By Cherie M. Querol Moreno
Philippine News April 10 - 16, 2002
OLYMPIA, Wash. - Anyone who studied Asian American history knows that the word “Oriental” conjures up images of people less than savage as the term was used in Europe and then the United States in the last three centuries. And now the state of Washington has officially acknowledged the term as derogatory and offensive and banned it from all public text.
“Asian” rather than “Oriental” will be used to refer to the people of the racial category in all government statutes, codes, and regulations, even if many unknowingly interchange the “O” word with the term “Asian,” and that covers anything Filipino American.
“Oriental” will be stricken from all government documents here beginning July 1, 2002, thanks to state Senator Paull Shin, key sponsor of Senate Bill 5954 or legislation Updating Obsolete Language. First introduced in February 2001, the bill was passed in the state Senate and House in March 2002. Governor Gary Locke, the first governor of Asian descent on the mainland, signed it April 2.
“I cannot tell you how proud I am of our state for finally passing a law that simply says Washington will no longer tolerate offensive words in our laws and regulations,” Shin, a Democrat representing Edmonds and the only Asian Pacific American incumbent in the Washington State Senate, told Philippine News.
When used to describe inanimate objects, “oriental” is the appropriate adjective, such as “oriental rug” or “oriental jewelry.” In reference to the people and the culture, “oriental” is fraught with negative stereotypes ascribed to Asians by westerners.
“The word ‘oriental’ carries with it racist overtones and anyone who thinks that those offended by it are just hypersensitive do not understand the implications of what it means to be stereotyped,” Washington Rep. Velma Veloria told PNews.
The Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language in its updated revised deluxe edition defines the term as “pertaining to or characteristic of the Orient or the East, belonging to a geographical division comprising Asia and the Malay archipelago or a native or inhabitant of the orient.” Printed in 1996, the entry does not indicate the term as offensive.
Originally meant “from the direction of the rising sun,” according to Shin, the term “has absorbed the connotations of centuries of colonialism and oppression.”
Shin explained why he first proposed the legislation in February 2001: “Beginning in the 17th century, the British empire popularized the use of the word Oriental, which was a western way to refer to someone from east of London. Use of this pejorative word is no longer appropriate when referring to people. My greatest concern is for our youth -that they learn to be more sensitive to different cultures and ideas. And that they pass that sensitivity to future generations. I hope this new, long overdue law will help them do so.”
Many Asian Americans are unaware that the term “Oriental” is offensive because the term is often used in their home countries to refer to its citizens, the Philippines included, especially because the Philippines is also known as the “Pearl of the Orient.” In Europe and the United States, however, the term acquired a Eurocentric depiction of the worst of Asian habits and lifestyles. Hence the word “Oriental” was spoken with derision. To Asian Americans who know its historical reference, the term is as repugnant as the “N” word used to slur African Americans. “Many people didn’t realize the term had negative connotations,” Shin legislative aide Scott Passey told PNews how constituents responded to consultations about the issue. “But once they understood, they were very agreeable. A few simply refused to believe the word was negative despite the historical evidence and dictionary references.”
“The major issue here is one of self-identity and self-determination,” Shin stressed. “Members of the Asian community have told me that they are offended to be referred to as ‘Oriental’ in our state statutes. The definition of the word notwithstanding, its various applications, such as ‘exotic,’ ‘strange,’ and so forth is demeaning. While many Asians under European colonial influence have not been educated to the application of the word, they now understand its meaning and connotations. This is similar to the reason why blacks do not wish to be called ‘Negros (sic).’”
Washington has one of the highest concentrations of Asians in the United States, 395,741 of single-race or in combination with one or more other races, 65,373 single-race Filipinos among them. The state is one of the few to elect Filipino Americans to the Legislature. Besides Veloria, there’s David Valderrama (D-Maryland), Jon Amores (D-West Virginia, and Jeff Coleman (D-Pennsylvania) on the mainland, Republican David Pendleton among a handful state representatives in Hawaii.) It is the home of the International District, an area in downtown Seattle where many Asians first settled.
Washington State is the birthplace of the Filipino American National Historical Society which has chapters throughout the United States. In the middle 1980s, the state was represented by a Filipino American in the Miss America beauty pageant.
SB5954 was co-sponsored by state Senators Roach, Oke, Costa, Patterson, Hargrove, T. Sheldon, Hochstatter , Eide and Jacobsen. The legislation encountered a few humps along the way. “When the bill was brought up in the House last year, we were in a 49-49 tie,” Veloria told PNews. “The co-chair of State Government, Rep. Cathy McMorris who happens to be Republican, killed the bill in committee. Our whole Democratic caucus was in disbelief.
“This year because of the House Democrats’ one vote majority, the bill was passed out of the committee and unto the House floor, thus allowing passage,” Veloria expressed relief.
Locke signed the bill to law one month early for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
For the record, my half-white ass has never been bothered by that word. Pfft. Thank you Kris for bringing this to my attention, so I can laugh at it.