I recently remarked to some friends that having someone refer to me as an “Oriental” was as offensive as the N-word is to a Black person. It’s an involuntary, visceral response. I cringe, I wince, I can’t help but think that the person who said it either wants to cause a fight, has nobody but White friends, or has not left the house since the 1970s, or perhaps all of the above.
The moniker of choice is Asian at the least, Asian American if you’re in the know, and Mr. Asian American if you’re nasty.
My wife asked me if I think the word, Westerner is offensive. And I said, No. She asked, What if White people took offense to that. I said, I don’t really care. She said, You know you have a double standard? I said, Yes. After all the names I’ve been called, I hardly consider Westerner an insult. She said, I don’t think White people know that Oriental, which means Eastern, is offensive. They just don’t know.
And she’s probably right. She usually is. And that’s what I think offends me even more: White people don’t know. It’s like the bully who forgot they pushed you around or the girl who can never remember your name. It’s insulting. It feels even more dehumanizing that they simply don’t know or can’t discern what to say when. When White people justify it by saying, but they use the word Oriental in Hong Kong, or Black people call each other the N-word, it’s even more aggravating. Because the fact of the matter is, Asian and Asian Americans are still trying to self-differentiate, to collect ourselves and forge an identity of our own, and the issues of colonization and wanting to be White without knowing it and emulating all things of the dominant majority are issues that we face. So there is a lot of internal dialogue that needs to happen and a great deal of inconsistency as to what Asians understand as racism vs. self-hatred. And it’s patronizing and annoying to have White people who simply don’t know assume they can continue to define us or label us as they used to when the sun never set on the British Empire. Those days are over.
So when the conversation about the N-word came up on the View, I thought it was obvious. That’s their word. And they are negotiating it when and how it can and should be used by others, if at all. And when they decide that, they’ll let you know. And none of this means that we are less American or less patriotic or less Christian. It simply means that we want to be really who we are, without being defined by the White majority. And as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have “Oriental” back, unless you’re looking for a particular type of rug.
But here are some glimpses into how that internal dialogue and reconstruction takes place.
Julian Curry, a poet on the word
Smokey Robinson, you are a lot badder and harder than your falsetto voice would divulge.
And if you know me by now, you know that I’m a huge fan of Beau Sia, and you can hear how “CHINK” is equally off-limits (his poem, “Hip-Hop” here. So yeah, there’s no chink in your armor, it’s a weak spot.