culturally trace our descent from, it would be marked for a man to be “straight,” in the modern sense. 200, 100, or even 50 years ago it would have been unmarked to be Protestant; now, I would argue, it would be more accurate to say it is unmarked to be Christian. It is important not to confuse the unmarked identity with the majority (or plurality) identity, although understandably they often coincide. In colonial Algiers, for example, it might have been unmarked to be white and a native French speaker.

Here, though, the end of my knowledge on the topic is in sight. Must the unmarked identity coincide with the socially dominant identity? I imagine not, but I couldn’t provide any examples, except maybe China during the very early Qing dynasty. In communities within a society that share markedness with respect to some characteristic, does that marked characteristic become unmarked, and the externally unmarked marked, within those communities? Not necessarily. My linguistics professor last spring, who was from largely unaccented Maryland, was married to a Southerner. When they went to visit her family in Texas, he claimed they intensified their accents around him—not the action of a group who considered themselves unmarked with respect to accent, and not the action of a Maryland family confronted with a Texan.

As I mentioned before, white people are unmarked for race in present-day continental America (I think it may be different in Hawaii). But what does this mean? And what does “white” mean? It hasn’t always meant the same thing, that’s for sure. Americans of Irish, German, Mediterranean, and especially Jewish descent would not have been considered “white” 150 years ago. Today all are considered white, although under some circumstances they can still be “ethnic”—which is, incidentally, a very revealing term used to mean “marked for ethnicity.” George W. Bush is not “ethnic,” Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably not “ethnic,” and Borat Sagdiyev is definitely “ethnic,” but they are all white. Looking ahead into the future, it has been observed that Asians, once excluded, are gradually being absorbed into the unmarked “white” identity. (For skeptics, that link has some great documentation of this claim. And as further proof, not only are Asian girls listed as item #11 on Stuff White People Like, white guys are item #38 on Stuff Asian People Like.) Imagine someone “acting Asian” (Asian-American, not Asian tourist); now imagine a black person “acting white.” See much of a difference? I doubt it.

This last point is revealing. When a black person “acts white,” all that really means is that he or she is failing to “act black.” Historically, “white” and “black” in America have been the two poles of American racial identity. Like the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Marxian dialectic, over time they absorb other groups into themselves. If I were to say that I went to a meeting the other day and I was the only white person there, more likely than not your mental picture would be of an entirely African-American crowd. Likewise if I said I went to a meeting the other day and I was the only black person there, you would assume that the crowd was mostly, if not entirely, white. (This also relates to the linguistic concept of implicature.) As mentioned before, American history is full of formerly marked racial identities being absorbed into the unmarked white identity. It is a bit harder to find examples of racial identities being subsumed into blackness, but I think this may be happening to some extent today with Hispanics, particularly Mexican-Americans. At the Green Party convention this past summer, as at many other liberal events, there were many mentions of “browns and blacks.” It might be interesting to speculate on why it is so rare for racial identities to be subsumed into blackness, and why it is happening now with Latinos, but that is a little far off track.

Last month, the U.S. Census released a set of provocative projections that attracted a lot of media attention. According to these projections, non-Hispanic whites will cease to make up the majority of the population in 2042. By 2050, only 46% of the country will be white, compared to the 2008 figure of 66%—news that predictably sounded alarm bells in some of the more right-wing sectors of the Internet. Looking ahead 42 years into the future, what will America’s racial identities be like in 2050? Two possibilities are that races will no longer be strongly marked, and that all races including whites will become marked.

Let’s examine those possibilities one by one. Is there any reason to believe that something as elemental and contentious as race in our society could ever lose its power to mark? Yes, there is evidence. For centuries religion divided Europe and America—even in colonial Maryland, relatively tolerant for America at the time, multiple small wars were fought between Catholics and Protestants. Today Joe Biden’s Catholicism is just another factoid, like his birthplace of hellish Scranton, Pennsylvania, that might appeal to a small slice of backwards swing voters. If it can happen with religion, there is at least a chance it could happen with race. Perhaps someday, while engaged in a civil war against those with a different haircut or those who prefer chunky to creamy peanut butter, we will look back and laugh that something as minor as skin color once had the power to divide us.

So it seems there could be a society without much marking for race. Could there be a society without an unmarked identity for race? Here I am on shakier ground, but I think, according to orthodox sociolinguistic theory, it is possible to have all alleles for a given identity marked. Assuming such a society is possible, what would the marked white identity look like? Probably a lot like the subject of Stuff White People Like.

And at long last we return to my point: Stuff White People Like is bad because it pushes us towards that latter possibility and encourages racialism. The white identity that emerges from the website is more or less an educated, emasculated, liberal yuppie. The fact that this does not describe most white people is not a problem, as a commenter on the website demonstrates. After all, black stereotypes may not describe most black people, but a young black man is still expected to “act black.” Of course, Stuff White People Like alone does not have the power to propel us anywhere (despite its unfortunate popularity), and I doubt the stereotype that emerges of white people came as a surprise even to readers unfamiliar with the website, a sign that it is already taking hold somewhat in our collective consciousness. But there is no doubt that Stuff White People Like is not helping.

In conclusion, in the battle for our national soul between colorblindness and racialism, Stuff White People Like is a little devil perched on our left shoulder jabbing us in the neck with a pitchfork. We may have no chance of achieving a truly raceless society by 2050, and many Americans may not want to, but in the interest of preventing the next generation’s social ills, spend your time on something more worthwhile than Stuff White People Like.

Questions for commenters: Why might a colorblind society not be a good thing? Do you think Hispanics are being subsumed into blackness? Do you see a trend in the proliferation of subnationalisms in recent decades, from cultural shows to devolution?

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9 Responses to “On Race, Markedness, and Stuff White People Like”

  1. Isn’t it possible that “Stuff White People Like” is in a way lampooning the whole idea of racial stereotyping? It seems to me that what’s implicit in the concept is that you couldn’t have something called “What Black People Like” and get away with it. It wouldn’t be politically acceptable to make those kinds of generalizations about blacks–even if there were a grain of truth to them — because it’s been ingrained in us that you can’t DO that to a racial minority that has a history of oppression based on stereotype. Is it possible that “Stuff White People Like” is (whether consciously or not) pointing out the absurdity of making those sorts of generalizations about ANY racial group?

    Also, I’m curious as to why you use the word “emasculated” to describe the group described by “Stuff White People Like” (“The white identity that emerges from the website is more or less an educated, emasculated, liberal yuppie”). Isn’t this a rather “marked” term itself? Are you including female educated, liberal yuppies here? What exactly do you mean by “emasculated” in this context?

  2. I definitely do not think that “Stuff White People Like” is consciously pointing out the absurdity of making those sorts of generalizations about any racial group. If you look at this Q&A on their website (scroll down a bit), the creator says, “It’s partially about race, but it’s fundamentally about class. It’s about a generation and class that values authenticity and credibility more than monetary wealth.” As I said before, what they are really describing on the site is “an educated, emasculated, liberal yuppie.” But by using the term “white” to tie this stereotype together, they are creating (or reinforcing) associations. I do not think most of the site’s fans (some of whom I’ve talked to) see it as a lampoon of anything other than whiteness. Regardless, if the site was unintentionally “pointing out the absurdity of making those sorts of generalizations,” I hardly see how it would matter.

    In defense of my use of “emasculated,” I have two things to say. First, the “white people” the blog is about are always either men or couples, never women. Looking over the complete list of Stuff White People like, which has 110 items, I count 2 that are without a doubt aimed at men (Girls with Bangs and the aforementioned Asian Girls), and none for women. But second of all, “emasculated” is metaphorical, in the sense “deprived of strength, vigor, or spirit.”

  3. I wonder about your conjecture that, if “whiteness” becomes marked in the future, its characteristics would look something like the characteristics on “Stuff White People Like.” I think it just as likely that the characteristics would be more like the characteristics brought to mind by NASCAR, football, a certain kind of rock music, home shopping network, and tailgate parties — characteristics of a different social class from that represented on SWPL. It seems to me that SWPL is not so much an index of potential characteristics of a white marked identity, as an index of upper-middle-class white society’s preferences.

  4. That’s an interesting point. Technically I didn’t say that if whites become marked, the stereotypical white will be the White of Stuff White People Like; I just said the site was moving us in the direction of markedness for whites (and thereby everyone). Could SWPL contribute to moving us towards a future where whites are marked as NASCAR lovers, even though SWPL uses an opposite stereotype? I don’t know the answer to that question.

    With that having been said, I’d say there’s already a label for the people you’re describing: rednecks (although I don’t know if they watch HSN). Since there isn’t as ready a label for the latte-sipping whites of SWPL, I think it would be easier to pin a new label on them–a label like “white.” After all, not all black people are poor, but the stereotype persists nonetheless.

    Perhaps rednecks will someday be viewed as a minority alongside blacks and Hispanics, and as opposed to whites (including Asians and perhaps South Asians). After all, there is no such thing, objectively, as a “race,” and thus there is no scientific argument for maintaining SWPL whites and rednecks as a single race. I wouldn’t be surprised if, within my lifetime, intermarriage between SWPL whites and Asians or SWPL whites and blacks becomes more common (if it isn’t already) than intermarriage between SWPL whites and rednecks.

  5. I’m a bit removed from academia, so Vicente may be able to address this question better than I can, but it’s my understanding that there’s a new academic field of “whiteness studies,” or something along those lines. How does SWPL fit into that, I wonder?

  6. The first hit Google turns up for “whiteness studies” is a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee website. Look around on that page and you’ll find this email exchange. The first email there looks almost as if it could come from a future wherein white had become marked. However, something about it gave me a suspicion; I checked, and sure enough the European American Issues Forum, which the author claims to be the Boston representative of, is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist hate group. It is interesting that, for now, the only groups that would use language like that (“We are, after all, a legitimate ethnic groups [sic] with diversity within our own culture, Germanic, Celtic, Swedish, etc.”) seem to be white supremacists. I remember being annoyed by the Black Students Union in high school, which received over an hour of everyone’s time every year to put on an infuriatingly stupid production with nothing new to say. I considered starting a White Students Union–not an original idea–to protest this state of affairs, but I didn’t in part because I was concerned about the consequences. It is an unfortunate fact that white supremacists have, at the moment, a near-monopoly on protesting the inequality that everyone except whites is allowed to have not only a racial identity but help from above–be it school or government–in displaying that identity to others.

    To return to the point, I think whiteness studies is generally the study of white racism, which sets it far apart from other ethnic studies. I would hope that someday, in a color-blind society where race is unmarked, whiteness studies would wither away along with the various ethnic studies, although for somewhat different reasons. I hope for the end of racial identities.

  7. I applaud your effort to overturn the hierarchy of race that currently exists in Western thought. I am working on a similar project with gender (I am hoping for an eventual end to this idea of binary “gender”). However, as a person who studies masculinities in my project of deconstructing gender, I have to disagree with your aversion to studying whiteness (not that I am championing StuffWhitePeopleLike, which is a very problematic site). Have you read Luce Irigaray’s The Sex Which is Not One?” Also, have you studied deconstruction? My current opinion is that if we are going to make any headway toward a world without gender, we first have to go through a stage in which we examine masculinity, the currently unmarked gender position. I am wondering, as a serious scholar who is not looking for easy answers or to simply argue, what would a project look like that did not go through a stage of deconstruction before attempting a project in which nothing in a given problematic category (race, class, gender, sexuality) was marked? Is your project even possible? Is mine?

  8. Blush,
    I wouldn’t say, exactly, that I have an aversion to studying whiteness. What I said before was that I hope it eventually withers away along with its subject matter, racial identity. However, I’m very open to the idea that whiteness studies is a necessary step on the path to a future where race is unmarked. As I have been conceiving it, that future would be primarily brought about by a resolution of the tension between the present competing ideologies of human equality and separate-but-equal multiculturalism (as opposed to melting-pot multiculturalism). But there’s no reason whiteness studies couldn’t contribute to the resolution of that tension.

    I have not read Luce Irigaray’s “The Sex Which Is Not One,” but I will add it to my reading list. I would be interested to hear more about your project of deconstructing gender. How do you conceive of your unmarked future?

  9. […] Race and Ethnicity In my first post on this blog, I mentioned the fluidity of racial categories over time. Now I’d like to build on that by […]

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