Reflecting on the ugly historical context behind the term Oriental, and asking why it still circulates in the mainstream

‘Oriental’ is so heavily weighted in connotations; the word almost shimmers in red silk, distorted in a haze of incense or maybe opium smoke in your mind’s eye.

My Grandad is of the generation who lived through the Blitz, who occasionally uses cockney rhyming slang and still accidentally calls Zimbabwe, Rhodesia. He looked at me bemused when I called him up for saying “that Oriental woman” in reference to a BBC news reader he could not remember the name of.

“You can’t say Oriental anymore?” he raised an eyebrow “I didn’t mean any offence…”

Oriental is not aggressively Racist in the way the ‘N’ word is used, or blatantly offensive like ‘chink’.  Oriental is not the kind of word you hear slung about as an insult, or spat through gritted teeth. It’s said in a nonchalant kind of way, but it insidiously gets under the skin.

It stings of an archaic colonial vision of East Asia, which just isn’t appropriate to drag up and impose on anyone in 2016. Though the term lives on in the UK, finding itself overlooked.

Oriental stirs up a whole general of ideas about Asia. The terms encompasses the fetishisation of non-European cultures as exotic, mysterious, alluringly dangerous and culturally opposite.  Which still hangs over western ideas about the East.

Context is everything. Oriental is an old fashioned term, it was born out of the Colonial era. It began falling out of everyday use in the 1960’s as the European Empires collapsed in on themselves. By 1978 an American professor, Edward Said, raised objections to the usage of the term ‘Oriental’. Said’s critical thesis ‘Orientalism’ forever tied its use to the legacy of Imperial racism.  Said argued that Western prejudice of the East was built on a longstanding history of romanticism. 

Imagined notions of the Orients’ “sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness” were indulged by European artworks, novels and writings as a genera of ‘Orientalism’.

This imaged Orient was a mysterious world that did not abide by the civilised and reserved customs of Europe.  A faraway land that was fertile ground for western imaginations to run riot. The Orient was characterised by submissive, childlike women who were hypersexualised as contrastingly exotic to their European counterparts. Oriental men were depicted as meek, cunning and barbaric. Edward Said’s argument was that these flat stereotypes invited a Western feeling of superiority over the East, that easily and dangerously played into “second-order Darwinism” which, “accentuate the ‘scientific’ validity of the division of races into advanced and backward, or European-Aryan and Oriental-African”.

The term is trapped within this historical context, designating anything as Oriental involves making a judgment upon it.

In short, Orientalism is a Western idea projected onto Eastern culture and in turn Oriental is a Eurocentric word projected onto people of Eastern Heritage.

America has been more proactive about banishing these Colonial terms. America has addressed that colonial terminologies ugly historical context makes it by default inherently racist. President Obama this year signed the terms ‘Negro’ and ‘Oriental’ out of existence in federal law. The term is a big no-no in the states and is used far less colloquially than in Britain. Though why has the term in Britain been allowed to limp on longer?

Perhaps it because comparatively the British population has a higher proportion of Indian and Pakistani heritage than in America. So the term Oriental serves the purpose of differentiating Korean, Japanese, and Chinese Asians from India and Pakistani Asians. This is the most common defence of the use of ‘Oriental’, that it is innocently clarifying a geographical region in Asia. On the surface this seems uncontroversial, until you start assessing that ‘The Orient’ has not ever actually been a firm geographical region and thereby is further redundant.

Oriental originated as a term meaning of an Eastern orientation. As Orient derives from the Latin for East. Anything East of Europe was ‘The Orient’ which was more an imagined idea than an actual point on a map, as the perimeters of what was considered part of the ‘Orient’ ebbed and flowed. Today the term is more associated with East Asia, but The Orient in the Colonial era could be used in reference to India and the Middle East. The term clumsily groups together diverse cultures and ethnicities that’s only similarity brought to bear is they are non-European. The Oriental as opposed to the Occidental; the East as opposed to the West. When you look into it, Oriental just sound like short hand for a category of ‘Others, not like Europeans’.

In a country that today celebrates multiculturalism we don’t need these kind of distancing terms, they put up barriers in our minds.

Though, if it is in fact racist to refer to somebody as Oriental why is the word finding itself in the names of London restaurant and Hotel Chains? The London Mandarin Oriental overlooks Hyde Park, I have an Oriental Noodle bar in walking distance from my house and antique shops along Portobello road have signs advertising ‘Oriental rugs’. These establishments are selling their customers an idea, they want to conjure up all those exotic, romantic associations because it helps them sell. These establishment might be run by individuals of Asian descent but they are marketing themselves towards people of a European vantage point, playing on a Eurocentric idea of the East. Phrases like “the mysterious of the Orient” come to mind, it’s all theatrics that still has some kind of allure. I think it’s safe to call an object like a rug Oriental, because that is an understood style of art and design. Though using the term for a space, a hotel, a restaurant and caste it under this romantic spell with ‘Oriental’ in the signage, feels at the very least outdated.

The internet clamours with retaliations in defence of old fashioned terms like oriental as “political correctness gone mad” as the slogan goes, that when these words are not said with malicious intent it is unfathomably for them to be racist. Though these terms matter, because they seep into our collective consciousness, their connotations shape how we perceive each other and how we interact, how we form our own identities. Making room for neutral terminology encourages our attitudes to transcend and be mindful of our history.

How we express ourselves defines how we relate to each other, in trying to escape the racism and inequalities in our history we need new, fresh terms that do not carry with them all that colonial baggage.

So I will keep correcting my Grandad, and when I eat at Oriental Noodle bar I’ll slurp my noodles and think more sceptically about those red lanterns they have hanging in the window, seeing past the marketing and the stereotypes as only paper thin.