It always surprises me how, even among anti-racist activists (let alone the general population), there is a general ignorance of what Orientalism is and how it contributes to contemporary examples of anti-Asian racism. Recently, I wrote a post about Air France’s new ad campaign “France is in the Air” — which contains images that are both mundane and textbook examples of modern Orientalism — and have since been inundated by many tweets and comments arguing that the campaign is “not racist”.
— Varoon (????) (@Varoon7) April 16, 2014
— Dabs Chardz (@havidon) April 16, 2014
As evidenced by the repeated reference to the ads as “cliched” or the assertion that the ads are attempting to “honour” Asian culture, most of these comments seem to emerge out of a fundamental misunderstanding of what Orientalism is and how it operates.
And, perhaps that’s not entirely surprising. Although Orientalism has been asserted to be one of the three pillars of White supremacy by Andrea Smith in her seminal paper “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” — with Orientalism as a separate and distinct logic alongside anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous colonialism — Orientalism also appears to be among the least discussed and most poorly understood logic of White supremacy even within digital anti-racist spaces: a 30 second Google search on “Orientalism” pulls up only a handful of articles, and my recently published Air France article (which incidentally was written from the assumption that the reader already understands what Orientalism is) appears on the first page. While I have several ideas as to why Orientalism remains so minimally explored among anti-racist thinkers of the digital realm, the recent responses I’ve received to my Air France article suggests that a primer on what Orientalism is, and how it operates as an underlying motivation for anti-Asian racism, is perhaps long overdue.
So, without further ado: what is Orientalism?