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. ;)

The business of selling and consuming blackness

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Hadji Williams has spent over 15 years in the advertising and marketing worlds at Chicago and New York agencies great and small, including BBDO and FootSteps Group. Williams is also an educator, having taught over 20 introductory and advanced advertising courses at Columbia College Chicago.

A recent Californian, Williams is also the author of the controversial Knock The Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America (2006), KTH: VoL. 2 (Fall 2007) and C.R.E.A.M. (Winter 2007). Currently Williams has launched ProdigalPen, Inc. Publishing, which is dedicated to sharing the stories of multicultural life.

One of the most interesting chapters in your book is titled “Crop Circles and Alarm Clocks: Pride and Prejudice in Corporate America.” How do crop circles and alarm clocks relate to race in the workplace today?

While writing KTH I wanted to come with a way to explain the patterns of bigotry and bias that exist in corporate America to people who may not have had the experiences that I’ve had. So I settled on “crop circles” and “alarm clocks.”

As you know crop circles are these wildly bizarre geometric patterns that mysteriously appear in fields in rural America. The first time we see photos of ‘em or network coverage of them, we scream “hoax” or “fraud” because they’re just too blatant and specific to have been anything else, right?

That’s how instances of bigotry and bias go down in business—when someone shares an instance, it must be a hoax, a fraud, an exaggeration, or some sort of scheme to get money or sympathy. It can possibly be true. And since most of corporate life involves sophisticated liberal whites and not the so-called backwards thinking rural whites that we often blame racism on, any reported instances of mistreatment must be simple misunderstandings, right?

Alarm clocks are the result of believing said hype. They’re random wake up calls that remind you that the world isn’t as liberal or inclusive as you’ve been suckered into believing. For example, I’ve worked with numerous white colleagues and bosses who’ve told that because I can speak in complete sentences and don’t have an over-the-top swag, that I “wasn’t like the ‘regular black people’” they knew. Regular. Hmmm… Or some of the times I’ve been called N-word at work. Or have been paraded around a client’s offices because they couldn’t believe that a black guy was developing their campaigns.

Those are some of the random wake up calls that I’ve received over the years. Just reminders that bigotry exists in many places and many forms and the worst thing you can do is believe people who benefit from it when they say “oh no, we treat everyone equal.” Continue Reading »

Impress your inscrutable Japanese boss with Jimmy John’s sandwiches

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

From black folks dancing about chicken to DJ’s spinning cheeseburgers on turntables, we can always count on fast food ads to reinforce racial stereotypes.

Jimmy John’s proves to be no exception. Check out this ad, in which a Japanese salariman tries to impress his inscrutable boss in the boardroom — with sandwiches. I’m surprised there was no karate chop anywhere in the ad.