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The Root of Orientalism

Updated on July 4, 2017

This hub focuses on analyzing the term Orientalism, including its meaning and origin within historical contexts. Accordingly, this term has employed by various scholars, particularly those from the West, within the discipline of history, geography, literature and culture as way of depicting “Oriental” or Eastern cultures. These cultures consist of people living south East Culture, South Asia, Middle East, and North Africa. Since Said’s publication of his book “Orientalism” in 1978, the term Orientalism, received a new academic discourse by being chiefly used in reference to the perceived negative attitude towards Eastern Societies as a means of justifying Western imperialism. Said espouses that the term Orient was generated from the West and exists according to the wishes of the West (51).

According to Turner, Orientalism legacy has its roots from the West including educational institutions, intellectual traditions, political systems and social sciences that seem to be value free (78). The creation of the Orient paradigm is a depiction of colonial intentions, dominance and politics. As a discourse, Orientalism consists of a network of concepts, categories, tables of which the Orient is controlled and defined simultaneously. It represents an imagined world by the West alongside its joined universalistic ideas. Further, these represented European understanding of themselves as being superior socially and culturally to “others”.

In fact, the constant use of the term Orient, made the Europeans to have a negative attitude towards the subjects of their colonies. A good example is the French colonies especially within the Vietnamese and other parts of the tropics. Despite the geography in the Tropic of Capricorn and Cancer being characterized with spiders, insects, rodents and other creatures, the French considered the presence of these aspects as signs of primitiveness among the subjects of their colonies. These insects and rats were associated with the spread of plagues which according to the French colonists was a result of the Vietnamese backwardness (Vann 204).

Cooper and Stoler (points out that the colonists viewed those they colonized as “lesser beings” or “others”. Further, the “otherness” of the colonized person had to be defined and maintained. This included even in the social boundaries. Owing to this perception, the colonists focused themselves on civilizing the locals so that they can be modernized. Among the ways in which they did this was to train the locals in matters of agriculture, becoming obedient citizens in a bureaucratic nation as well as acquisition of various skills and professionals to modernize them. However, they did not want them to become at par with them. In other words, the colonists had the notion that their subjects were quite primitive and hence, they had to civilize them into becoming better workers, subjects and farmers. Further, this perception made the Europeans to be very consideration on how to interact with the subjects in the colonies, how to relate with them sexually, how and with whom to stay with and for how they could stay in the specific colonies (607-620).

Despite the negative connation of the word “Orientation” as a depiction of people from primitive backgrounds, the word has been commonly employed by many citizens in U.S either in reference to Asian Americans or as a reference to the Asians themselves. What many are however not aware is that the word is racist in nature and depicts a certain culture negatively (Wang 1). With the realization of the sensitivity of this term Orientalism among others, members of Asian American Caucus have been advocating for removal of this word, among others such as Eskimo, Negro, Spanish et cetera from American laws. This campaign has been successful since, on May, 2016, President Obama signed into law a bill that outlawed the use of racially offensive words from federal laws (Helm 1).

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