What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?

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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”.

https://twitter.com/SaraPiou/status/456540692668354561

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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?

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The Uninspired Orientalism of Katy Perry

Katy Perry did this last Sunday. I was busy watching zombies.
Katy Perry did this last Sunday while I was busy watching zombies.

For most Americans — nearly 11 million by Nielsen ratings — this past Sunday night was the airing of the second half of The Walking Dead‘s two-part Governor back-story post hoc origin story. For about 5 million TV viewers — that’s right, less than half of those who tuned in for a random The Walking Dead episode — Sunday night was the AMA Music Awards (that’s “American Music Awards” for all you Redditors; although, in retrospect, there should totally be “Ask Me Anything” awards).

One of you 5 million viewers blew the Internet up when you let the rest of us know that the Awards was opened by Katy Perry in the latest Orientalist catastrophe to invade our living rooms. A lot of Asian Americans (and media critics in general) commented yesterday about it.

I didn’t, because I was in the middle of the Yale gunman scare all day. Turns out that if even an hour of your day is spent contemplating the room at work that you’re going to turn into a (hopefully) bullet-proof safehouse, you end up way too distracted to write about arguably meaningless stuff like pop culture. Who knew?

But, this afternoon, I finally buckled down and watched all four minutes of the Katy Perry opening act of the AMAs. And, yep, it’s pretty racist: YouTube video, and my commentary after the jump.

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