Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Orientalism’

399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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382. What’s Wrong with “Oriental”?

In history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on June 5, 2016 at 12:31 pm


“Perpetuating Oriental Stereotypes” (

On May 20th, 2016, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, President Obama signed a bill that will eliminate all references to the words “Oriental” and “Negro” in U.S. law, and replace them with “Asian American” and “African American.” U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens, NY), the chief sponsor of  bipartisan bill H.R. 2438, said, “The term ‘Oriental’ has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good.”

On hearing the news I breathed a sigh of relief: something that had troubled me on an almost daily basis had now been recognized as derogatory at the highest level of government. This is critically important, because many people, even some Asian Americans themselves, don’t realize it. Just minutes before I read the news of H.R. 2438, I received an emailed reading response from a student on a short story by a Malaysian writer, in which my student used the term “Oriental” to make a sweeping generalization about life in ‘that part of the world’. Clearly the bill has not gone far enough, and neither has its coverage in the media, because they don’t explain why the term is derogatory. It’s not enough to be told, as H.R. 2438 does, that many Asian Americans find it offensive, since this can be dismissed as their problem, their hypersensitivity. Isn’t it just a descriptive term, its apologists ask, like “Westerner”?


No, “Oriental” is not merely descriptive (and neither, for that matter, is “Westerner”–or, to use parallel terminology, “Occidental”, which, tellingly, is rarely used). It is a term designed to categorize, generalize, dehumanize, and dominate. Let me explain, as briefly as I know how.

3First “Oriental” is an outdated term, based upon a 19th-century colonial concept of race that divided humankind into a hierarchy of racial types, with the Western European (man)–born to rule–at the top: Caucasoid, Negroid, Australoid, and Mongoloid, or Oriental, as it came to be known a little later. These terms have come to be associated with skin color and physical appearance, but also with stereotyped character traits, temperaments, and predelictions (again, with the Caucasian on top). All this has been debunked by scholars across the disciplines as a lot of baloney, and it is now generally accepted that this scientific racism was an ideology conveniently constructed to justify colonization of the “lesser breeds” by the naturally superior ones. In sum, “Oriental” was invented by Europeans for Europeans.

Second, “Oriental” is a blanket term covering huge swaths of the world. It has been used to refer to the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia,  and given the tremendous differences among all these regions, is on the one hand  almost completely meaningless and on the other, extremely harmful in encouraging people to lump them all together in their minds. For example, the student I mentioned above who wrote on the short story, Leng Lui Is for Pretty Lady, failed to notice that it was set in Hong Kong, its protagonist was from the Philippines, and its author Elaine Chiew, is of Malaysian origin and has lived in Hong Kong and the United States, but now lives in London. To tell the truth, I myself failed to tease out these specificities while teaching the story, which is about the predicament of women who must leave their families and go abroad to work as maids in the global economy. My failure, and the term Oriental, allowed the student to conclude that this was “what it is like to be a woman living in servitude in an oriental country,” as my student put it. First, it generalized about the condition of all women in “the Orient”, and second, in allowing him to disregard the fact that there are women working as maids in exploitative conditions all over the world, including Europe and the United States, it performed the work for which, according to the late Edward Said, Orientalism was designed: to create an inferior Other which is the polar opposite of the so-called West, upon which the “West” projected all that it did not want to accept in itself.

Third, with regard to the term “Orient”, better known as “the East”, I ask the question, East of what? The answer, of course, is East of Greenwich, England, which Britain at the height of its empire declared the central reference point for measurements of longitude, for which Greenwich is the arbitrarily designated Prime Meridian. Everything East of Greenwich is East and everything West of it, West. But we are now a world with many centers, and it is time we changed our language to reflect this new reality. Now that Britain is just a small island again, with little power if it does not attach itself to the new global superpower, what sense does it make for people in its former colonies to continue to see it as the global Center and  themselves as marginal, always obliged to look Westward for success and self-affirmation?


imgresFourth, “Oriental” is used to demean, divide, and exclude. It is natural for people to see themselves as the central reference points of their lives, and it is understandable, if not desirable, for people to want to identify themselves with power. Perhaps that is why one still finds Asian Indians in the United States internalizing Orientalist stereotypes and identifying themselves with  the “Caucasian” rather than “Oriental.” More than once I have heard  Indian students of mine declaring that they are not Orientals, which prevents them  from making common cause with other people of Asian origin under the useful umbrella of Asian American. And yet U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court ruling of 1923, made it clear why it is in their interest to do—and in fact, to extend themselves still further to identify with all people of color. This was during the long period of first Chinese and Asian Indian, then Oriental Exclusion, when no one of Asian origin was allowed to immigrate to the U.S. or gain U.S. citizenship. The complainant in the Supreme Court case, an Asian Indian, had claimed that he should be granted citizenship because Indians are Caucasians, not Orientals. The judgment acknowledged, that Yes, he was Caucasian, but No, he could not be granted citizenship because he was not white, revealing the true purpose of these racial categories.

46912a66e79e4982da5469f3484b4341Calling someone an Oriental, even if their families have lived, worked, paid taxes, and died in the United States for generations, excludes them from full Americanness by relegating them firmly to the status of permanent outsider, unassimilable alien, regardless of their American citizenship. It designates them as Other, not one of Us, not from here, and in the end neither equal nor fully human. Just a glance at the stereotypical images of “Orientals” that are rife in the visual media makes this abundantly clear. These stereotypes also ought to make it obvious why the term is so hurtful.

My final point—and forgive me, I am an English teacher—is about the politics of grammar. “Oriental” is an adjective, not a noun. So to call a person “an Oriental” is to define him or her based on physical appearance and an imaginary repertoire of pre-ordained traits seen as belonging to that racial category. It is derogatory, dehumanizing, and high time for it to be defunct.

I hope it is now clear to you what’s wrong with “Oriental.” Hooray for the passage of H.R. 2438, and Thank You, Congresswoman Grace Meng!

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213. Censorship at Bedtime

In 1980s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Education, Family, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories, Words & phrases on June 9, 2013 at 2:02 pm


When singing or reading to my young son at bedtime, my first choices were naturally the songs and books beloved to me as a child, but sometimes I found myself editing them in mid-stream. One song that required revision in his infancy was the lullaby, Rock-a-bye Baby, in which the baby is rocking in a cradle high in a tree:

When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come Baby,
Cradle and all.

Not a very reassuring little ditty for a babe as it falls into the Land of Nod! I changed the words to:

When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
But Mummy will catch you,
Cradle and all.

Sometimes Nikhil himself made it clear at the outset that I needed to shut the book and put it away, as in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, which I hadn’t read before, and which opens with James’ parents being unceremoniously eaten by a rhinoceros. (See also TMA 65. Curb Your Enthusiasm: A Bedtime Story.) At other times, however, in the midst of reading a work I thought I knew, I would find myself brought up short by shocking words, imagery, and sometimes entire passages and perspectives that I must have overlooked or taken in stride in my own childhood; in particular, passages in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I’m referring to the racism that was pervasive at the time the works were written, even if the authors themselves may have been well-intentioned.

If the offensive passage reared its ugly head while Nikhil was tucked cozily into bed, with his eyes half-closed and a peeled-and-sliced Granny Smith apple close at hand on a little plate, a lecture on Orientalist stereotypes or the displacement of Native Americans by white European settlers in the American West was not an immediate option. Sometimes I would make a comment, hardly pausing, simply registering my disapproval; but most of the time, for better or worse, I would censor the problematic passage altogether, saving the conversation for another time, and in the meantime protecting his innocent mind from the poison.

Readers of The Secret Garden will remember that the protagonist Mary Lennox had been born and raised in India. Since little Nikhil knew nothing of the evils of colonialism, and since I don’t remember the novel actually saying explicitly that Sarah was white, I let it be assumed that, like his own mother, she was Indian or half-Indian, with an English uncle. Much of the point of the novel is that Sarah, having been raised to be selfish, arrogant, and imperious in India, redeems herself in Yorkshire through hard work, caring for her cousin, and the democratic spirit of the English servants.  The narrator of the novel certainly presents the Sarah who is newly-returned from India as a spoiled brat who needs taking down a peg or two. Nothing wrong with that—at least, not in itself; the problem lies in the assumption that Indians are inherently cringing, servile, and undemocratic. The forthright Martha who will not take any nonsense from her charge is contrasted with Mary’s ayah in India who loved her too, but allowed herself to be abused by the young Memsahib. Somehow I managed to elide the worst of this while reading to Nikhil, judiciously skipping over particularly offensive bits as they came up.

(from narniawikia,com)

Illustration by Pauline Baynes in The Horse and His Boy (

My main problem with the Narnia books, which I loved and still love, was the pervasive and pretty overt Crusader mentality, in which the bad guys, particularly the Calormenes in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle, fight with scimitars, not swords, have beak-like noses, Arab-sounding names, and are generally portrayed, like scimitars in contrast with swords, as not straight (in the English sense of the word; that is, essentially crooked). Similarly, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the bad guys, such as the pointedly-named Easterlings and the Haradrim, all seem to be “swarthy” hordes. (Disappointingly, Peter Jackson faithfully reproduced the representation in his films.) In the latter case, I simply excised such words; I tried to do the same to the most blatantly Orientalist images in the former, but it was not always  easy.


Illustration by Garth Williams (from

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, particularly Little House on the Prairie, it was the representation of the Indians that was the most troubling for me. At the time I read the books to Nikhil I had not yet read Michael Dorris’ moving essay, Trusting the Words, describing his reactions as he re-read the Little House series in order to determine whether or not it would be appropriate to read them to his own children, and explaining his ultimate decision not to do so. When I did, years later, I understood his conclusion completely, much as I love the series (see TMA 177, The Sugar Snow). I had chosen to read them to Nikhil—again, pausing to comment on the passages in question, or, in some particularly egregious cases, censoring them out—but I might avoid them altogether today.

In the Little House books, Ma was portrayed as the racist parent, with a visceral revulsion toward Native Americans (Indians, as they are called in the novels) and Pa—to whom the protagonist Laura was closest—as the more enlightened one. However, even Pa (who reprimanded Laura when she said she wanted a little Indian “papoose,” reminding her that it was a real baby whose parents loved it, not a doll designed for her pleasure), who seemed to show respect for the Indians and who acknowledged that it was their land that the government had declared open for settlement, seems to fully accept that this is the order of things. And despite the novels’ acknowledgement of their humanity, the Indians are portrayed as irredeemably alien, their ways incomprehensible to the white settlers.

I don’t make a practice of recommending censorship; in general, I would prefer to review a book in advance in order to decide if it was appropriate to read to the child. And, where possible, I would prefer to tackle the issue head-on by discussing it with the child—in age-appropriate terms, of course. But when I come across disturbing content unexpectedly, it depends on the child and the setting whether I talk about it on the spot or whether I simply cut it out.

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