The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long history and slow death of a word once used to describe everyone and everything from Egypt to China as well as rugs

Jean-Leon Gerome “The Snake Charmer” – Clark Art Institute in “Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930” at The Walters Art Gallery (Courtesy of The Walters Art Gallery)
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There is a late 19th-century painting called “The Snake Charmer” which depicts a naked boy facing a group of huddled, dark-skinned men gawking and seated cross-legged on the ground before him. Coiled around the boy’s upper body is a python, whose head he holds up for the watchers. Sitting off to the side is an older man playing the flute.

As art historian Linda Nochlin wrote in her essay “The Imaginary Orient,” the spectacle depicted in the Jean-Leone Gerome work extends beyond the obvious performance of the young “charmer” to include the seated men, garbed in colorful robes and headscarves and framed by Turkish tiles. The real audience is not these men, Nochlin argued, but rather the Western viewer — one who at the time found such displays of pubescent sensuality and homoerotic voyeurism acceptable only when they concerned the Oriental “other”:

And the insistent, sexually charged mystery at the center of this painting signifies a more general one: the mystery of the East itself, a standard topos of Orientalist ideology.

Fittingly, “The Snake Charmer” was used as the book cover for the first edition of Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” a seminal 1978 text in cultural criticism that shaped academic discourse about how the Western world has historically depicted Asian, North African and Middle Eastern cultures.

Said established the notion that Western representations of “the Orient” perpetually grounded it in a state of un-belonging, in turn reducing “Oriental peoples” to exoticized caricatures.

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While all this may sound antiquated to today’s reader, “Oriental” and its ilk — and all the weighty history that the term carries — still lives on in the language of some federal laws. A bill that now awaits President Barack Obama’s signature will change that for good.

Congress completed legislation this week that amends the vocabulary in two acts, replacing “Negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts” with “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Alaska Natives.” The bill now goes to the president for his signature.

The bill was originally introduced in the House by Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York), who previously spearheaded a successful push to strike “Oriental” from government documents in her home state.

“‘Oriental’ no longer deserves a place in federal law, and very shortly it will finally be a thing of the past,” Meng said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), a co-sponsor of the bill, agreed: “‘Orientals’ is an offensive and antiquated term, especially so when referring to America’s vibrant Asian American community…Using this term in federal law lends it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.”

Just as “Negro” recalls slavery and Jim Crow, “Oriental” brings to mind such fraught historical moments as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II. Going further back, it conjures the image of “The Snake Charmer” and the idea that people from “the East,” so to speak, will never belong in a place like America.

The term has its origins in “oriens,” the Latin word for “east.” Up until around the 1960s and 70s, “Oriental” was still used in the media as a blanket term for Asians. And elsewhere, an exclamation such as “Those damn Orientals!” conveyed a fear and revulsion for immigrants who became the scapegoats for ailing economies.

While the term began falling out of favor in the late 20th century, it has taken longer to scrub it from official usage. New York University’s Leaya Lee noted in 2005 that the University of Pennsylvania still had an Oriental Studies Department in 1991, encompassing subjects as varied as East Asian studies and North African languages.

Lee recalled that she had been a victim of the phrase when she was in middle school:

The first time I felt the full force behind the word ‘Oriental,’ I was 13. My music teacher was explaining the phrasing of a difficult passage to my string quartet, and we all nodded. Suddenly he turned to me, the only Asian in the group, and said, ‘Oh, stop being so Oriental and nodding.’ I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.

Journalist Jeff Yang told NPR in 2009 that despite its limited modern usage, “[Oriental] feels freighted with luggage.”

“You know,” he said, “it’s a term which you can’t think of without having that sort of the smell of incense and the sound of a gong kind of in your head.”

He recalled growing up when the term was mainstream: “I remember actually, you know, back in my high school days still sort of experiencing media and so forth talking about Oriental flavor and Oriental this, Oriental that, and always, you know, wondering to what degree this terminology of objects was going to finally be taken out of the loop for talking about people.”

Today, the consensus appears to be that “Oriental” is a descriptor better left for rugs, not people.

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