Posted on June 2, 2016

The Term ‘Oriental’ Is Outdated, but Is It Racist?

Jayne Tsuchiyama, Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2016

It is now politically incorrect to use the word “Oriental,” and the admonition has the force of law: President Obama recently signed a bill prohibiting use of the term in all federal documents. Rep. Grace Meng, the New York congresswoman who sponsored the legislation, exulted that “at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good.”


Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of “The Making of Asian America: A History,” offered a similar explanation to NBC News: “In the U.S., the term ‘Oriental’ has been used to reinforce the idea that Asians were/are forever foreign and could never become American. These ideas helped to justify immigration exclusion, racial discrimination and violence, political disfranchisement and segregation.” Lee also claimed that continued use of the term “perpetuates inequality, disrespect, discrimination and stereotypes towards Asian Americans.”

I don’t see it that way; I see self-righteous, fragile egos eager to find offense where none is intended. A wave of anti-Oriental discrimination is not sweeping the country. Besides, the term has been steadily falling out of circulation since the 1950s, and it’s mainly used today by older Asians and the proprietors of hundreds if not thousands of restaurants, hotels, shops and organizations with Oriental in their name. The well-intentioned meddlers will create trouble for exactly the population they want to defend.

My profession, Oriental medicine, is among those on the receiving end of the identity-politics outbreak. A funny thing I noticed is that my Caucasian (dare I say Occidental?) colleagues, not my Asian colleagues, are most eager to remove Oriental from public discourse. I suppose they’re busy shouldering their burden of guilt. Margaret Cho said it best: “White people like to tell Asians how to feel about race because they’re too scared to tell black people.”


Are we really going to waste time, energy and millions of dollars to rebrand our entire discipline–rename our schools and boards, redesign corporate identities, websites and publications and send out thousands of revised diplomas–all to wipe away an insult that doesn’t exist?