whitewashed

Why does the phrase ‘all-American’ make us think of white people?

Elena Scotti/FUSION

We’re hours away from what is arguably the most critical and grueling election of our time. Whether you’re team nasty women or team basket of deplorables, there is one thing that every person heading to the polls has in common: We’re all Americans.

But are we “all-American”?

According to Merriam-Webster, “all-American” is simply defined as “having qualities that are thought to be typical of people in the U.S. or that are widely admired in the U.S.” Yet when you hear that phrase, who do you think of? Does the first person that comes to your mind happen to be white?

Growing up I heard that label attached to the likes of smiley performers like Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, and Britney Spears; brawny athletes like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning; and clean-cut political families like the Kennedys and the Clintons. (A close cousin of “all-American” is “America’s Sweetheart,” applied to anyone from Taylor Swift to Tina Fey.) Robert Redford, who was known for his all-American good looks, was described in a 1975 People Magazine issue as having “the golden thatch, the ice-blue eyes, the all-American jaw.” Farrah Fawcett—with her feathery blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, and bright smile—was eulogized in this 2009 Washington Post headline as the “Last of the All-American Sex Symbols.”

This is what happens when you google "all-American actor."

This is what happens when you google "all-American actor."

Designer Ralph Lauren has long represented the all-American look with his preppy polos, blazers, and button-ups. The official dresser of the U.S. Olympic team for the opening and closing ceremonies since 2008, Ralph Lauren has also been a safe go-to label of choice for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her run for the presidency.

Even in the NFL, where most of the players are non-white, somehow we tend to see only the white ones described as “all-American” (not to be confused with the athletic honor All-American).

Case in point, Tom Brady. “Everything you’d imagine Tom Brady to be like in high school, he was,” said Tom McKenzie, Brady’s high school coach, in an interview last year with Emily Kaplan of MMQB.com. “An All-American boy, very well-behaved, a hard worker, great sense of humor, easygoing—the guy every mother would want her son to be.”

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If Merriam-Webster is right—if what makes an American “all-American” is the values they stand for—then surface characteristics shouldn’t have anything to do with it. And yet it does. There is something so painfully outdated about a phrase that conjures so many touchstones of white culture in a country that’s increasingly non-white.

This election season has put into question the very foundation on which this nation was built. What does it mean to “Make America Great Again?” In stump speeches, Trump explicitly mentions the jobs we’ve lost or the military strength we once had. But beneath the surface of that ubiquitous phrase is a deeper nostalgia: Being “great” had to do with the way America once looked. The way we once talked or dressed. I wonder what Trump’s ideal American looks like if Mexicans, ‘the Hispanics,’ women, prisoners of war, muslims, those with disabilities, ‘the blacks,’ immigrants, overweight people, the unattractive and Native Americans are all out of the picture. Something tells me Tom Brady (with whom Trump has a 14-year-old bromance) would fit the bill.

Thankfully, many have challenged the idea that we need to revert back to an old America, a great America. But we seldom challenge the narrow, impossibly whitewashed attribution of “all-American.” Perhaps it’s because we are so used to hearing it used to address one demographic that we have never thought to see it represent anything else.

A few weeks ago I was on my way back from assignment in China when I was standing in line to board my flight back to the U.S. A middle-aged white man from Newport Beach, CA and I started chatting. He asked where I was from and I told him I was from Los Angeles. Based off that one bit of information—along with assessing that I had dark hair and pale skin—he was able to deduce with such certainty: “Oh yeah, you look so American.”

I was so taken aback by the comment that I didn’t think to ask what he meant. But later I wondered: Had he known I was a first-generation Armenian-American with dual U.S. and Turkish citizenship, would he have thought the same? What about if he had known that my original last name was Arapshian, an Armenian name that my ancestors were forced to change to a Turkish last name, would he have thought the same? Or if I had darker skin or an accent, like my family?

The fact that I was born in this country is not enough to satisfy questions of where I am “from.” It’s one thing to ask the more neutral question: “What ethnicity are you?” It’s another to devalue one’s Americanness by subconsciously (or consciously) categorizing someone as sub-par or sub-American.

This assessment of who is most American manifests in more sinister ways. We have seen how this incomplete perception of what “all-American” looks and acts like affect the way we are perceived by law enforcement. Stop and frisk and the endless string of police shootings show us how law enforcement disproportionately targets people of color—do they see Americans before them or some other type of person?

When I hear “all-American,” I think of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who has won more world championship medals than any American woman ever. I think of actor George Takei, whose family was forced into a Japanese internment camp during World War II and who went on to make a career for himself as not only one of the few Asian American actors in Hollywood, but a gay one. I think of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who made her way from the housing projects in the Bronx to the United States Supreme Court. I think of Michelle Obama, who has redefined how the FLOTUS is supposed to look like and dress; she has unapologetically broken from traditional “all-American” labels like Ralph Lauren and instead has given way to new talent, sporting up-and-coming American designers of color.

It’s time to use “all-American” as a way to describe one’s values and character, not whether or not they have cornflower blue eyes or creamy pale skin. It is our individual and collective efforts toward a more perfect America that makes us all-American. And this concept of “all-American” itself could certainly be more perfect.