Why Not “Oriental?”

Someone who attends Not in Our Town events wrote me to ask why the use of the term Oriental is considered a racial slur.
   I was reading in the Trenton Times recently that it is no longer accepted to say that someone is Oriental or call someone Oriental.  I don’t understand. If they appear to be from eastern Asia, what’s the problem?

 Who has an opinion? 

Persusing what is known as The Racial Slur Database does not help, as the term Oriental is not listed there. 
An online encyclopedia, About.com, compares the use of Oriental to the term Negro and says it is outdated. 

A listserv dealing with Asian concerns provides no conclusive evidence, other than to say that other Asians use the term for anyone who looks Chinese. Could it be that the term is too inclusive — used by whites who don’t know how to discern nationalities by their appearances? 

Yes, says May  M. Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, who suggests that it’s not a slur but it implies ‘outsider.” “It’s a Eurocentric name for us, which is why it’s wrong. You should call people by what (they) call themselves, not how they are situated in relation to yourself.”

Bottom line: don’t say “Oriental.” If you know the ethnic background (Chinese American, Korean, etc.) say that, otherwise say “Asian” or “Asian American.” People are not carpets. 

2 thoughts on “Why Not “Oriental?”

  1. "Oriental" comes from a Latin word for "eastern." To call Asians by this name is not racial per se. It is, of course, based on the traditional assumption that Europe is the center of the world.This is not terribly uncommon. There is one Italian word for Germans that means "beyond the mountains." Many in the U.S. believe (though probably incorrectly) that Dixie as the Southern U.S. originated as (from the Northern perspective) "accross the Mason-Dixon Line."True, we Westerners may not be able to tell a Chinese from a Korean–or in some cases a German from a Swede. If someone from Asia refers to Asians–or Orientals–I will follow his lead in the conversation.

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