Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Oriental Institute is no doubt next

"Western Gentleman in Oriental Costume" by unknown British painter
Metropolitan Museum of Art


     Workmen changed the letters on the sign of the Oriental Theater Wednesday night—a Facebook friend sent me a video of himself and a pal, having just seen "Kinky Boots," heckling the workers.
    "Blasphemy! Sacrilege!" one cried, while the other chimed in, "Boooo! Boooo!"
    Yes, change, how we hate it, sometimes.
     The official renaming, to the James M. Nederlander Theatre, is Feb. 8—my pal Chris Jones has a comprehensive story in the Tribune. He explains that there is no reason to get all weepy over the loss of the "Oriental" name; that wasn't even the original name of the  original theater in the site: The Iroquois Theater, the one that notoriously burned in 1903, with a loss of 600 lives, which puts disputes over names in context.
      "Oriental" has to go because the term is now considered offensive. I don't have a dog in this race, but my opinion on the subject was well-expressed by Jayne Tsuchiyama in the Los Angles Times in a 2016 piece headlined "The Term 'Oriental' is outdated, but is it racist?"
     She quotes Erika Lee, , director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of "The Making of Asian America: A History:" 

"In the U.S., the term 'Oriental' has been used to reinforce the idea that Asians were/are forever foreign and could never become American. These ideas helped to justify immigration exclusion, racial discrimination and violence, political disfranchisement and segregation." Lee also claimed that continued use of the term "perpetuates inequality, disrespect, discrimination and stereotypes towards Asian Americans."
     Tsuchiyama doesn't buy it.
     "I don't see it that way," she writes. "I see self-righteous, fragile egos eager to find offense where none is intended."
     Racial analysis has a strict set of rules, manners and conventions.
 Tsuchiyama, being Asian herself, has standing to take strong stands that I couldn't prudently adopt.  Though even unfettered, I wouldn't put it that strongly, not only because it would be unwise, but because I have a vague sympathy for those who indulge in such semantic hurtmongering. We're all scrabbling around in society, and there is an immediate power and dignity that comes from objecting to something, from insisting you are being wronged somehow. That's why the Fox crowd, no matter the topic, always veers into their own victimization, whether notional, as is usually the case, or in certain instances real.  It's easy, rewarding, and many people itch to plug into it. Who knows, it might even be sincere. This is not to deny actual oppression. Asian-Americans of course have suffered their share of discrimination, from the abuses against Chinese railroad workers to World War II Japanese interment camps. But there are people who leap to object. The word "oriental" is dying out on its own, as Tsuchiyama notes, and trying to back form it into something offensive is of marginal utility.
     The Federal government banned the word from official documents and now it is being scrubbed from a marque in Chicago. I'd like to say that human tolerance is thereby improved. But I don't see the connection. Maybe the reason we agonize over the frills and trappings is because we can't get close to the heart of the problem.


16 comments:

  1. "I see self-righteous, fragile egos eager to find offense where none is intended." There seems to be a lot of that going around.

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  2. It was always my understanding that an oriental is a person whose heritage is from the orient, a collective definition of the countries of Asia. Is that term no longer allowed? How about its opposite: occident? Perhaps that must be expunged because it denotes a sense of superiority.

    I suppose one must be sensitive. I was terribly wounded upon hearing the old rhyme "Paddy was a Welshman, Paddy was a thief..." A wonder I ever recovered. If I did.

    Tom

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    1. Have you ever heard yourself or anyone you know referred to as Occidental? Yes, it is "allowed", but it's archaic and not very useful, just as Oriental is. Not sure why you think it denotes superiority; that seems to be a connotation you yourself are attaching to it. Which may support the move to relegate these terms to the past.

      Not sure why you'd be offended by that rhyme. I'm not familiar with it, but it seems to refer to a specific person, not all the Welsh. (Now that I look it up, apparently it's actually Taffy, not Paddy.)

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    2. Yes, I misquoted. Paddy would be one of my Celtic cousins from across the Iris Sea. It was a charming little poem taught to English school children, but probably not to kids in Wales. Taffy is a corruption of a common Welsh first name, and it was not intended to be complimentary to the Welsh. Didn't really bother me, but then I didn't grow up there.

      Aside from this one, I can't think of a sentence I would write that would include 'occidental,' but as a matter of principle, dislike the idea of banishing harmless words.

      Tom

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  3. The NAACP is still the NAACP, so there's no reason to change the name of the Oriental Institute.

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    1. I'm not sure what you're saying. The Oriental Institute is not under discussion here. Regardless, are you suggesting the members of the NAACP are fine with being called colored people in their everyday lives? Or is it possible they retained the name (which I think you'll find they seldom refer to other than by its initials) because of its historical value?

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    2. I think she's referring to the Oriental Institute because the offensiveness of the word "oriental" is being discussed.

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    3. You are correct, Neil. And my mistake...I thought the Institute was being discussed.

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  4. Ms. Tsouchiyama grew up in Chicago . we went to grammar and high school together. I find her opinions just as refreshing today as they were standing outside the jack in the box on Addison and western 40 something years ago

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  5. It's not a word that I use, except possibly in reference to rugs. However, it was definitely a word my late mother used, along with Negro and colored. She meant none of those terms to be offensive, but aren't the best judges of whether terms are offensive the people they are used to describe? Tsuchiyama doesn't find it so, but it seems a majority of Asian Americans do. There were certainly a number of black Americans who weren't offended by the terms I mentioned while I was growing up, but I don't think there are many who appreciate it today.

    She says "We have more important things to worry about." Sure. Language is almost never THE most important aspect of an issue. But it's disingenuous to think it has no importance.

    Interestingly, nothing in the Trib article suggests the name is being changed out of any kind of sensitivity or as a response to protest or outrage. Rather, it is being named in honor of the owner's father, who was a prominent theater owner and producer. I find that less jarring then the changing of the Schubert's name to those of various banks.

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  6. Names can be confusing. I'm Caucasian, but never been near the Caucuses.

    Tom

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  7. I'm with Coey. People should get to say what they want to be called. If enough members of a group object to a term applied to that group, it's time to stop using it.

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    1. That sounds common-sense, but is harder than it seems. First, because "people" is a large, varied group, with many opinions. And second because marginalized groups are continually shifting the words used to describe them as those words become pejorative. The term for the disabled changes every decade, or so it seems.

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  8. Some of this debate makes sense to me, much of it does not. I grew up when 'colored' was acceptable, and saw it replaced by "Negro" and then "black", which surprised me, because use of "black" meant you'd better put up your dukes and be ready for a fistfight. Then came "Afro-American"...or is black still the term used? I also grew up hearing "schvartze"--the Yiddish (and German) word for the color black, but it was NOT a term of either endearment or approval...not nearly as bad as the n-word, but nastier than either colored or Negro. Or black, for that matter.

    The older I get, the more confoozed I get. Oriental was always okay, but there was no other commonly-used word for Asians. Better than the "sneaky Japs" my mother would sometimes say during WWII documentaries on TV. "Occidental" was rarely used in everyday speech, not even by occident. Has the property on the Monopoly board been changed yet? Will it need to be?

    Then there's the word "Jew", which can be pejoritive when used the "wrong" way, as in "I jewed him down to a couple of Jacksons"...my mother refused to believe people said this, and always insisted it was "chewed"...okay, Mum, whatever.

    What I learned upon leaving the three-quarters-Jewish community where I grew up was that if somebody asked you "Are you Jewish?" it meant there was a good chance you were talking to a fellow tribesman. If they said "Are you a Jew?" they were probably not one themselves, and you'd better be wary. If you heard "You Jew?" it was time to either defend yourself...or run like hell and not look back. The farther south I went, the more frequently I heard the last one...and it usually came out as "Jeeeew"...painful to my ear. And what ARE the disabled being called this week? I go all the way back to the days of giving to the "Crippled Children's Fund"...ouch.

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    1. I can appreciate that you're taking a somewhat of light-hearted approach to the issue. And of course that's always easier to do when you're not a member of a disadvantaged group. I think I may be somewhat younger than you, but I still remember hearing the terms mongoloid, deaf and dumb, and crippled used by people who meant no offense by them. I also remember being called sweetheart and honey in the workplace. We evolve.

      But seriously, what's wrong with making a (generally minor) effort to call people what they want to be called? And with, if you inadvertently err in this attempt, apologizing and trying to do better in the future? For instance, if for some reason you called someone Afro-American (an expression I haven't heard in decades), and they ask you to use black or African-American, is that such a hardship? A good-faith effort doesn't seem like a lot to ask.

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  9. You're right about "Afro-American"...it's "African-American" now...my mistake. If I'd let that pass during my proofreading and copy editing days, my ass would have been in a sling. And men, as well as women, got called sweetheart and honey, too, by receptionists and hard-boiled waitresses in diners. Some of them still do it today. When I hear that, it doesn't bother me. Maybe I'm not so sensitive.

    Being Jewish gave me a choice early on...either to take a somewhat light-hearted approach (Why are all the great violinists Jewish? Hey, YOU try running with a piano...) or to take offense at every slur and snark and see a Nazi behind every bush. The best thing a Jewish person can have is one deaf ear. When the hate starts, that's the ear you turn toward the haters. I grew up in a predominately Jewish suburb. Didn't need the deaf ear until college...and adulthood. It's worked for me. If all the Jews fought every time they were insulted, we'd have disappeared two thousand years ago.

    As for not being a member of a disadvantaged group, well...not all Jews are became doctors and lawyers and financial wizards. The words "rich" and "successful" do not always precede the J-word, despite what many think. Plenty of poor and struggling Jews right here in America...yes, even in Chicago. Some were born poor. Others made poor life choices. More than a few had plenty of opportunities--but they pissed them away.

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