'Orientals' not the same as 'Texans'

(Reprinted from the Akron Beacon Journal)

By Bob Dyer
Beacon Journal columnist

POSTED: 04:54 p.m. EDT, Mar 29, 2010

It happens so often that those of us in the column-writing business can quote the response even before it arrives.

Almost every time we express an opinion — which is, of course, every time we write a column — we get at least one e-mail that says, ”It must have been a slow news day.”

No, it must have been a day when you didn’t agree with me. If the topic is inconsequential, why are you taking the time to comment?

But a record number of readers informed me that the second item in a recent five-item column must have been triggered by ”a slow news day.”

If you really want to know, it was triggered by a photo I saw a week earlier in a basketball program that identified a collection of young athletes as ”the East High Orientals.”

Why didn’t I write about the topic before? I should have. I have always wondered why a group of educators would continue to sanction that name. Although I don’t have a drop of Asian blood in me, I knew the term was incredibly dated and highly offensive to many folks of Asian heritage.

I guess I figured the school eventually would wake up and realize that ”Orientals,” when used in connection with people, is the modern-day equivalent of ”Negroes.”

At one time, both terms were acceptable. But times change. And institutions should, too — especially schools.

Some East High graduates got so worked up that their indignant responses were comical.

Among the nine e-mails I received from a middle-aged woman named Bambi was a 440-word screed in which she named almost every professional team in football, basketball and baseball and claimed all of them were comparable to ”Orientals.”

When I suggested that not too many residents of the state of Texas would object to being called ”Texans”. . .and that not even Jack Hanna would object to the name of the Detroit baseball team. . .and that I seriously doubted her assertion that African-American players on the Chicago White Sox are offended by the team’s nickname. . .she told me to ”get a life” (a witty retort guaranteed to win big points in any debate).

A male reader wrote: ”Regarding your sudden concern about the nickname ‘Orientals’ that has been in use at East High since it opened in 1919: The term ‘Oriental’ merely refers to people who live in the Orient. . . .It is no more offensive a term than ‘Occidental,’ which refers to someone living in the Western Hemisphere.”

Wrong and wrong.

Until the 1940s, East High’s sports teams were known as the ”Arabs.” Their mascot was a camel named Orie.

Doing away with the ”Arabs” nickname didn’t cause the school to crumble. Another change wouldn’t, either.

And if you don’t think the term is offensive, you don’t know anyone of Asian heritage.

”We are very bothered by that because the term is outdated and not an appropriate term to refer to Asian-Americans in our community,” says Michael Byun, executive director of Asian Services in Action, an Akron organization that offers information and services to local Asians and Pacific Islanders — a group that numbers 11,470 in Summit County and is steadily growing.

”There’s a connection with Colonialism related with that word, and the word is more often associated with inanimate objects like Oriental rugs. We’re not an Oriental rug. We’re people.”

So why hasn’t he tried to do something about it?

”Many of us, because of our culture, we’re taught not to be confrontational. So we try to do it in more subtle ways. That doesn’t mean we don’t object to it. It just means we approach barriers such as that in different ways,” Byun said.

Brant Lee is a bit less subtle.

Lee, an associate professor at the University of Akron School of Law, grew up in San Francisco, where his high school was about 60 percent Asian, and went to college at Berkeley, which was about 25 percent Asian. When he rolled into Akron in 1997 and heard about the East High Orientals, ”I was astonished and offended,” he says.

Eleven long years ago, he sat down with school officials and tried to convey the idea that clinging to the nickname was offensive to folks like him, and that it made the school — and the community — look like a bunch of rubes.

”Whenever I am talking to someone from either coast, and I want to make a point about parochialism, I bring up the East High Orientals, and their jaws drop,” he says. ”They wonder what kind of hick town I ended up in.”

Lee has come to love the town, but he remains astounded that the name lives on. He says officials in that long-ago meeting said all the right things, but then dropped the matter after the principal allegedly polled his Asian students and was told they were not offended — ”as if members of a tiny minority there would want to further ostracize themselves.”

Lee thinks my analogy to ”Negroes” is spot on.

”We tolerate old people of all races who still use it, but the the younger the speaker, the more I cringe. While I generally presume goodwill, using ‘Negro’ is so tone deaf that one starts to wonder about intent. . . .

”That’s how ‘Oriental’ sounds to me. It makes me catch my breath.”

I hope my dear friend Bambi is listening. It was she who wrote so eloquently, ”Unless you are Oriental, you have no business speaking for that culture.”

Good point, Bambi. God forbid someone from one demographic group would stand up for someone in another. Why, that’s downright un-American.

As Lee notes, the reactions of East alumni mirror those of the alumni of a school in Pekin, Ill., in 1980, when a movement arose to change the nickname from ”Chinks.”

It was, Lee says, a case of ”good, well-meaning white people saying, ‘We are proud to be Chinks. We will always be Chinks.’ ”

The name was switched to ”Dragons,” and everyone lived happily ever after.

”Let’s not be in the position of making this change too late and looking like backward know-nothings,” Lee says.

”East High is about to reopen in a new building. This would be a great time to make a change. ‘Dragons’ is a perfectly good team nickname.”

The East High Dragons.

Insult removed.

Heritage preserved.

Problem solved.

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com.


(A Facebook page has been started to change East High’s mascot – click here)