Despite a federal government ban of the word “Oriental” to describe Asian Americans in federal documents, the state of Missouri still uses the antiquated term in official forms and documents — including employment applications.
“It’s a blanket term for things that are Eastern, and it’s not a term Asian Americans would use to refer to themselves,” said Jennifer Hill, a local attorney and president of the Asian American Bar Association of Kansas City. The association is made up of attorneys, law students and judges in the Kansas City area who promote diversity, cultural awareness and Asian Americans in the field of law.
“It’s a term that serves as a reference point for Europeans or Americans that characterizes an ‘other.’ ... It was much more popular during the time the government was taking steps to ban the immigration of Asians into the country.”
The bar association may pursue changes to the state’s wording in official documents, Hill said.
“I would like to see Missouri follow the lead and the standard the federal government took in saying that words matter and that it’s important to be conscientious of the language you use and to be respectful of different perspectives and cultural sensitivities,” Hill said.
In May 2016, President Barack Obama signed into federal law a bipartisan measure to stop using the terms “Negro” and “Oriental” in federal documents. The new official federal terms: African-American and Asian-American.
That bill also changed references from “American Indian” to Native American. “American Indian” is still used in Missouri state documents.
Some states banned “Oriental” before the federal change: Washington state in 2002 and New York in 2009. Kansas does not appear to use the term on any of its documents or forms.
The Star found nine examples of state forms and documents that use the term. Missouri state officials did not respond to requests for interviews.
▪ State of Missouri’s Application for Employment
▪ Department of Administration’s Division of Personnel’s 2016 Annual Workforce report
▪ Department of Mental Health’s Adult Supported Community Living form
▪ Office of State Courts Administrator’s Juvenile Risk Assessment Form
▪ Department of Health and Senior Services’ Application for Record Review
▪ Department of Natural Resources’ Summer Professional Development Program Application
▪ Department of Social Services’ Child Welfare Manual
▪ Gaming Commission employment application
▪ Division of Fire Safety employment application
“Oriental” is considered vaguely offensive, said Frank Wu, law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and author of “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White” and “Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment.”
“It’s not the N-word, but it’s an antiquated term,” Wu said. “It connotes exoticism and that people don’t belong here. One of the big struggles of Asian Americans since their arrival is to establish that we’re Americans, not foreigners, tourists, spies or saboteurs.
“Once you realize this word is at best antiquated, and at worst interpreted as bigoted, why would you keep using it when Asian-American is an accepted neutral alternative? It’s no different from the change from ‘Negro’ to ‘African-American.’ If someone today says ‘Negro,’ you do a double take.”
Alice Yu, president of the University of Missouri’s Asian American Association, said that while “Oriental” is not on the same level as other slurs against Asian-Americans, it is insulting and exclusionary.
“If people don’t want to be referred to as ‘Oriental,’ please don’t. It’s about their culture, their people,” she said.
She said she would like to see the state use “Asian-American” instead, or have more specific options like “Asian Pacific American” or “Asian Pacific Islander American.”
“Asians are not just Japanese, Chinese or Koreans,” she said.
Language is complicated — it changes over time and reflects the current culture, Wu said.
“This isn’t just semantics. It’s about respect, autonomy, self-definition and getting to write the story of your own life,” he said.
“If you’re friends with someone, you learn their name. It’s a sign of respect. It’s only people with power but no empathy who assign a name to someone else. So if you would accept an individual introducing herself by her real name, the same is true of communities. They should have the authority to declare who they are. To deny that is to deny equality.”