Painting of camels, representing the Orientalist myths of Arabia critiqued by Edward Said

Edward Said and the Lingering Problem of Orientalism

Orientalism is a system of thought and a way of seeing of ’the East’ from the colonial gaze of ‘the West’ as mysterious, intriguing, and exotic, while at the same time primitive, despotic, and savage.

The ideologies and practices of Orientalism were originally theorized by Edward Said through his 1978 book, Orientalism.

Said focused then on Western (specifically French and British) representations of the Arab-Islamic world, which was historically referred to as ‘the East’.

Orientalism has since been used to understand science, culture, and art. At the same time, what’s considered ‘the East’ has shifted, so that greater parts of Asia are now also Orientalized.

Outside of postcolonial theory, Orientalism still matters in our everyday lives. Like other forms of what Patricia Hill Collins calls “controlling images”, Orientalism reproduces racist ideas about Arabic, Islamic, and Asian cultures and people.

In this post, I’ll discuss the development of Orientalism and its historical and contemporary formulations. I’ll then look more closely at how Orientalism manifests in our society’s views and treatments of Asian people in particular, including the ways we might half-willingly Orientalize ourselves. Finally, I’ll consider how intersectional feminism may provide tools to challenge Orientalism ideologies in our lives.

Book cover of Orientalism by Edward Said (Penguin)

Edward Said

The concept of Orientalism was developed by literature scholar Edward Wadie Said (1935–2003). Most of his ideas were presented through his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, originally published in 1978.

Orientalism an incredibly dense volume. Said deftly weaves philosophical, cultural, and literary analysis. The book is not easy to read, but very rewarding. I admit it took me a long time to get through it and my understanding skated just across the surface. I’ll likely need to read this book many more times before I start gaining a deeper appreciation of Said’s ideas.

Said observed that Orientalism had three meanings, which were distinct yet related to one another.

  1. The first way this term is used is to refer to the Western academics who write about the so-called ‘Orient’. These anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and others are known as Orientalists and their work is Orientalism.
  2. The next is a broader system of thought based on the imagined difference between ‘the West’ and ‘the East’. The idea of these two opposing worlds was reinforced by what Said lists as “the mass of writers, among who are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators”. From this starting point, these writers created elaborate accounts of the Orient, its people, customs, their “mind”, destiny, etc., often with very little to do with the actual people in that region and their lives.
  3. The interchange between these academic and cultural meanings of the Orient has produced a corporate institution for managing the Orient. In this way, Orientalism also becomes “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”.

Said’s writings have become a cornerstone of postcolonial theory. Postcolonialism is a diverse body of knowledge and set of practices that broadly refers to the study of the “continuing economic, social, political, and cultural effects of colonialism”.

This field has challenged Western representations of non-Western worlds and peoples. It showed how practices such as Orientalism enabled Europe to define itself as rightful rulers of the lands it sought to colonize.

The control of the Orient went beyond colonial military force. Orientalism also constructed the uncivilized’ Orient as incapable of defining themselves. As such, it required the supposedly superior scholars, scientists, artists, and administrators from the West to research and understand Oriental cultures and people.

Past and Present of Orientalism

jean léon gérôme le charmeur de serpents
The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1879) was on the original cover of Orientalism

Early examples of Orientalism can be found in European art throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. Many paintings portrayed the Arab world as an exotic faraway land full of belly dancers and snake charmers. Stories of magic lamps and flying carpets were also eagerly circulated.

From an intersectional perspective, we can also see a gendered dimension to this colonial ideology. This distinction between the West and the East was also about masculinity and femininity. The West had all the stereotypical masculine qualities of strength, rationality, and intellect while the East took on all the feminine stereotypes of weakness, emotion, and lack of self-control.

While many Orientalist artworks seemingly depict the beauty of the Arab world, they also depict Arabic culture and people as strange and backward. This meant that Europeans could see themselves as the rational and civilized superiors who were taking over the Arab world for their own good.

Since 2001, our popular imagination has begun to see Muslim men through a very different lens. They’re less likely to be seen as exotic, mysterious, and feminine, in an Orientalist sense, and more likely stereotyped as dangerous terrorists through rising Islamophobia.

Anthropologist Nazia Kazi talks about her research with Muslim American advocacy groups and their experiences with Islamophobia as well as the unusual expressions of ‘Islamophilia’ in this insightful video below.

Muslim women, though, are still frequently stereotyped through Orientalist fantasies as submissive, long-suffering, and oppressed. You can see this in how newspapers every now and then blow up with debates about whether or not Muslim women should be ‘forced’ by her presumedly tyrannical family and culture to wear a hijab.

Muslim women’s own desires and wills are usually ignored in these conversations because Orientalism is never really about ‘the Orient’. It’s about how the West chooses to perceive and characterize the Orient for its own ends. Painting Muslim women as oppressed by her cruel and backward culture justifies military force in the Middle East because the West can pretend they are heroic saviors.

Asians and Orientalism

The gendered stereotypes in the Orientalist fantasy linger today in the ways we perceive and treat Asian people in our culture. For example, there’s a persistent stereotype that Asian men are more feminine than white, Western men and Asian women are somehow hyperfeminine — quiet, docile, and submissive.

For Asian men in media, film, and television, they’re often marginalized as not being masculine enough. One of the most common controlling images of Asian men is the socially awkward and unattractive nerd. The sexualities of Asian men are frequently ridiculed, if not denied altogether.

The controlling images of Asian women, which have been called ‘china doll’ and ‘lotus blossoms’, depict her as an exotic and passive sexual object. The fetishization of Asian women makes us particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Given the troubling ways Orientalism has led to very real violence and harm through European colonization and ongoing social and cultural oppression, the ignorant use of Orientalist aesthetics in media and art is puzzling. Such as when Katy Perry performed an Orientalist interpretation of a geisha at the AMA’s in 2013.

When these kinds of nonsense occur, its offenders often drag in their convenient Asian Best Friends to provide their seal of approval for Orientalism.

In the case of Katy Perry’s 2013 AMA performance, Japanese people would frequently be quoted to say how they see the costume as an appreciation of their traditional cultural dress, the kimono.

Sidebar: While this isn’t a fashion blog, I feel obligated to point out that what Katy Perry was wearing was not a kimono. The overall silhouette resembles a kimono, but the collar is more like a traditional Chinese dress known as the qipao in Mandarin (cheongsam in Cantonese). Orientalism here, again, is not really about Japanese culture, but the West’s lazy impressions of what Japan is: something vaguely Asian that is often confused with neighbouring countries like China.

Old silver print of geisha playing samisen, representing the ways Orientalism and cultural appropriation are sometimes excused by the use of Asian voices.
Geisha Playing Samisen, hand–colored albumen silver print from Japan (1897) by Kazumasa Ogawa

Back to the Asian Best Friend, this defense only works when you think all Asians are the same. So that as long as one Asian person approves of Orientalism, all other Asians’ objections are automatically nullified.

However, there’s good reason why the Japanese diaspora would disagree with each other. Japan itself was an empire that emulated British colonialists in part to avoid their own colonization. Meanwhile, Japanese Americans (in the same country where this AMA performance occurred) were incarcerated during World War II on racist grounds.

The historical reality of oppression is so easily forgotten by those who believe they should have a carte blanche for racism.

Self-Orientalism

Given the history of Orientalism, many people in the West struggle to distinguish between Orientalist fantasies about the East and the actual countries, cultures, and people from that region. This applies to all of us who have been taught an Orientalist view of the world, even from those of us who may be originally born in ‘the Orient’.

In multicultural countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia, the exoticism of non-Western cultures are sometimes superficially celebrated. For example, when I was growing up in Australia, my school would host Multicultural Days where every student would be asked to bring a plate of traditional food from their culture to share with the class. My parents would help me make spring rolls for my classmates and other students might bring Tabbouleh or meat pies.

Although these kinds of multicultural events are almost always organized with the best of intentions, they reflect the idea that difference can only be tolerated when they’re expressed in extremely tame forms that can be easily controlled and consumed by white power.

So many people don’t have a problem with a small Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood where they can order some sweet and sour pork. Yet those same people are often much less tolerant of the Black Lives Matter movement, which demands structural change for social justice.

For some Asian people, we can end up conflating the exoticization of our cultures with cultural appreciation and social inclusion. Within anxious and sometimes hostile environments, Asians may tactically adopt Orientalist identities to get by. 

In a study I conducted of Chinese Australian professionals in 2015, the people I interviewed promoted Orientalist images of China as ancient and arcane. They spoke proudly of China’s rich history of philosophy, spirituality, and art. They presented themselves as custodians of Chinese mysteries and magic so they could claim unique skills and wisdoms as employees.

Other professionals also spoke of how they patiently and painstakingly introduce their white friends and colleagues to the pleasures of Chinese food. For example, ordering secret off-menu delicacies and teaching them to use chopsticks.

Xiao long bao in a bamboo steamer, representing the ways my research has explored how Asian people sometimes self-Orientalize in order to assimilate into white culture.
Photograph by Jason Leung

Chinese professionals self-Orientalized to assert their competence and worthiness in white organizations and society. In doing so, they unwittingly reinforce damaging stereotypes about the Orient.

Challenging Orientalism through Intersectional Feminism

Traditional forms of liberal feminism have struggled to see the effects of Orientalism in our contemporary culture. Some liberal feminists have even accepted Orientalist ideas that Muslim women, for example, are all universally oppressed by their backward patriarchal culture and need to be rescued by the enlightened, civilized, ‘feminist’ West. While supposedly promoting ’feminism’, liberal feminists can end up perpetuating imperialism.

Intersectional feminism provides more sophisticated frameworks for making sense of the subtle and slippery colonial, patriarchal, and white supremacist ideologies in Orientalism. It reminds us we need to constantly ‘ask the other question’ and remember histories of violence laying beneath taken-for-granted present-day stereotypes.

Orientalism also shows how colonial, gender, and racial oppression can be disguised within seemingly innocent expressions of art and literature. When critiqued, Orientalists may profess they’re simply appreciating foreign cultures.

For all of us who produce, consume, or are otherwise witnesses to Orientalism, we need to accept a moral responsibility to think critically about power dynamics and resist practices that perpetuate ongoing harm on marginalized people and communities.

To understand more about what we can do to resist interlocking oppressions, please take a look at my previous post on the practices for meaningful allyship as intersectional feminists.

Learn More

Edward Said (1978) Orientalism

Nazia Kazi (2018) Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics

Densho is a grassroots not-for-profit organization geared to preserve and share the history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today.

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