PORTLAND—On Monday, I donned my necessary white person accessories—scarf and peacoat—and headed to the night’s ultimate urban event: a book signing by Christian Lander of the website-turned-book-deal Stuff White People Like. Lander is in the middle of a cross-country tour with his best friend and blogging buddy Myles Valentin. Naturally, his journey of cultural satire brings him here, to “The Whitest Metropolis in America.”
Powell’s Books, the city’s hippest literary legend, is as crowded as it can be without anyone invading anyone else’s personal space bubble. Apparently, white people also like arriving early. There’s a handwritten sign on the door that says the event is closed, but I am undeterred. My friend Rachel is camped out in Paranormal Romance, but I choose to listen in from the Children’s Section. I press my ear to a large display of Harold and his purple crayon..
When I do catch a glimpse of him, Lander is a bit scruffier than I expected. He looks like Seth Rogen, but with lighter hair and glasses. He compliments Portland, invites everyone to have drinks at a pub across the street after the signing, (see #23, Microbreweries) and begins his story of blogger stardom.
In the middle of a Ph.D. in film studies, Lander realized that his students and colleagues were locked in a mental cage-match of judgment. Everyone was competing over things that didn’t really matter—like how many languages their kids spoke or what “corporate sell out” bands they were currently not listening to. The people who spent the most time talking about class and race were upper class white people who knew nothing about minorities. One look in the mirror confirmed Lander’s participation in the elitist rat race, so he quit. Just ten months later, Lander’s Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions is currently #35 on the New York Times’ list of bestselling nonfiction paperbacks, and his website has logged over forty million hits.
Lander isn’t an obvious choice for a crusader against the politically-correct establishment. He grew up in Toronto, and admits that he met his first conservative at twenty-two. And yet, he’s as honest and straight-shooting as Sarah Palin. “It’s stupid,” he exclaims, “I can’t stop being a pretentious idiot.”
He transitions from background information into excerpts from the book. He reads “Portland, Oregon,” “Bicycles,” “Public Transit That Is Not A Bus,” and “Being The Only White Person Around,” then hands the microphone to Miles, who adds the duo’s most controversial entry, “Asian Girls.” They laugh and both insist that the topic is far more sexist than racist.
When Lander opens up the floor up for questions, I squeeze around a bookshelf and join the action in the front corner of the room. If I had come here looking for a date, I would have been disappointed. Most of the people here seem to be over thirty, with only a handful in my decade. The youngish crowd is either here with a girlfriend or sporting a beard ala Sam Beam. Behind me in the Children’s section there’s a woman perched on a foot high chair, voting. How white is that: actually voting for Barack Obama at an event for white people! (See #8, Barack Obama.)
Lander answers a few questions about his childhood and education, and insists like a traveling pro that Portland is his favorite stop on the tour so far. When he puts out the last call, I finally get up my faux-journalist nerve and raise my hand. It’s a tie between me and an older lady in the front row. Lander is momentarily torn, so I offer, “I have bangs and a scarf!” Clearly, I win. (See #104, Girls with Bangs, and #97, Scarves.)
So what’s his hope for this whole conversation? I ask. Does he believe we can achieve cultural change or are we doomed to eternal snobbery? Lander’s answer is consistent with the tone of his observations, which generally invite more laughter than guilt: “I don’t really know. I just hope I stop being such an a—hole.”
Emily Maynard, a recent graduate of Hillsdale College, lives in Portland.
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