Clean Out Racism from Our Language

The following is a letter from Super Stop and Shop responding to my letter objecting to their use of the word "Oriental" in their aisle and produce signs:

"My research shows that you are correct, and we have made plans to correct this oversight quickly. We will be removing the signs from the aisle markers as well as the produce departments CHAIN WIDE . . . ."

What is most exciting to me is that this change is happening because of one letter that took me probably less than an hour to write.

Here is the letter I wrote to the produce department of Stop and Shop:

I am writing to request that Super Stop and Shop change one of the aisle headings found in every Stop and Shop across the country. Mr. Tabor of the Northampton store called you last fall when I brought the sign to his attention, and you were very helpful in informing us that the distributors themselves used this particular terminology. I am referring to the "Oriental foods" sign, which I wince at every time I am in the store.

Historically, the word "Oriental" was meant to denote "otherness." It conjures up "us and them" types of images and neglects to take into account the fact that our world is a rapidly expanding one in which every perspective is as valid as the next. Hopefully we are moving toward a world in which no one race or culture prevails over another and there is no one angle from which everyone must see the world. To continue to use such antiquated language, which does not reflect the progress we have made in getting to know the world outside of the United States, seems to me like bad business practice. It slights the many Asian Americans in this country who belong here as much as any non-Asian and who do not deserve to be referred to as "the other."

Although many people, even many Asians and Asian Americans, are not aware of the background of this word, this is no justification for continuing to use it. And there is a growing number of people who are aware of the implications of using a word like "Oriental." I am certain that a change would be hailed by them as progress and growing enlightenment. Some might argue that semantics are not a very pressing issue and that we should be worrying about more concrete problems, like anti-Asian violence. (There is a lot of this, though you may not be aware of it.) I would agree that ending violence is more important. However, I also believe that every small step we can take to eliminate oppressive language means that much more awareness about oppression in general. To put it bluntly, "Oriental" is a racist term in that it places the Caucasian, Occidental perspective at the center, as the standard from which one should view the world. I know I do not stand alone in my objection to such a presumptuous world view.

I would appreciate your company giving this your full consideration and thinking. Let's take a step together toward building a world that does not value one race over another. It may seem like a trivial matter to you, but believe me, it would be an extremely significant sign of growth and movement to me and many of my fellow U.S. citizens. Thank you for taking the time to read and process this.

Amy Tai
Waltham, Massachusetts, USA

Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07