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Bill to Ban the Word Oriental from Federal Legislation Awaits President Obama’s Signature

Grace Meng
Rep Grace Meng (D-NY)

By Ed Diokno

 Whenever I hear the word “Oriental,” I cringe a little – even when we refer to rugs.


It is an example of the Euro-centric world view that is drilled into U.S. children from the time we first watch the commercials on TV and continues at school and at the mall. It places Europe (and the U.S.) at the center of the world. Everything is either west, east, south or north of that center and that perspective.


From a West Coast perspective, the so-called Far East (Asia’s east coast) is actually West of us and what we call the Middle East is really the other side of the world.


A bill seeking to strike derogatory terms like “Oriental” from federal law has passed both chambers of Congress unanimously and is heading to the president’s desk.

H.R.4238, which Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y. introduced in December, passed the House in February and the Senate on Monday.

The bill seeks to “modernize” terms in federal laws relating to marginalized groups, and would replace the word “Oriental” with the phrase “Asian American.”

“I thank my colleagues in the House and Senate for understanding that the time has come for our government to no longer refer to Asian Americans — or any ethnicity — in such an insulting manner,” Meng said. “Repealing this term is long overdue. ‘Oriental’ no longer deserves a place in federal law, and very shortly it will finally be a thing of the past.”

 The proposed law seeks changes in two specific lines in the U.S. code written in the late 1970s that attempted to define minorities. In the law that established the Department of Energy, a sentence regarding the Office of Minority Economic Impact describes a minority as “a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish-speaking individual of Spanish descent.”


Secondly, a line in the Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act regarding minority business enterprises establishes minorities as “Negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts.”


Both phrases containing the words “Negro” and “Oriental” will now be replaced with “African American” and “Asian American.” “Native Hawaiian” and “Pacific Islander” will additionally be included in the new descriptors.


“Spanish-speaking” will also become “Hispanic”; “Eskimo” and “Aleut” will be changed to “Alaska Natives”; and “Indian” will turn into “Native American.”


Other parts of the government, from time to time, revise their definitions of groups – most noteworthy is the Census Bureau. For example:


According to the census graphic, the 1790 survey offered just three racial options for a household: “free white females and males,” “slaves” and “all other free persons.” By 1850, the available categories were “black; mulatto” or “white.” Native Americans do not show up on the form until 1860 — as “Indians” — the same year “Chinese” first appears. People whose ancestry traces to India don’t have an option until 1920, when “Hindu,” a religious identity and not an ethnic one, appeared for the first and only time. There are no Latino or Hispanic options on the questionnaire until 1930, when “Mexican” appears. But that option went away after that survey, and all Latino/Hispanic choices completely disappear from the form for the next several decades. They don’t show up again until 1970.

The Huffington Post wrote that in one of its more prominent changes, the Census Bureau announced in 2013 it would no longer use the word “Negro” on its forms after almost a century of use.

When Meng was in the New York Assembly in 2009, she authored a similar bill removing “Oriental” from state laws.

To be called an Oriental denotes an “otherness” without giving any indication of your identity or heritage, except to say you are in the “out” group.

By inference, then, who’s in the “in” group? Self-named, self-appointed Westerners, Occidentals or Europeans and their descendants.

Words matter – a lot.

(Ed Diokno writes a blog :Views From The Edge: news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.)

(AsAmNews is an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. You can show your support by liking our Facebook page at  www.facebook.com/asamnews, following us on Twitter and sharing our stories).


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