Marked for Race: Stuff White People Like and the future of race in America

The blog “Stuff White People Like” has been experiencing a lot of success recently, as author (and white person) Christian Lander has made the New York Times bestseller list with a paperback version of the site. For a long time I have had a problem with his brand of mean-spirited self-righteous sarcasm, but it is only recently that I have been able to pin down what about the site bothers me so much. My aversion to Stuff White People Like can be explained through the sociolinguistic concept of markedness, which is easy to grasp and extremely useful. 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 a native English speaker, to be unaccented (which is really just saying to be unmarked with respect to accent), to be straight, and to be white, among other things. 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.

In August, 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, or that all races including whites will become marked. And what would the marked white identity look like? Probably a lot like the subject of Stuff White People Like.

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; 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 the battle for our national soul between colorblindness and racialism, Stuff White People Like is counterproductive. We may have no chance of achieving a truly raceless society by 2050, and many Americans may not want to, but at the least we could set ourselves moving in the right direction by renouncing stereotyping and prejudice.