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. ;)