Life/Culture

Another Insitution Is Taking 'Oriental' Out Of Its Name

In 2016, President Obama signed a law removing the word "Oriental" from federal language and replacing it with "Asian Americans."

Another Insitution Is Taking 'Oriental' Out Of Its Name
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The marquee outside a downtown Chicago theater reads "Nederlander," but it wasn't always that way. 

For most of its existence since 1926, it was known as the "Oriental." But, many find the word offensive, and it's on its way out — and not just in the Windy City. 

"Most people are familiar with the term Oriental but don't really know where it comes from or why it arises," said Jenn Fang, founder of Reappropriate, an Asian American online publication.

Oriental is defined by Merriam Webster as "of, relating to, or coming from Asia and especially eastern Asia." It goes on to describe the word's connection to colonialism and how it has been used to label Asian people as strange and exotic. For many, using it to describe a person is dehumanizing. 

"That idea of Oriental exists relationally to the idea of the West, so it's sort of the West as familiar or comfortable, culturally sort of the norm, and oriental referring to everything we think of as eastern exotic, alien and unfamiliar," Fang said. 

Initially "Oriental" was used to describe the Middle East and later Asia. Palestinian American academic Edward Said explored the term in his 1978 book "Orientalism," arguing it projected a false sense of "otherness" that supported western colonialism. 

"It's something that feels like it goes back to the time when it was popular, which is the late 19th century and early 20th century," Fang said. "That has those connotations of a much more racist time as well, a time when laws were being used to exclude Asian people, not just Chinese people, but people from all over Asia, from the United States."

In 2016, President Barack Obama signed a law removing the word "Oriental" from federal language and replacing it with "Asian Americans."  

'Oriental' and 'Negro' Will No Longer Appear In U.S. Federal Law
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'Oriental' and 'Negro' Will No Longer Appear In U.S. Federal Law

The derogatory terms will be replaced with "Asian American" and "African American."

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Maruchan changed its "Oriental" flavor of ramen noodles to now say it tastes like soy sauce. In the U.K., the University of Oxford dropped the word to describe its Asian and Middle Eastern studies program. 

While the word "Oriental" has been eliminated from federal law language, noodle flavors, and theaters, Fang says the word continues to be used by those who aren’t aware or educated about its context.   

"The orient to me is where Asians are from. It was exotic so I don’t find it offensive," said Melissa Fisher, an Asian American business woman. 

In Redlands, California, the city council voted down a proposal to change the name of its "Oriental Avenue" after some objected to losing part of the local culture.    

"I think it's extremely important not to erase history and skim things over. I don't find it offensive. Oriental and occidental is a direction," Fisher said. 

Fang argues the word "Oriental" isn’t something that came from Asians, but rather a label put upon them.  

"When Said was using Orientalism to talk about racism and sort of this construction of Asia as foreign and exotic and dehumanized, that is the context in which that term exists, and I think when we have lost that context. It can really easily lead to this confusion that the term may be just is sort of benign," Fang said. 

Back in Chicago, the theater's name was changed in 2019 with very little push back or notice in Chicago. Another organization just a few miles down, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, is also getting revamped with a new name starting next year. Already, the branding for the archeology museum has been increasingly "O.I."