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The Words 'Oriental' and 'Negro' Can No Longer Be Used in US Federal Laws

President Obama signed legislation that targets two anti-discrimination areas of US law that use antiquated language to describe racial or ethnic groups.
Foto di Jim Lo Scalzo

President Barack Obama has signed legislation that will make the words "Negro" and "Oriental" things of the past, striking the racially-charged terms from federal law.

In a rare instance of bipartisan cooperation, the measure passed easily through Republican-controlled House and received unanimous support in the Senate, The Hill reports.

"The term 'Oriental' has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good," Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement.


The law targets two anti-discrimination areas of US law that use antiquated language to describe racial or ethnic groups.

Until now, one section of the Department of Energy Organization Act referred to a "Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish speaking individual or Spanish descent." Similar language was used in a 1976 Public Works Act.

After New York banned state documents from using the term "Oriental" in 2009, following similar action by lawmakers in Washington state, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang told NPR that the word is loaded with cultural baggage.

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"It's a term which you can't think of without having that sort of the smell of incense and the sound of a gong kind of in your head," Yang said. "Orient basically translates into East… you know, kind of contextually thinking about what… the East means, that only applies in a flat world."

Frank H. Wu, a law professor at Howard University and the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, told the New York Times in 2009 that, while the term isn't inherently negative, it's antiquated and "conjures up an era."

"It's associated with a time period when Asians had a subordinate status," Wu said, adding that the term was evocative of "exoticism and with old stereotypes of geisha girls and emasculated men."


The term "Negro" was used widely in the US until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, when the movement's leaders said they found it problematic because it evoked the subjugation that black Americans were forced to endure, from slavery to segregation. Most notably, Malcolm X took a stand against the term, saying he preferred "black" or "Afro-American."

Six years ago, when the United States Census Bureau announced that the term Negro would be included in the 2010 census, people were upset. But Erin Aubry Kaplan, a writer and journalist, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that there was a generational divide when it came to attitudes toward the term. The Census Bureau insisted that 50,000 older black Americans identified themselves as "Negro" on a previous census.

"I get why," Kaplan wrote. "Though it was the accepted term until the late '60s, for those born after that, 'Negro' is something they never answered to, a word that sounds only slightly less incendiary than 'nigger.'

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"Its taint goes back to slavery, when Southerners paternalistically referred to even free blacks as 'our negroes,'" Kaplan added. "Contrast this unpleasantness with Barack Obama, who has established a 21st century standard of racial consideration that's figuring into just about every discussion of color these days. To blacks of all ages, 'Negro' and President Obama sharing the same era just feels wrong — maybe he isn't post-racial, but isn't he at least post-Negro?"

On Friday, the same day that Obama signed the bill to wipe the term from federal documents, a senior Danish lawmaker who allegedly called the president a "Negro" announced that he was cancelling his trip to the US in September, according to the Associated Press.

Soeren Espersen claimed that an opposition lawmaker Tweeted an inaccurate English translation of his words. He said he decided to cancel the trip because he feared that its purpose would be "overshadowed" by the controversy sparked by his choice of words.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen