I recently made the disheartening
discovery that the word “Oriental” has not been
universally relegated to describing rugs and furniture.
While on vacation, I was in a great jazz bar overlooking Lake
Superior when a middle-aged family friend dropped by our table. I
should say that I’ve always thought of this man
affectionately as part of my childhood. I spent many summer days at
his home, playing with his kids, and he has helped me find two
On this occasion, a mutual friend sitting with me asked the man
under discussion how he liked his new apartment. He made the
obligatory comments on the architecture and location before
remarking on the diversity of the apartment complex—arguably
a legitimate comment in Michigan’s homogenous Upper
Peninsula. As part of a brief list of ethnicities, he mentioned
that there were “Orientals” in his building. Until that
moment, I had been watching the band and only half-listening to
this small talk, but I snapped my gaze to him when he used the
I looked for any indication of his intent in using the slur but
could gather none. I was astonished — I’d never heard
anyone outside movies and books actually use the term
“Oriental” to describe people. Moreover, I was confused
as the offensive word had come from a man I respected and had never
known to be racist.
Conversation moved on without a pause. It was as if he had said,
“Yes, there’s a balcony right off the kitchen”
— as if he hadn’t just used an ethnic slur. I turned to
a friend sitting next to me to convey my bewilderment, and she
furrowed her brow as if to say: “I understand but this is not
the time or place to say anything.” Though I made a face to
let her know I disagreed, I fumbled for the proper words and before
I could think of a polite way to object to his language, the
offending friend said his good-byes and left the table.
I wish I had been paying better attention to the conversation
from the start. I could have interrupted right when he uttered the
offensive word and said, “Oh, ——, you can’t
use that word anymore. The preferred term is
‘Asian.’” It would have been as simple as that,
but, in my shock at hearing the slur, I struggled to find the right
words. In trying to be respectful, I lost my chance to say anything
at all. I hesitated, and in that hesitation, began to wonder if I
would have been politely correcting his diction or his bigotry. Was
this pillar of my childhood racist?
Obviously confused, I turned back to my friend sitting next to
me. Having heard the word in question used casually before, she
wasn’t nearly as surprised as I by our wayward friend’s
language. She pointed out that there are many people —
especially those uninterested in or uninformed on societal trends
— who are not aware that “Oriental” is a
derogatory term when used in reference to people.
As pejoratives are equally offensive whether spoken purposefully
or obliviously, I quickly said that ignorance is not a legitimate
excuse for using such language and suggested that one has a
personal responsibility to keep abreast of such issues. Ever the
diplomat, my friend agreed but pointed out that — despite my
idealistic morals — ignorance will continue to exist.
While I didn’t and still don’t like her
observations, I know the alternative — that such language is
purposefully racist — is worse. If people are unaware of the
negative connotations of the words they use, at least there is the
possibility of easy education. Sadly, if people are knowingly and
purposefully using such words, the problem is harder to fix as
racism runs deeper than words.
As for my wayward friend, I still can’t reconcile his
character with his use of such an offensive term. Could he really
have been using the term without malice or awareness? He is an
intelligent and educated man who has otherwise proven himself
respectable. So, can I attribute his word choice to his living in
I just don’t know.
Despite all this ambiguity, I am certain of two things: First, I
will never again see this man in that naïve and favorable rosy
light in which children often see the adults around them. I will
always wonder if I should be disappointed in his social negligence
or shocked at his racism. The second certainty is that I’m
sorry I let the moment and the pejorative pass in that bar.
I’ll be ready next time.