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. ;)

Watercooler: what are you?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog where we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from Luke Lee:

So far, about 5 co-workers total have asked me in varying ways “what are you?” Almost all of them I answered honestly and I wasn’t that bothered by it because they, most importantly, didn’t ask immediately (you know, they actually waited to get to know me first) and they waited for some natural context of conversation.

I’ve written too many times about this and the “I like [insert race/ethnicity] [gender]” so I’m not going to rehash but today as I’m sitting there at work, one of our “clients” comes up to me and it goes like:

Guy who looked like Howard Stern: Hey, what are you?
Me: What?
Guy: Your race. Are you Filipino? You’re Filipino?
Me: No.
Guy: Japanese?
Me: No.
Guy: Chinese?
Me: No. [Guy is baffled but amused]
Guy: Mexican?
Me: No.
Guy: What?! What else is there?! [Guy is still baffled but not offended that I just won’t flat out tell him]
Me: (Shrug)
Guy: Russian? Are you Russian?
Me: No. (Asks Guy work-related service question)
Guy: ALEUT! You’re an Aleut!
Me: No.
Guy: Oh cah-maaann!!!! (laughs)
Me: (chuckle)

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.