Why is Oriental Offensive?


Why is Oriental Offensive?

When we hear the word oriental we normally associate the word with something or someone coming from the orient, but where is the orient and why does ‘oriental, represent offensiveness?

Delving deeper into history the Orient was used to refer to the East. Anything coming from the East or the Far East was dubbed as oriental. In the early days of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan to name a few famous European explorers who discovered lands from the East; these lands were countries from what we now recognize as Asia. Asia was once unknown, untouched by civilization, and the people from countries of this era were considered primitive and exotic bordering on the barbaric; a race being considered as inferior to the more educated and civilized people of the North (Europeans).
From this perspective it all boils down to Eurocentric implications as viewing everything in relation to cultural and historical influence suggesting predominance of the European culture and race.
Is oriental then simply an issue of racial discrimination? Where people of black origins were referred to as Negro to what is preferred today as African American or Black African? It is fascinating to note that oriental when referred to a certain food, oriental dish or object such as an oriental rug is not considered derogatory as opposed to calling someone, ‘that Oriental man,. The acceptable term used for oriental especially in Northern America is Asian. Asian, meaning: Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Mongols, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Malaysians, Indonesians, and etc.
Why is oriental offensive? Is it a matter of general opinion where the preference of the majority dictates what is offensive? Does personal opinion no longer count in the general scheme of society? It is interesting to know that the word oriental if spoken in Asia whether being referred to a person or not is not considered offensive at all. I cannot speak for everybody but being an Asian myself with oriental ancestry, the word oriental has never occurred to me as offensive.

Author: M Catarata

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23 Responses

  1. Larry Lix

    December 19, 2011 12:35 am

    “oriental” being politically incorrect or offensive is just another example of people attempting to start a “chain-letter” or “fad” around the world so they can tell people “I started that”.

    With this tiny gloge using the Internet for high speed communication, people just love to start a rumour, only to see it explode and come back to them, after infecting the world with their disease. This is the analogous to the computer virus writers. It is the latest sickness affecting us via electronic media.

    “Oriental” was and never will be offensive to people from those origins as evidenced by so many North American “Oriental” restaurants and “Oriental” societies named by the very culture themselves.

    North Americans, grow a pair and stop being so gullible. Our English laguage has been destroyed by this very technique of people attempting to coin a phrase for world recognition by the “look-at-me” crowd.

    “Asian” is not a correct term for this culture of people. Russians are Asian and not “Oriental”, as well as are Arabs, Iraelites, Lebanese and Siberians. “North Americans” is likelwise not correct for all “Christians” or “whites” in the world.

    Geez people! We have to start ignoring this influx of stupidity to preserve what we have left of our sanities. Just because one person says it and another repeats it does not make it true. I mean look at the people that think the movie hoax “nitro-glycerin” is real or even the biggest one of all… the “Global Warming” scam.

    • Guine

      July 20, 2012 2:41 pm

      I can agree with the sentiment, but you’re on the wrongest track possible as far as the internet having started this. The term Oriental has been confusing me in its offensiveness since well before the internet was around.

      • CC

        November 18, 2012 12:30 pm

        It’s only “offensive” because it is a means of identifying a people/culture/region directly through the perspective of another people/culture/region, and not as an independent entity.
        “Asian,” “East Asian,” “Chinese,” etc. all stand on their own as identifiers of people/places, etc. but “oriental” simply means “East of here” with ‘here’, in the beginnings, meaning “Europe.”
        Use of the term can be read as (intentionally or unintentionally) Euro-centric.

        • Cloudy

          December 11, 2012 10:18 pm

          I don’t think that identifying a people/culture/region through the perspective of a different people/culture/region is offensive in the least. It’s merely a convenient way of differentiating between different groups, and convenient doesn’t imply or even suggest offensive.
          For starters, most Americans, in an attempt at being politically correct, usually end up getting it way wrong.
          For example: not all white people are Caucasian. Caucasian people come from the Caucasus mountains region of Eurasia…not all African Americans are black (e.g. Charlize Theron is South African raised in U.S. and also white)…these misnomers bug me to no end because they are just completely uninformed. However, I don’t find them necessarily offensive because people use them with good intentions, they are just trying to be polite (even if they are dead wrong).
          But back to the original issue of whether “oriental” is offensive…I think this is just an American phenomenon (and by American I mean of the United States). I think it stems from the fact that most people probably do not realize that the word “Orient”, meaning East, exists in conjunction with another word, “Occident”, meaning West. Somehow the word “Oriental” became more common than “Easterner” to describe people from the East. Similarly, the word “Westerner” became more common than “Occidental” to describe people from the West. “Westerner” is certainly not an offensive term at all. Actually, it’s quite normal. But somehow, “Oriental” developed this bizarre stigma. It’s funny because “Orient” and “East” are literally synonymous. I think it’s just another example of American over-sensitivity to issues that aren’t issues.

          • Pier

            May 23, 2013 2:11 am

            The term “Orientals” has a very distinct racist history in the US. In most of the US, “Oriental” has become the catch-all phrase to avoid/deny any distinction between nations/cultures. You’re correct about the inaccuracy of Caucasian, Asian and African-American, but the bottom line is that those terms that are widely accepted in the US as a means of identifying by race with no particular pejorative implication. In general they are what people who self-identify in those group prefer to be called. There has never been a group of racists who identified all South-East Asians as “Asians”. The KKK meanwhile absolutely embraced “Orientals” and so have most other hate groups not out of convenience but in a deliberate attempt to deny distinctive cultures.

            It’s interesting that Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc in their native countries are fine with the term, but it’s certainly not the first time when a word has had different meanings depending on its local history.

            There’s nothing inherently derogatory about the word “Colored” either. It’s about who used it and why.

            I’m not of “Asian” descent so the only frame of reference I have is that I prefer to distinguish myself from the racist history of the term in my country. But if “Asians” want to reclaim the word, I’m certainly trying to be aware of whatever makes any person most comfortable. I’m going to stop putting Asians in quotes now.

        • Vanessa

          March 8, 2013 3:58 am

          Right. So Europeans were “Racist” for referring to asia as being in the direction east from where they then lived (and where the english word “Oriental” was coined.) What Europeans SHOULD have done is refer to Asia as the land that lies in a compass direction that was relative to Asia or some other landmass wherein they did NOT reside, thus making Asia or some other place the central coordinate from which to designate direction. So, for example a better word might have been “centralia” if measuring relative to Asia or “south-ylvania” if measure relatively from the North Pole! Gotcha. Maybe it was racist to for Europeans to live in such a racist place (Europe) that only had Europeans living in it and was not Asia. Gotcha. Europe was not Asia, and so it is anti-Asian. And we must assume you’re also not racist, I take it. Gotcha. Great Logic!

          • CC

            March 22, 2013 1:14 am

            I’m not entirely sure what Vanessa is talking about, but perhaps it might be helpful to clarify our use of the term “offensive” when referring to using “Oriental” to describe those from Asia.

            Offensive is probably not the best word here. The term “Oriental” may not offend any number of people, and to whom it’s offensive really isn’t the point. The only reason we can successfully use the term “Oriental” to describe Asians is that Asians were discovered as Europeans explored east of Europe. From other vantage points around the globe, or if Europeans had discovered Asia by traveling west (which would have take a while :), “Oriental” wouldn’t have made any sense as a descriptor for Asians. Similarly, if indigenous people from Australia, Africa or even North America had discovered Asia, the term “Oriental” would never have been introduced as a descriptor for Asians.

            So, we know that a small subset of the world’s population (Europeans) happened to become dominant and colonized much of that entire region of the world. They took over lands and resources, forced or attempted to force their cultures and religions on the indigenous people, AND they also referred to those people as Easterners (Orientals), as opposed to using the names of the lands that the inhabitants actually used (China, etc.). This unwillingness to identify people by their chosen names, but rather to identify them solely by their geographical relation to historical colonizers (Europeans), can be seen as not respecting the identities of that population.

            It is really a misnomer, like the term Caucasian, which was also brought up on this site. The fact that this misnomer happens to disregard the native identities of the people of a very large and diverse continent is the tricky and not so desirable thing.

      • libertymentor

        September 18, 2014 11:01 pm

        I would not at all be offended if an Asian called me Occidental. The fact that I am of N.European ancestry is merely an “occident” of birth. “Oh look dear, there’s an Occidental rug”…would make perfect sense to me. I think those who find offense in this term “Oriental” are making old fashioned mountains out of molehills. (Oh, but Biden is an idiot, liar, and war criminal. But that’s beside the point.)

  2. ZimbaZumba

    January 27, 2012 5:11 pm

    The word ‘Oriental’ is not offensive. It is used all over the Far East and to me has always conjured up postive connotations. It is a wonderful word and it would be a shame to lose it from the language.

    A group somewhere decided to declare it as offensive for reasons best known to themselves.

  3. HaeWonHansen

    March 28, 2012 8:28 pm

    I am American of Korean descent, and agree that it is strange that “Oriental” has become “offensive” and on the politically correct list of banned words. There is nothing derogatory about it. It comes from the Latin word root ORIENS, which simply means “East”. To call someone and Oriental is simply to call them an Easterner. Much in the way that Orientals will refer to Europeans as Westerners.

    Europeans have used “Oriental” to mean the farthest-East known people to them. Long ago, it was used to refer to Arabic people, since what we now know as the Middle East was the farthest Eastern civilization known to Europeans.

    As Europeans came into contact with China, Korea & Japan, Oriental came to mean those farthest-East-Asian people who we would culturally call the “Sino-cultures” (cultures where China was the major sphere of influence) and racially call the “Mongoloid” people of the Asian continent. That is what “Oriental” has come to mean, because those are the people who live on the far Eastern edge of the Asian continent.

    Asia has many races and sub-races who are distinct from each other! Arabs, Persians, Caucasians, Turks, South Asians (Indians & Pakistanis & Indonesians), Malay (who are more similar to Polynesians or Australian Aboriginals), and ORIENTALS aka far-East-Asians who are racially “different” than the above mentioned Asian groups.

    Not everyone is good at Geography. Sometimes, just wanting a sense of someone’s “race” saying they are a “Westerner” is better than giving a place-location, such as “Latvian” or “Bulgarian” or “Belgian”. Likewise, sometimes when giving a “racial” sense of who I am, it is nice to use “Oriental” is a very easy way for Westerners to understand. Asian is too broad since the Asian Continent is so huge and has so many races as discussed above. Maybe they don’t know where Korea, or Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or Viet Nam, or Mongolia are on the map anymore than most Orientals know exactly where Latvia is? Saying “Westerner” or “Oriental” is an easy way.

    • CC

      March 22, 2013 1:22 am

      Agreed! Haha. “untouched by civilization” “exotic” are just euro-centric descriptions of people and cultures different than the Europeans that discovered them. Even saying that these lands and people’s were “discovered,” which I’m guilty of myself in earlier posts, isn’t very polite. The indigenous Asians didn’t need any help from Europe to discover their homes.

  4. Timothy Rigney

    October 23, 2012 5:01 am

    Oriental is offensive because the word basically has the same root meaning – “oriented” – direction, in other words – it’s “oriented” east *in relation to* the West. Note where I’ve capitalized and not – that’s not idle. It IS offensive seen in that light because in relation to the East, Europe and America are equally considered to be oriented west and therefore could just as well be called “The Orient.”

    • Sam

      November 22, 2012 11:30 am

      That’s a definition that most people simply won’t even consider. There’s a difference between a definition that means “east” and a term that defines your present location e.g. “orientation.” it’s two different concepts and there is certainly nothing offensive about either term if used properly. I have never used the word “oriental” in a derogatory way yet some people insist that it is not politically correct. Frankly I could use the word “Asian” and lose no sleep over it at all. Could the word police elaborate further until we hear something more definitive?

    • Cloudy

      December 11, 2012 10:28 pm

      You’re way off on that one. “Orient” didn’t come out of thin air to describe everything east of the west because the west was somehow better. “Orient” literally means “east”, and “OCCIDENT” means “west”. They are a pair…

      None of your explanations make any sense…

  5. Kyle

    February 19, 2013 2:20 am

    What about the way women discriminate against men who are not their lovers and friends when they compliment parts of their bodies,i.e. bosom,cleavage,etc. and needlessly incriminate over nothing but a few innocent,trivial,inoffensive words?

  6. Arthur

    May 26, 2013 4:37 am

    A number of years ago, unaware that it was considered offensive by many people, I used the term ‘oriental’ in the presence of a Philippine coworker. He took offense, and asked me how I would feel if someone called me ‘occidental’. I told him I wouldn’t have the slightest problem with it.

    But that’s an illustration of the point about whether or not a term is offensive. Whether or not something is offensive is determined by whomever might be offended by it. So I try to respect that. As a result of that exchange, I don’t use the word anymore even though I might not fully understand why it’s offensive.

  7. Jay

    June 7, 2013 5:39 am

    Let’s face it, some liberal oriental feminazi chick started yelling about this innocuous and correct term because Orientals are very accepted (or tolerated) in our society. Sure, we say they can’t drive, and the men have small schwanstukers, but other than that, it’s “well they’re good at math”, which may be racist, but hardly offensive. In other words, some liberal wanted more attention. We need to use this term whenever possible to beat back the PC BS invading our land.

  8. Meaghan

    July 7, 2013 8:04 pm

    “Oriental” is seen as potentially derogatory because it is Eurocentric. It means literally “the east,” and therefore describes a culture in direct comparison to another culture: “the west.” By saying “oriental,” it is not allowing a people or a culture to exist independently of the European mindset. Also, in American culture, it has a lot of history behind it that has negative connotations. Many hate groups have referred to those of Asian descent as oriental, and a sharp images of all Asian stereotypes come to mind when the word “oriental” is thrown around. Now, some people may not understand why that could be offensive– and that’s okay. But we cannot disregard history, and we cannot disregard that many feel marginalized by it.

  9. Hmm

    December 6, 2013 3:06 am

    Replacing “oriental” with “Asian” is silly though. What about everyone from the Indian sub-continent or some of the former Soviet states to the South of Russia?

  10. Chris

    August 15, 2014 2:48 pm

    My interest in this subject is that I am married to a Chinese woman and have mixed race children.

    As stated above, Asians of non-US descent generally are not offended by the term and personally I don’t think it is so much offensive as it is dated and archaic when referring to people.

    It is up there with the childhood memory I have of my sweet old Aunt C. (god rest her soul) referring to our black waitress as ‘a cute little chocolate girl…’

    More embarrassing than anything…

  11. Ironic

    June 7, 2016 8:08 am

    I know this is an old post but according to the logic that Oriental is offensive based its Eurocentric origins, Native Americans should be offended by the term American which means “New World” which could not be more Eurocentric. The examples of people groups that don’t realize they should be offended are endless.


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