My mom still says “Oriental” and she’s not totally wrong


Photo from Jondou Chase Chen

Orientalism: You don’t have to say it to mean it

By Jondou Chase Chen

Confession: My mom still uses the word “Oriental” sometimes. My Taiwanese mom – all 5’2” (tallest among five sisters) and 97 pounds of her – grew up with parents forced to speak Japanese, siblings forced to speak Mandarin, and kids forced to speak English. She is a three-time cancer survivor and raised three kids who collectively outweigh her by 500 pounds. My mom’s not just tough, she’s a survivor. I remember once in my late twenties, my mom told me, “Look, I know we’re in America, and I was supposed to hug you and tell you how much I love you. That wasn’t how I was raised, though. I always told you what was wrong with you and what to improve so that I knew that you’d make it when I’m gone.” That’s my mom.

To thank her for such incredible love (because that is unquestionably what it is), I figured I’d help her out by letting her know we’re not supposed to say “Oriental” any more. Use “Asian” instead. My mom acted surprised the first time I told her, dismissive the second time, and finally the third time I chided her she was ready. “I know, I know, I know. You think your old momma is so ignorant. But why does it matter whether or not I say ‘Oriental’? It’s not going to change how people treat us.” Game. Set. Match. Old momma 1, Jondou 0.

Let me be clear here. This is NOT a blog post about it being okay to use the term “Oriental.” This is a blog post, however, about this truth that my mom gave me: you don’t have to say the word “Oriental” to do the work of the word. Yes, words matter. And the reason why words matter is because they have power. And power is power – including the power to oppress – whether or not you use particular words. The word “Oriental” has power not because it describes rugs instead of people. It has power because it has come to represent a millenium of Western eyes not just gazing at the continent of Asia, but exoticizing it, exploiting it, demonizing it, and erasing it. My mom’s point is whether we call ourselves Asian or Oriental, that history and ongoing politic remains. Here are five ways this happens.

    1. When you ask us where we’re from. This is basic, and I mean basic. Asking Asians where we’re from (as with other immigrants or read-as-immigrants of color) has a violent history. It has meant not being allowed entry into this country, the presumption we can’t possibly be from here or truly American citizens both in the past and the present. To be clear, asking Asians where we’re from hasn’t just been about a point of information, it’s been a precursor to violence, exclusion, and erasure.
    2. Not knowing where we’re from. Now I’ve probably confused some folks here. Good. If all you want are the magical words to know and say so you don’t sound racist, you’re not actually here for our justice. You’re here for you, and you want us to flawlessly fit your logic so you can feel good. That’s using us. Real justice would mean recognizing and amplifying our humanity which includes our complicated truths. That means allowing us to be our whole selves, wherever we are, with all that we are, with all that we bring, and with all that we seek to be. This means taking the time to build and be in good relationship with us. If you take the time to know me, there’s no way you won’t know where I’m from. You will know how much my family, our culture, our stories, our politics means to me. You will even know that when we really know each other – after we’ve demonstrated we’re committed to building a just relationship together – that it’s actually okay to ask where I’m from.
    3. Lumping “us” all together. By “us,” I mean all people of color, all Asians, or even all Taiwanese folks. I love spending time with my family where we joke with each other about the ways each of us is Taiwanese. We have different favorite dishes and have varying degrees of connection to different aspects of Taiwanese language, tradition, culture, and community. Yes, sometimes the joking goes too far. Yes, we have work to do. Yes, things are going to change. And guess what? That’s the way it’s always been. Cultures and ethnicities existed way-way before racism and will hopefully far outlast racism. We’ve adapted and creatively responded again and again. Our diversity is our evolutionary strength. To borrow from Skip Gates, for as many PoC/Asian/Taiwanese people there are, there are just as many ways to be PoC/Asian/Taiwanese. This is true within ethnicities, between our cultures and nationalities, and across our racial groups. And when we bring it all together, respecting our self-determination and differences and showing up in solidarity for one another, that’s when we are most powerful – not when we are all uniform cookie-cutter cut-outs.
    4. Modeling us as minorities. Back in the day, someone decided to draw a circle on the map around 40% of the world’s landmass and call it Asia. Today, 60% of the world’s population lives or diasporically came from there. Yet in the U.S. we’re seen as the new kids on the block and often as a single story. We weren’t here first. We’ve never been the biggest group. We were banned or incarcerated as entire ethnic groups for a while. And when the U.S. finally started letting more of us in, it was under strict selection and under even stricter PR. My folks were like many (but not all) Asian Americans, cherry-picked for their desirability as people likely to contribute here. Their story was then twisted to extract more value from us and other PoC. Because they were so “smart” they were expected to work more and receive less compensation. Other Asians here under different circumstances were expected to do the same and along with other PoC groups were shamed for not producing in the same way. And then this is how all PoC can be orientalized: if we’re not producing or complying as desired, we are forced to, told to, or treated as if we should leave.
    5. Assuming we all need the same justice all the time. Even though I was born here, I had minimal English speaking skills when I entered school. What I would have benefited from the most was dual language instruction to support my multilingual potential. Instead, I was treated like an English language learner. This made marginal sense in elementary school but became a gross stereotype when I was designated for ELL services in college and again after receiving my doctorate (Sound weird? Ask me about it some time.). What I needed for justice changed over time. My kids are going to need a different type of justice as multiracial Asian kids with English fluent parents. My neighbors and community members who are refugees that came over 30-years-ago from Vietnam versus 30-months-ago from Syria are going to need different forms of justice from us and from each other. And the justice we need as a pan-Asian community are different from what our Native, Black, and Latinx communities need. For folks seeking to be in just relationship with People of Color, don’t assume by addressing the needs of one community that you’ve addressed all of our needs. And please, please, please don’t tokenize us by trying to collect one friend from each of our groups. (And yes, representation matters, but representation without just relationship is just oriental tokenism.)

I used to feel ashamed that my mom still uses the word “Oriental.” I’ve come to understand, though, that she’s keeping it real in her own way, and she’s keeping it real with me. The burden shouldn’t be on us to end the use of this word when we neither created the word nor have ever benefited from its application. There cannot be justice from the prohibition of this word without an accompanying change in systemic power. Until then, we’ll make our own justice by speaking our truths, growing our community, and welcoming solidarity from those who seek to be in just relationship with us. And finally, our fight to end racism will only truly succeed when we recognize that Orientalism and  the settler-colonizing of Indigenous people and lands are opposite sides of the same system along with all other forms of racism and intersecting oppressions.

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Five Ways to Center People of Color

By Erin O.


Flat rocks stacked by the ocean. [Photo by Erin Okuno]

I often use the phrase ‘centering people of color’ and I’ll share my secret – it’s jargon. It is a lazy way of saying what takes a lot of words to say. I know I shouldn’t use jargon and I sometimes feel bad writing and saying ‘centering pocs,’ but I do it anyway. To atone for this jargon, I’ll explain what I mean when I say centering people of color. This isn’t an academic look at centering pocs, nor is it an exhaustive list – just some thoughts to get the conversation started and to help make sense of this phrase.

My overall definition is: Centering people of color is about shifting power, control, and well-being/comfort to people of color. 

1. Sharing Power and Control: Shifting power and control to people of color needs to be an action not just talk. Actions are important to shifting power and demonstrating intention. As an example of shifting power is looking at who speaks and when they speak. Are you consistently calling on the first person who raises their hand? If you are perhaps shifting power looks like pausing for a moment allowing people to gather their thoughts, important for those who aren’t English (or the dominant language) speakers, then calling on a person of color first. If you want to take it a step further call on a youth of color, or another person who may not be the first to speak. Who speaks first often drives the line of thinking so this is an important way to shift power in meetings. Be careful not to put people on the spot if they aren’t ready. Other ways of shifting power are agenda control, seating arrangements, decision making control, power of notetaking and publishing, etc.

2. Well-being/Comfort is something we often overlook. Heidi thinks about this a lot and wrote about it in some of her previous posts. I use the terms well-being and comfort interchangeably depending on audience and mood. Well-being looks like where is the meeting, is it culturally attuned, who is in the majority, who is included in the conversation. Sometimes well-being is something we can experience such as moving meetings into community settings where pocs are already familiar with. Other times comfort comes in who feels like they can relax into a space and feel safe. This is harder to quantify but important to look for. At meetings I facilitate, I use the Color Brave Space meeting norms developed by Equity Matters to help pocs feel like they are seen and the meeting is about them and to set expectations for white allies.

3. Resource Sharing: Centering people of color and communities of color means giving control of resources to communities of color and trusting them to use the resources wisely to achieve the best outcomes. Centering pocs means trusting pocs to use money, time, human capital where needed. Along with this, please don’t burden poc organizations with five-billion pieces of paperwork and forms to get money. Also, reimbursable grants and contracts are a pain in the ass and is anti-power sharing – I think I’ll try this tacit with policymakers: “I’ll pay my taxes after you prove to me you turn in to me proof you governed for racial equity, and make sure to track your hours spent on different projects then I’ll pay you.” That wouldn’t fly for power and resource sharing so why is it ok in mainstream work?

4. Expertise: Seeing people and communities of color as the experts is necessary to solving problems. Who knows better about the problems people and communities of color face than the people living them. Centering pocs as experts means we shift our dominant culture viewpoints on what expertise looks like. Such as a formal schooling doesn’t mean the person understands a community, and really the expert is the mother who has kids in the local school.

A colleague of color shared she applied for a job and was turned-down because of her age. A competing employer got a hold of her resume and saw she had led a PTA at a school with a lot of diversity. The employer said ‘I know you are interested in an office job, but I want you as my lead community organizer. You’ve led a PTA in a school with a lot of diversity, that takes a lot of community building skills.’ He saw her as an expert and centered hiring for racial equity skills which led to great results.

5. Humility and work towards learning together: Centering people of color isn’t taught in schools, books, or almost anywhere. We need to acknowledge it isn’t a natural occurrence in most places we operate (at least in the US). In dominant culture, we’re taught and we function in a hierarchy favors white people and caters to their needs first. Centering people of color means white allies, and even within communities of color, we humble ourselves to learn from each other. No single-person understands all of the experiences of people of color. Working intergenerationally, cross-racially, across language, with people with disabilities, with immigrants, etc. means we need to be humble and learn from each other. The act of centering each other means we recognize multiplicities of identities and create space for people of color to be our whole selves, this benefits allies as well since they can see more depth and hopefully find more common ground to connect with.

Access Isn’t Equity, Part 1.5

dolphinBy Erin O.

This is a short blog post for a couple of reasons — 1) I’m working on my netbook and it is really sloooooow , 2) it is spring break – I have to get back to drawing dolphins with the kid (her request), and 3) Heidi wrote a lot last week so if you need more to think about feel free to re-read what she wrote.

Since Heidi promised a part two to her blog post this is part 1.5. Heidi laid out some ideas on how to think about equity and what is more equitable and what is simply giving access to a system not designed by or for people of color. In this part 1.5, I’ll give five quick examples of where people try to pass off access as equitable practices. I’ve been doing my job long enough to have a list of activities people have mentioned as equitable practices but they are more around access and inclusion than equitable in principle and nature.

Translation and Interpretation: This is the number one practice people list as being equitable, it is also one of the most basic practices of racial equity. Providing language access is an important and one of the fundamental ways for many people of color to participate. Translation and interpretation should be high quality, no Google or Bing translate, and it should also be culturally nuanced.

Translation and interpretation fall under access because it is providing people of color (and other non-dominant language speakers) access to an already existing system. It is important access but it isn’t equitable since it wasn’t designed by the people most impacted.

Going into the Community, Evening Meetings, and Town Halls: Having time and location accessible events is an important part of attracting people of color to participate. An event a few streets away is much more appealing than having to figure out how to get across town, pay for parking, and know I probably won’t be in familiar company. Having events in local communities and going to people is important for reaching diversity and inclusion goals. These activities fall under access and inclusion because the process for these meetings is probably not one designed by people of color for their comfort (see last week’s post for more details on what this means). Evening meetings and having meetings when people are available is important, but if the meeting is still all about you and your agenda it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, I call fakequity.

Scholarships, Fellowships, and Diversity Efforts: These are great for helping people of color and others who are traditionally outside of a system into the door. So many people have found success because of scholarships. In a very roundabout way, because of a philanthropic fellowship and the network and access it provided, I got my present job. Scholarships and the like are great at bringing people of color in to help diversify efforts. Many times these efforts aren’t designed for poc comfort and can have a tokenizing impact on pocs, there is also the pressure to assimilate as well. That said often the access is meaningful and important, such as a college scholarship can change the trajectory of a person’s life, but we should also recognize access to a system and process not designed for pocs isn’t equitable.

Such as think about how many people of color with college scholarships drop out because they feel isolated, have additional barriers (i.e. transportation, needing money to pay for living expenses not covered by the scholarship, housing, family obligations, etc.). A friend who is a Dean of a college told me how she learned of a immigrant student who was in a master’s program and doing well, until she wasn’t. The staff asked the student what was going on and they learned she had to start driving for Lyft between 11.00 – 2.00 a.m. to make extra money to stay in school and help her family. The college gave her access to their program and some support, but that wasn’t enough to remove the most basic barriers to her participation in school. In a more equitable scenario, the student would have received comprehensive support including housing, cash assistance, and been continually consulted to make sure she had what she needed thus changing the system and centering her and other students of color. For a more privileged student a scholarship would have been enough access to complete the program, pocs often have additional hurdles where a scholarship isn’t enough.

Task Force Me to Death: Whenever I hear of a younger or less jaded colleague joining a task force I first congratulate them on their appointment to the prestigious task force (all task forces are special otherwise they wouldn’t exist), then I tell them to take all of their expectations and reduce it by two-thirds, possibly four-fifths depending on the task force. Task forces are important tools for gaining buy-in, highlighting inequities, and hopefully doing some of the background work needed before taking things to the public. Yet task forces are often working with dominant culture standards, timelines, and practices which aren’t designed with the comfort and control of people of color at the center of it.

Public Testimony at Government Meetings: I wrote about this before so I won’t go into detail, but let’s categorize public testimony and really most of the current ways of policy making under access. Control of the process is still held by a dominant white culture way of operating. Public testimony gives people access to influence the system but the final decisions and entire process isn’t determined by those most impacted.

Heidi still owes us part two of her previous blog post. When it is published we can see what examples she has and how she describes access isn’t equity. Access is an important step in reaching more equitable results. We need to overhaul our systems and work to change practices to say access and inclusion are important, and they aren’t enough. We need to aim for equity and in some cases recognize access and inclusion are tools to help us get there.

Heidi, you’re now up for part two where I hope you’ll delve into the other categories and how transformational equity with penguins is key to a better life.

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Let’s Not Confuse ‘Access and Inclusion’ with Racial Equity: An Interactive Post – Part I


By Heidi Schillinger

Gather some colleagues, poster paper, markers, sticky notes, and cold (or hot) beverages. This blog post is meant to be interactive, and it will be more interesting with others. I’ve had this topic at the top of my list of ideas to write about for over a year. But haven’t had the motivation to organize my thoughts on paper, although this is one of the topics I talk about the most in my workshops. Erin is off-playing, so it’s time to gather some motivation. I feel most comfortable writing up workshop exercises, so I decided to stick with that format for this post.

Background Context: Racialized Power Systems

Equity has become the new buzz word. It is used so frequently it has almost come to have no meaning at all. The misuse or appropriation of the term equity is so common and so annoying it spawned this blog site, Fakequity. As the term equity started gaining traction, people and organizations started calling all their diversity, engagement, and inclusion efforts equity. I call B.S. to this catch-all definition of equity. I developed this tool to help us get honest with ourselves about what we are truly doing (and not doing) to pursue equity, specifically racial equity.

At the very foundation of this work, we must acknowledge that business as usual or standard best practices default to upholding systems of white supremacy. If you have issues with the term “supremacy” consider it means control, authority, and power. Ask yourself how many of our institutions have been built and continue to cater to the comfort and control of white, middle-class, English speaking community members?

Many smart people have written about how access to our current system does not equal racial justice. So rather than try to summarize their brilliance, I will just ask you to read a few resources direct from the source –

It is important to mention people of color and communities of color can also uphold the current system. We are often tokenized, individually incentivized, and/or have internalized the superiority of the current system.

Set Up

Pause and answer this question before you continue reading: What are current strategies or actions that are evidence of racial equity in your organization? Write each idea on a separate sticky note (or index card). Generate as many ideas as you can. I often ask people to generate future ideas you hope to implement in your organization as well. You can color code the current and future ideas on different sticky notes to capture a visual of where your current ideas versus future ideas fall on the racial equity mapping tool.

When you are ready to have a group discussion, have everyone answer the question above and read the blog post. Or even take scissors to your current work plan or strategic plan to use with the map. Then print out the racial equity mapping tool or create it on a poster chart. I often create a large map of the floor with tape, so the exercise is even more visual and interactive. Please remember tools are not magical. Using a tool does not ensure racially equitable results or organizational transformation. The tools help us to slow down, be more explicit, brave, and intentional in challenging racism and in our pursuit of fairness and justice for every member of our community. Continued hard work is needed to implement ideas with fidelity and with the intentionality of power-sharing with communities of color. Please also consider who is and isn’t in the room as you have this conversation.

I have also added a PDF of a sampling of ideas collected in workshops, slightly edited for ease of understanding. You can print these ideas out and use them in your discussion as well. In a future Part II blog post, I’ll tell you where I would categorize the ideas on the PDF. I’m not sharing my analysis of these ideas right now because it would a) make this blog post too long and b) the point of the tool is not to convey there is a right answer, but to help us have more explicit conversations about what is and isn’t racial equity.

Conversation and Analysis

Are you ready to start diving into the conversation about where your ideas fall on the racial equity mapping tool? As a group or in small groups, spend time discussing what quadrant you think your ideas fit into. Map the sticky notes on poster paper (or index cards on a map on the floor) to create a powerful visual. I remind people this is not a “game to win” but a framework to help us have different conversations that hopefully lead to different actions and outcomes. I’ve used this tool regularly for over a year with many different groups, and I continue to learn and shift my thinking. So, engage in this conversation and analysis many times.

The tool was designed around concepts of “comfort” and “control” inspired by the article, The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy. It asks us to consider how comfortable are communities of color and how much (decision-making and resource allocation) control do communities of color truly hold. I’ll give you short descriptions of each of the quadrants, but I have also found the visuals (triangle, spiral, etc.) to be helpful as well. The visuals come from the video What Our Movements Can Learn from Penguins. The video uses an hourglass to help us understand the current system, but I use a triangle here to express a simpler version of the racial hierarchy that our system has embedded.

Business as Usual: Organizational practices that uphold white power structures. Communities of color have low comfort and low control. Efforts default to Fakequity and majority white people as primary final decision makers. Focuses on standard best practices, dominant society data, “efficiency,” limited or no budget for ideas.

Access & Inclusion: Organizational practices that influence white power structures. Communities of color have comfort, but no real control. Efforts default to tracking outputs and majority white people as primary final decision makers. Focuses on engagement, input, inclusion, access, and assimilation.

Programmatic Racial Equity: Organizational practices that build and share power within limited areas of white power structures. Communities of color have some decision-making and resource allocation control but limited broad comfort in the system. Efforts default to communities of color (most impacted by racial inequities) as primary decision makers over a limited scope project or initiative. Focuses explicitly on communities of color (most impacted by racial inequities) controlling narratives, agendas, and resources.

Structural Racial Equity: Organizational practices that default to shared power system/organizational wide. Communities of color have high comfort and high control. Effort default to racially equitable outcomes. Focuses on whole system/organizational redesign and structural transformation (the spiral in the penguin video) that impact racially equitable outcomes. Hint: Almost nothing falls here, but it’s our aspirational vision and goal.

Once you’ve mapped out your ideas, engage in some reflection about what you notice. Here are some sample debrief question ideas to get you started:

  • How does seeing the current results of this map make you feel?
  • What do you notice about where most of the ideas are placed?
  • What do you wonder about the current distribution of efforts and resources? How much is truly focused on racial equity work?
  • What are some important distinctions your group talked about between the “access and inclusion” quadrant and the “programmatic racial equity” quadrant, especially regarding decision-making power?
  • Are there any cards you think have been misplaced? Discuss them as a large group.
  • What will you do next?

This could be a much longer blog post (it’s usually at least a four-hour workshop), but I have already exceeded my suggested word count. I promise to dig deeper into specific examples for each of the quadrants in Part II of the blog post. But hopefully, this is enough to get you started.

Final Thoughts

This tool was originally developed for the City of Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment, with funding from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. If you plan to use the tool, please credit Equity Matters. If you want to use this tool in your consulting work (or any other capacity where you are compensated) please contact Equity Matters and obtain a license.

In the spirit of not just “extracting” if you find this post and tool, or any other Fakequity blog post useful, please consider financially contributing to an organization that is people of color led and community of color embedded. If you need some ideas here are a few –

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