New York's Governor David Paterson signed legislation last week banning a word that I still hear white people use sometimes. New York's new law forbids the reference in all state documents to any person of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage as an "Oriental." According to National Public Radio, the state of Washington took similar steps in 2002, when that state's governor was Gary Locke, a Chinese American.
Apparently some Asian Americans applaud attempts to banish the term, while others are cynical about the motives driving such efforts (no surprise there, given that Asian Americans obviously don't think with any more of a single, collective mindset than do the members of any other group).
In an NPR interview, SF Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang said he's glad about the news from New York, because the term Oriental "feels freighted with luggage. . . . It's a term which you can't think of without having that smell-of-incense and sound-of-a-gong thing going on in your head."
Yang also cited the term's imprecision -- "Orient" basically means East, which could be any place in that direction, and which "only really applies in a flat world. I mean, you keep on going East, you end up 'West.'"
When asked if the word isn't already dying out anyway, rendering such legislative moves against it a waste of time, Yang said he actually has heard the term applied to himself, and it felt wrong. He added that other Asian Americans also feel uncomfortable with it, "so to have it stricken from the public record just kind of makes sense in some ways. I think people probably feel a little kind of curious as to why it took so long."
In an old Usenet posting, circa 1993, Alan Hu takes a different view on efforts to ban the term. Hu blames such efforts on "exploitation-types," who he says "have realized that saying 'Asian' instead of 'Oriental' is the cool thing to do, without changing any of their stereotypes and misconceptions. (You can force a person to change his/her behavior, but you can't force a change in thought.)"
Hu also writes that the exoticizing usage of "Oriental" has survived a long time,
and it still frequently carries all of the exotic/foreign/inscrutable/mysterious connotations. These connotations happen to coincide with many of the stereotypes held of Asian Americans. Furthermore, by definition, the word "Oriental" is Eurocentric, referring to things east of Europe. For these reasons, some Asian American activist types decided that "Oriental" was a Bad Word, and that "Asian" was more accurate, less Eurocentric, and less loaded with strange connotations. No big deal, right?
Well, a lot of people didn't want to change their language usage. Some people grew up using "Oriental" and saw nothing wrong with the word. Others came from other parts of the world, where hip-activist-American-English-linguistic-evolution hadn't hit. Still others never encountered anyone aware of Asian American politics, so had never heard of this word usage change. Some people were exploiting the exotic mysticism connotations and resisted change. (Very early on, you would see articles about business and trade in Asia, whereas the travel articles would talk about visiting the Exotic Mysterious Orient.) Finally, some people were convinced that this was a typical case of left-wing-politically-correct-thought-police-mind-control (which it was) and decided in typical right-wing-politically-correct-knee-jerk-response that the word usage change was intrinsically evil and had to be resisted at all costs.
Over at Asian American Movement, an anonymous blogger calls New York's new law
largely a symbolic gesture–not unlike the US Government’s recent “apology” for the enslavement of Blacks (over 140 years after the fact), or the state of California’s apology for racist laws against Chinese Americans during the nineteenth century, or Bill Clinton’s apology for America’s illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.
These actions are ultimately designed to burnish the USA’s propaganda image. The American establishment loves these kinds of meaningless gestures, as they have very little cost politically and are a great public relations exercise.
Indeed, the election of Barack Obama should be considered a prime example of this type of political rebranding on a grand scale.
They don’t call it poli-tricks for nothing.
So what do you think?
Is the explicit and legislative rejection of the term "Oriental" usually a hypocritical PC ploy? Or is it instead a welcome attempt to describe a diverse group of people more accurately?
If you overhear someone describing another person as an "Oriental," do you consider it worthwhile to correct them?
For further discussion, see:
"What's the Matter with Saying 'The Orient'?," Christopher Hill, Japan Society
"Oriental: Rugs or People?," Leaya Lee, NYU Livewire
"What Does It Mean to Be Asian American?," Jeff Yang, San Francisco Chronicle
Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (book), Robert G. Lee