Friday, November 2, 2012

Orientals As We Think of Them Today

This turned up yesterday on Yo, Is this Racist?

A lot of problems here. Andrew Ti's correspondent seems to think that "negro" is inherently a racist word, and if it used to be "perfectly acceptable" it was only because "that time was significantly more racist than the present."  We didn't know any better then, because those were primitive times.  This is completely absurd. "Negro" was the preferred word among politically aware Americans of African descent for much of the first half of the twentieth century, so it was positive and not racist. That didn't mean that the US wasn't a racist society then, or now. Nor does it mean that "Negro" stopped being the normative word for people of African descent because the US became less racist. (I don't think I agree that the US is less racist than it was fifty years ago.  Maybe so, maybe not -- I don't know how you'd measure it.) What it means is that white Americans looked down on non-whites no matter what they were called, though whites took for granted their own right to call non-whites what they wanted to call them.

It's same story with words for people who copulate with other people of their own sex.  In the United States toward the second half of the twentieth century "gay" was our own chosen word for ourselves, which upset a lot of heterosexuals, who accused us recruiting an innocent little word for our own degenerate purposes.  But it also upset a lot of homosexuals. Within our own circle, we've disputed what word to use for ourselves for over a century. Uranian? Urning? Bugger? Sod? Queer? Sapphist? Lesbian? Androphile? Gynophile? Homophile? Gay?  And of course, within a few years "gay" became a negative word in the schoolyard, and younger gays thought it had always been one.  Well, who was going to teach them the history?  They weren't going to learn it in school.

There are similar controversies surrounding people who speak Romance languages.  Latino?  Hispanic?  HispanohablantesLa Raza?  I've run into a fair number of well-educated people (too well-educated, maybe?), Anglo or other, who throw hissyfits over these terms.  Some object to including Brazilians in the Latino category, though Brazilians speak Portuguese, a language that is, like Spanish and French and Italian, derived from Latin.  And just yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook to the effect of "I'm Mexican, I'm not Latino or Hispanic!"  Not to put too fine a point on it, but that's bullshit.  So is yowling that "'Oriental' is a rug, not a person!"

"Oriental," on the other hand, was applied to people whose principal language wasn't English to begin with. They would have referred to themselves with words in their own language, and they had their own terminology for foreigners, much of it unflattering. The word "Orient" means "east" or "eastern," so an "Oriental" is an inhabitant of lands to the East, and has no negative connotations in itself. Western Europeans used the words sloppily, using it of the whole Asian landmass from the Mediterranean eastward.  When people from these parts of the world learned English, they learned English words for themselves and their countries.

There was considerable displeasure as many of these countries threw off the colonial yoke and their intellectual classes rejected the ways in which they had been viewed by their former owners and masters.  A large body of scholarship and lore had been generated by Westerners in the service of imperial management, which of course viewed the subject peoples as a management problem: how to keep them in line, how to keep them loyal and grateful and obedient to their sovereign.  The late Edward Said wrote a very influential book, Orientalism (Random House, 1978), which I read a long time ago and need to reread.  (The main thing I remember now is a certain amount of homophobia; but as I said, it's time to reread it.)  Like Michel Foucault's work on the history of sexuality, Orientalism quickly achieved canonical status among people who found it more useful to wave around than to read.  It also garnered some criticism; I remember finding useful Aijad Ahmaz' critique of Said in his In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures (Verso, 1992).

What upped the ante was the emigration of people from Asia to the imperial metropole, be it Europe and the British Isles or the United States and Canada.  By now I've read a fair amount of academic writing about the Asian-American experience, especially by the generation that arrived in the US after the 1960s and probably includes Andrew Ti's parents.  White racists were never too busy focusing on black and brown people to forego tormenting Asians as well.  (There's always room for racism!) Whether they were called "Oriental" or "Asian" was the least of the problems of Chinese in the early 20th century US whether they were hiding from Immigration (how do you say la migra in Cantonese, I wonder?) or from white lynch mobs.  And the children of the post-1960 immigrants, whether they were born abroad or in the US, have the typical identity problems that children of immigrants have.  On one hand, they want to assimilate, indeed to disappear, and there's the small difficulty that assimilation would mean adopting white racism, one of the oldest traditional American values. That won't do, which I believe explains the confusion that permeates so much writing about race by Asian-Americans.  During the sports media fascination with Jeremy Lin, Andrew Ti wrote that "NBA fans have almost no vocabulary with which to talk about him."  But it's not only NBA fans who have almost no vocabulary which to talk about race.  Or about many other vexed categories.

Why not just borrow a slogan from queer Foucauldians and say something like "Asians as we think of them today", or "the modern Oriental'?  Words are important, but until we can think beyond them, we'll be trapped by them.  I think that going beyond the words was a major part of what Foucault was trying to do.  It's paradoxical, but words are both terribly important and not very important at all.  Andrew Ti and his correspondent are both making the very common mistake that words contain meaning, so that  words like "negro" or "oriental" or "faggot" are essentially problematic.  But since words may change their meanings radically over time, that belief is obviously false.  The problem isn't the word "negro," it's racism.  And fighting racism is much harder than merely declaring this or that word out of bounds.