As “all-American” as apple pie?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

The other day I was watching “The Agency,” an addictive new reality show on VH1 about the agents and models who work for Wilhelmina Models. The agents were pitching a new client, Bongo Jeans, and brought a few different models to the client to be considered for a new ad campaign.

I was struck by how many times the phrase “all-American” was used. The client kept saying that they were looking for a guy and a girl, both of whom had an “all-American look.” You can pretty much imagine what kind of phenotype they meant by “all-American.” (And if you can’t imagine, you can watch the episode here.)

The show reminded me of a job I had a few years ago.

I was one of the few people of color there. After about 6 months on the job, a new guy whom we’ll call Tommy Smith, referred by another employee, joined our department. He happened to be mixed like me, also Chinese and white.

A few months after that, another position opened up, so I emailed a friend of mine to ask if he’d be interested. He declined, since he had just started a job he was excited about, but he recommended a friend of his instead. We’ll call her Claire Jones.

Claire sounded like the perfect candidate for the position and I trusted my friend’s judgment, so I immediately passed her resume onto my boss, whom we’ll call Pat.

Then the following conversation happened.

Pat: So is Claire Jones also half Chinese?

Me: What? (Couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.)

Pat: Is Claire also half Chinese, like you and Tommy?

Me: Um… not that I know of.

Pat: Oh she’s not half Chinese?

Me: Like I said, not that I know of.

Pat: Oh so she’s an all-American girl then?

There were so many things wrong with this exchange I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. Did Pat think we were all in on a secret plot to sneak in as many down-low Asians as possible with European last names? And could she have made it any more obvious that to her, “half Chinese” and “all-American” were mutually exclusive categories?

It seems to me that “all-American,” like “inner-city,” is one of those code words that people use when they don’t want to sound racist. But with or without the euphemism, I heard Pat loud and clear.

Oh and in case you’re wondering, Claire Jones did get hired. And it turned out that she was actually a down-low Asian too: a transracially adopted Korean-American woman. Sorry, Pat. I had no idea — really. ;)


  1. Kaywil wrote:

    I was thinking about writing a dictionary called “Code words for Racism”.

    Inner City: Black or Latino
    Ghetto: Black or Latino
    All-American: White
    Beautiful Girl: White
    “He was VERY good at math”: Asian

    There are so many! Where do I begin…?

  2. dcase wrote:

    This anecdote is similar to a situation I had talking to one of my “liberal” doctoral thesis advisors. I was TA’ing for him and we were discussing a very good student who wanted a rec for grad school. To make a long story short, this student was an asian-american guy ( third-generation, indeed! ) and the prof said of him: ” I think he will do well in grad school because he can do the math and he is like a regular american guy.” Of course, I chimed in automatically “well, he is american,” and the professor came back “I know but, well, you know what I mean.” Made me wonder what he said about me when recommending me.

  3. Erica wrote:

    Wasn’t Margaret Cho’s sitcom called “All-American Girl”?

  4. Kmoney wrote:

    That’s the BEST! HA! Perhaps next time Pat will learn to be more specific when trying to exclude Asians from the hiring pool.


  5. Jeremy Pierce wrote:

    Sometimes people use “inner city” to distinguish between high-crime vs. lower crime, economically impoverished vs. economically better-off, or drug-related or gang-related vs. not. I don’t think this always has to do with race (though it does sometimes), because sometimes it’s a distinction between different lifestyles, life situations, or environments that black people (for instance) might find themselves in and so on.

    As for “ghetto”, that word has a pretty diverse set of senses. It can refer to any of the things “inner city” can refer to above. It can refer to attitude and lifestyle distinctives associated with “the ghetto” (which is how black people I know use it most). It can refer simply to run-down housing. It can mean a linguistic ghetto (as in those who speak their own language among themselves and, to many people’s minds isolate themselves), as Newt Gingrich recently used it. I believe that was its original meaning. I’ve heard people refer to “the Christian ghetto” as a sort of community evangelical Christians form to insulate themselves from mainstream culture, listening to Christian music, going to Christian movies, and so on.

    I don’t think it’s false to say that people sometimes use these words to hide racism as a sort of shorthand for some racial or ethnic group. But I wouldn’t automatically read into someone’s use of these terms such a thing (and I think the Gingrich example is a pretty clear one of how people did that and thus showed their ignorance of the history of that term, reading one prominent recent sense of the term into what in context was very clearly the older sense).

    I don’t think it’s as easy to defend “all-American”. Even from the beginning, it very clearly involved a very particular, very thin sense of what counted as central to being American, and it didn’t involve a fairly large percent of those who were in this country, contributing to it in huge ways, and in a very real sense fully American (even if not usually recognized as such).

  6. EJ wrote:

    Ha! Pat got a nice dose of foot in her mouth.

  7. rockmara wrote:

    “a transracially adopted Korean-American woman. Sorry, Pat. I had no idea — really.”

    From someone who has been told - by folks of numerous colors - that she “sounds white” on the phone —

    AAAAAHahahahahahahaha ….

  8. Charlene wrote:

    “All-American” doesn’t just mean white: it means a specific subset of white. The All-American must be of Western European extraction and be pale-skinned, light-eyed, oval-faced, and narrow-nosed. And of course he or she must be Christian.

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