A bill eliminating the terms 'Oriental' and 'Negro' from federal documents sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and was signed by President Obama last week. Now, official documents will use the words 'Asian American' and 'African American.' Mae Ngai, Lung Professor of Asian American studies and professor of history at Columbia University, says the move is long overdue.
"It's a welcome change. It's symbolic, of course, but nobody wants to be insulted, even if it's symbolically."
Ngai explains that "the Orient" was a European invention to describe Asia and draw divisions between the two.
"They did that to contrast what they thought was 'Oriental' to what they thought was European. It was always a term that was a Eurocentric term, it was always a term that defined the West as being superior to the East. It was not just directional, but relational. It's a term that's always been freighted with ideas of inferiority."
Neal Lester, Director of Project Humanities and Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, says the problem with the term 'Negro' isn't as straightforward.
"It was, in fact, embraced by organizations like the NAACP or even the United Negro College Fund. So I guess I was a little surprised, because it doesn't seem for me to be in the same category as, say, 'oriental' or 'Indian.' It certainly connotes and denotes a certain historical moment."
That moment was decades ago, when 'Negro' was more broadly used in the '50s and '60s. It superseded the use of 'Colored,' which Lester explains is much more closely tied with the Jim Crow South and thus more closely tied to racism.
"As we're talking about language, we're also talking about how people are treated in the country. So I guess the updating makes sense. But for African Americans, that naming has been so complicated. [...] The treatment of black people, whether you are of African descent or not, has been consistent in this country, and I think that's the issue: How does the identity match how you're being treated in this country?"
Lester stresses that, despite, or because of, that complication, it's critical we pay attention to our language and how we yield it.
"When we stop thinking about language, when we stop thinking about words, then we stop thinking. And it doesn't mean that words can capture everything that we experience, but it's certainly needs to be something we're more conscious of. One of the things as an English teacher I recognize is that people don't care about words now. But words matter. Words have always mattered. Words will continue to matter."
In this River to River interview, host Ben Kieffer talks with Ngai and Lester about racism and language.