Orientalism: Past and Present

SABRINA ZHAO

Orientalism is, has been, and continues to be a tool and a lurking justification for the dehumanization of Asian-Americans. It is pervasive in the construction of inward and outward perception of the self. It is deeply integrated with the very concept of Western and white identity. And, with increasing outbursts of justice for Asian-Americans in all social forms, we often tend to forget and leave behind the members of the original Orient. Though I am glad that Asian-Americans get the representation they deserve, I am deeply disturbed by the lack of focus and support towards communities that stem from regions considered of the Orient, especially during times when they need it most. It is irresponsible in every aspect to attempt to grow and enact change without constant and continuous reference to the roots of an issue. As such, we must never forgo the acknowledgement of Orientalism in discussions of Neo-Orientalism, as its implications are severe.

Orientalism contains a deep alignment with the advancements of the West, affecting an incredible amount of aspects that make up Occidental culture. Ironically, we have to think of the teleological results of Orientalism. Its construction, fake deconstruction, and metamorphosis are all factors that have provided a devastating impact that all Asians feel, but in various contexts and levels. In its construction, we must acknowledge the damage done by the grip of colonialism and European imperialism. In false deconstruction, we must consider the clinical dissection of the Orient, and how false borders and grouping (based off Eurocentric scientific and mathematical procedure) pushed for erasure and in-fighting between these false boundaries. In reconstruction, we must not only look deeply but also create an empathetic link to the ones who are attacked by Orientalism overall: the native people, the diaspora, and those even more marginalized within these two groups.

The construction of Orientalism may have been described as a learning, interactive endeavor, but in history, it has proved to be a movement of suppression, ego-boosting, dehumanization, and theft of both cultures and resources. Colonialism and its evils—especially in India and neighboring countries— perpetuates the continuous profit of Western imperialism and the displacement of the people that are preyed upon. Even today, when we think of the concept of the museum (i.e The British Museum), we must remember that many artifacts we see were not donated willingly. Theft and pillaging brought about the abundance of museums and, overall, the abundance of the West. Statues from Easter Island, precious metals and minerals from India, Mesopotamian records and more are all withheld from their rightful owners and their historians for the sake of gatekeeping and an inherent disrespect towards places deemed undeveloped by the West. If due reparations were paid, our museums would be empty, and so would the West. Not only was Orientalism a vehicle of theft, but also of self-gratification for the white hand in power, who deems it right to cast a dehumanizing, flattening gaze that has permeated internal and social behaviors of international society (i.e colorism).

In the false deconstruction of the Orient, the Western-produced concepts of borders and ethnic groups were created, often with scientific backing, like the census. Because of our inherent tendency to regard scientific evidence as reputable, we often forget to question the motives and intent behind the work. The creation of the “Asian” grouping and other unnatural ethnic or cultural groups is political. The separation of landmasses and erection of borders is political. And, we all must understand just what these politics mean in terms of hegemony and control. Even in the U.S., we see these restraints placed on Asian-Americans as a whole, completely disregarding the very obvious financial and class inequality between different ethnic groups. Underrepresented Asian ethnic groups—Filipino, Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, etc.—suffer tremendously because of generalization, distorting their chances of representation in every field affected by the Bamboo Ceiling. Middle Eastern people and their respective ethnicities are homogenized often with South Asian groups and are often correlated as the reason for horrific hate crimes like acid attacks in the UK or murders in the USA post 9/11 Islamophobia.

When looking at any type of ethnographic survey, more often than not, there is not a clear distinction within the Asian category, preventing information needed by more marginalized Asian-Americans to come to light. Asia as a whole has been dissected in a way that endangers and erases the ones who are not properly represented. We cannot only bring up microaggressions and the shallow commentary on representation politics. While they are important, we have to spread the focus. We must also record the history of ones who fled here, of refugees who fled from genocide in Cambodia, of refugees who ran to survive from Western made wars in the Middle East, of refugees who were forced to leave Palestine because Britain decided that (out of actual antisemitism) Mandate Palestine had to become Israel, and for all the people who came here because the West made their homes a place where they could not safely live and thrive. There is so much history and culture swept underneath the rug, and if we do not show the world that it exists, if we do not share the burden, then we have failed in our acts of solidarity and failed to uphold the ones who are in the most need.

When considering reconstruction, we must look toward those who are far away, still trapped under the blanket of Orientalism and unable to escape because our countries refuse to take them wholeheartedly. The reconstruction of Orientalism completes the cycle; dehumanizing those who are out of reach for the sake of capitalization and self-gratification. We know about the Middle East, its suffering, its trials, and the diaspora that we interact with on an almost daily basis. And yet, do we make efforts to protect them in a way that is appropriate? If we don’t actively ensure the safety of our peers here, then are we at least looking out for the ones abroad? In truth, we don’t. So often in our media do we see graphic images of people getting hurt and killed from Western-installed violence. We see such bloody and disturbing images and videos (like ones of dead Syrian children or people within Gaza getting shot down by the IDF) and do we blink an eye? Do we realize that our consumption of their pain shows a moral and empathetic disconnect between ourselves and other humans? Turning the pain of people into eye-catching clickbait is at the least disgusting and at the most an extreme signal of Orientalism’s thriving dehumanization of foreign people of color. A desensitized gaze in this case is an Orientalist gaze. If this does not change, then Orientalism will live on.

We must constantly remember the past. We must constantly think about the things we do not know. I can say wholeheartedly, that thinking about the history that has created today, is the only way that we, as Asian Americans and society as a whole, will be able to fix ourselves accordingly. Who else will protect us when we pass, and remember our fight for our justice if we cannot begin that timeline here and now? A continued lack of action will result in the erasure of our brothers and sisters on different shores. And then, within the shadow of an Orientalist world, our peers will vanish. And finally, our light will be gone as well.

VIEW ISSUE III