I’m sitting at my desk, staring at a coupon card from American Eagle, the preppy teenagers’ clothing store. “LIVE YOUR LIFE” it reads, with a trademark sign. I wasn’t aware that AE had a copyright on this. I guess all of us livers-of-our-lives better pay up soon, or face corporate IP lawyers’ wrath.
The entire ad is drenched in landscape porn—crystal-blue rivers, sun-speckled mountains, hills upon hills of trees or snow. All pretty normal for AE.
Ignoring the alluring “Hey Adora, here comes cool: take 25% off” I couldn’t tell why I was staring at the advert until I looked at the people in the eleven pictures.
One person, his face mostly obscured by the coupon insert, was a light-skinned African-American, Hispanic, or Filipino guy.
Walk past any AE store and you’ll see the same amount of racial diversity throughout in-store marketing. You see, American Eagle sells more than badly designed sweaters. They market a lifestyle of wholesome outdoorsiness. Unobjectionable
And overwhelming whiteness.
The problem is, last I checked, it was American Eagle, not White People Eagle. The
US is diverse. Yes, 63% of us are
white alone (not Hispanic or Latino) according to 2012 data from the Census
Bureau, but 13.1% are black. 16.9% are Hispanic. 5.1% are Asian. 2.4% are, like
me, two or more races. If the United
States’ racial makeup matched the ad, we
would be 90% white. Apply the real numbers of race in America to AE marketing and that
coupon card would have both African-Americans and Hispanics represented.
The idea that whiteness is American is pervasive and damaging. It makes little girls and boys want to be something they’re not, worried about not being American enough. When I was eight years old, I auditioned for a TV commercial. Nothing stung more than the producer’s introduction of me: “Look, it’s the little Chinese girl!” It was as if a few Asian features had overruled everything else about me—that I was born in
Oregon, that I spoke
perfect English, that I’d never even been a Chinese citizen, that I was
biracial. If I had been more assertive or more eloquent, maybe I would’ve
retorted, “I’m as American as you are.” But the truth is, I didn’t believe it
myself. For years I looked in the mirror and pinched the end of my nose to try
to give myself a more Grecian profile. I stayed out of the sun and wore hats
obsessively because I prized fair skin. I wanted to look like my Caucasian dad
and not like my Chinese mom. My friends told stories more extreme. Stories of
trying so hard to keep eyes open just
a little longer, just a little wider, to make eyelid creases. Using
skin-bleaching creams from India
and feeling ashamed about being dark. Dressing exclusively in Nike and Puma and
Adidas because the white kids, the popular kids, did sports, and even if you
didn’t at least you could dress like you did.
The bigger question is of how an ad affects what we think is beautiful. Clearly, people are models for clothing stores because they meet a general aesthetic standard. The message it sends when the majority of those models are Caucasian is this: other races, you’re not good enough. Starting from a young age, we are bombarded with images that do this. Barbies. Books. Billboards. Page through Express ads or Macy’s catalogues, look at some advertisements from your favorite store, and ask how many Asians you see. Muslim women in headscarfs? Filipinos? Multiracial?
The rarity breeds shock when there actually is diversity, as in a
New York City street a year ago. I was
walking with my older sister Adrianna when she suddenly stopped at the edge of
“Come on,” I said, pulling her by the arm.
“Look,” she said in breathless wonderment, pointing. I followed her gaze. There, plastered on the side of a building, was an advertisement with a woman wearing a pearl necklace, staring out impassively. I looked at Adrianna questioningly. “It’s a halfie,” she said, gleefully. She whipped out her iPod and snapped a picture.
No wonder she wanted to preserve that moment. In a lifetime of blonde-haired Barbies and white clothing store models, it was the first time either of us could look at an image of standardized beauty and see ourselves reflected within. It was as if the advertisement was saying, “I see you.” It was the kind of moment I haven’t lived since.
Ultimately, AE got one thing right. At the bottom of the coupon card is the statement, “Your individual style deserves to be rewarded.” That’s right. Individuality is American—not one image of what it is to be beautiful. Not one image of what it is to be American. Not