What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?


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”.



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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Hey Air France, your Orientalism is in the air | #FixedIt4UAF @AirFrance

Air France is selling their new routes with an ad campaign featuring White women in cultural drag.
Air France has launched a new ad campaign featuring White women in cultural drag.

(H/T to Jeff Yang (@originalspin) for notifying me of this campaign)

Bonjour, Air France!

I’ve never ridden your airplanes because I don’t live in France. But, I hear you fly to lots of other countries, too — like Japan, China and parts of the US. So, maybe, some day, I’ll be contemplating booking a flight on your carrier.

Except, I also see you’re being kinda Orientalist, right now.

So, maybe not.

Continue reading “Hey Air France, your Orientalism is in the air | #FixedIt4UAF @AirFrance”

APIA blogosphere round-up of great Katy Perry posts

It's true: this dress is Orientalist vomit.
Katy Perry warbles during her neo-Orientalist opener to the 2013 American Music Awards.

Last Sunday, Katy Perry was really, really Orientalist. Although the whole set was horrific, every rain-cloud has a silver lining. In this case, Katy Perry’s incredibly racist four-minutes of glory at the AMA Awards sparked some truly phenomenal critical writing from the Asian American blogosphere and social justice organizations.

Here is a round-up, in no particular order. Please leave a comment to add anything I missed!

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.

Continue reading “The Uninspired Orientalism of Katy Perry”

NOC: The Wolverine – Memories of “Miss Saigon”

Originally posted on The Nerds of Color

wolverine-saigonMy boyfriend and I rarely go to the movies these days: tickets are overpriced, concessions are empty calories, 3D makes our heads hurt, and no one seems to follow basic theatre etiquette anymore. But, we make the rare exception for blockbuster movies: any film for which the special effects necessitate a big screen. Earlier this summer, we braved the Friday night mall crowds to check out Iron Man 3. Without fail, we found ourselves seated next to a trio of fanboys who, moments after the room darkened, launched themselves into a loud and obnoxious litany of Mystery Science Theatre commentary on the 15 minutes of trailer, each statement of amateurish snark blasted at full volume so that the entire movie-going audience could “share” in this bit of uninvited “fun”.

When the trailer for “The Wolverine” came on, MST Fanboy #1 – the fanboy who of the bunch was both loudest and closest to us — let out a shrill squeal. “I so can’t wait for when this comes out! It’s gonna be epic,” he declared loudly to no one in particular between fistfuls from his bucket-sized popcorn, and the rest of us found our lives enriched by the knowledge of his growing excitement about this movie, or at least by a momentary respite from the scathing and unrelenting witticism that he had unleashed upon the other trailers.

(By the time the movie started, it was clear that these fanboys had no plans of letting up. 20 minutes in as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark led us through his post-Avengers PTSD, we pointedly turned to MST Fanboy #1 and hissed loudly to get his attention. As soon as he turned to us we snapped: “Hey, dude, we can ALL hear you, and you’re not funny enough to justify this. You need to shut up. Now. ” The rest of the movie was enjoyed in much-appreciated silence punctuated by periodic glares of sullen reproach from my left.)

I’ll be the first to admit, I wasn’t one of those fanboys, and not just because I know how to enjoy a movie in respectful silence.

I also wasn’t one of those fanboys who was particularly excited about the upcoming “The Wolverine”. I just couldn’t find the wherewithal to be excited about a movie that seemed like little more than a modern-day X-gene adaptation of Miss Saigon, albeit with a little less singing and a little more mad ninja skills.

Continue reading at The Nerds of Color