Let’s assume, for the moment, that you are an extraterrestrial, and that one morning you wake up transformed into a being from Earth. Unfortunately, you have not turned into something richly awesome, such as a plague virus or Lara Croft or a giant cockroach. Instead, you’ve morphed into a white guy. You are supplied with some tools for your new existence: a pair of khaki shorts, a John Cougar Mellencamp album, a swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, a large order of fries, and a tendency to meddle in other people’s cultures. Even so equipped, you know you will need help in this Seinfeldesque new world (the white guy always asks himself: what would Jerry do?). Like any white guy, you look around for a manual.
Enter Stephen Hunt. His new book, The White Guy: A Field Guide, will help you get out there and understand Planet Pale – lawnmowers, Cheetos, and all.
Few white guys are better qualified than Hunt to produce a reference work that is “part memoir, part confessional, part apology to the rest of the planet.” White-as-they-come Hunt was raised in 1970s Winnipeg – a city that he maintains was the second-whitest on Earth (after Brandon, Manitoba) – where he was fed a steady diet of muscle cars and Whitesnake records.
After Hunt spent some time trying to live the bohemian life and write angsty literature in New York City, a thunderbolt struck him: wasn’t he, instead of an outlaw or a doomster, a wisecracking white guy in a privileged white-guy world? And wouldn’t it be funny to examine the natural history of the white guy, and throw in a few laughs?
Written in a kind of Comedy Central-meets-Wikipedia style, The White Guy tracks the species from the Stone Age to the decline of Bush: clothes, cuisine, habitat, mating habits, political systems, spiritual beliefs, and – as a white guy no doubt first added – so much more. Hunt is not just indulging in cheap shots (although that’s part of the fun) – he’s here to talk about the personal and collective psychology of white guys, the methods they have devised to spin the big historical narratives and embody “normal society,” and why it is a very, very good thing that times are changing. As the author acknowledges, the book is as much a farewell to white dominance as it is an analysis of it. (It may also be part of a mini-trend: the similarly themed website “Stuff White People Like” has spawned its own book, to be published later this year.)
As Hunt notes, the world is not crying out for more thoughts from white guys. However, what the world does need is the ability to identify and nail white guy ways – then and only then can everyone else get together and stop the madness: “Don’t you think it’s about time we studied ourselves? “Hunt asks. “Non-white guys and non-guys have been studying us for years, mostly because if they didn’t do their homework, there was always the chance they’d get shot in the back by accident by the cops, imported to work for free, or, these days, put on a midnight flight to Syria for a year of waterboarding and testicular electrolysis.”
The essence of The White Guy is lists – “white guys love lists,” Hunt notes. For example, after a discussion of why white guys dress so badly (because they don’t want to be too pretty; because they mainly dress for other white guys; and because they think that no one cares what they wear on Saturdays), readers get a bonus list of apparel transgressors (step forward Stephen Harper, Bill Gates, and thousands of sports commentators). Other notable rosters include The Ten Worst White Guy Ideas in Human History (including Everybody Must Be Christian and Let The Market Decide) and, of special interest to we opposite-sexers, The Top Ten Emotional Sub-Species of White Guys. (Many of us have dated Pursuit of Excellence white guy, sobbed over Emotionally Damaged white guy, and ended up marrying No Friends white guy).
Hunt does a reasonably entertaining job of covering the white waterfront, and some of his zingers are spot on. However – characteristically for a white guy – he hasn’t figured out the best way to utilize his wife, who acts as a kind of foil for Hunt in the book. Mel Hunt – who is black and American – chimes in with her own thoughts, but her writing style is suspiciously like her husband’s, which leaves the author (if he is guilty of ghosting) open to charges of well-meaning paternalism, thus undermining the whole point of the book. Still, The White Guy adds up to a funny-but-serious portrait of the species, and enables the rest of us to run for cover or attempt to change the world, or both.