Ghavri: Unintentional Orientalism

by Anmol Ghavri | 7/7/16 6:00pm

Western society has come a long way in redefining and refining its way of looking at Asian and Middle Eastern societies and cultures. Yet despite a reformed method of examining “Eastern” societies and cultures in scholarship, the Orientalist framework still continues to be subtly and unintentionally used on a day-to-day basis, in debates over assimilation and even in the relatively worldly and well-traveled student body at Dartmouth.

Edward Said’s book “Orientalism” (1978) is undoubtedly the crown jewel and work par excellence in the field of Asian and Middle Eastern studies. Said especially criticized European society’s tendency to exoticize, essentialize, exaggerate and patronize non-European societies and cultures, both explicitly for political purposes and implicitly due to feelings of superiority. Indeed, Said’s work has influenced how a generation of postcolonial scholars examines Asian and Middle Eastern societies. College students studying the history, politics, culture and economics of Asian and Middle Eastern societies are taught from early on to look at scholarship on “the East” produced in once imperialist Western societies with skepticism. That being said, there is still a long way to go to eliminating the Orientalist framework.

One cannot discuss modern Orientalist worldviews in Western society without discussing the modern debate over assimilation. Proponents of assimilation argue that cultural assimilation of immigrants has always been part of Western, especially American, society, and that assimilation is key in the stability and security of such societies. Those who argue against aggressive cultural assimilation, on the other hand, claim that people from non-Western societies should maintain and cherish their unique cultures no matter where they live, and that multiculturalism has always been a part of modern Western societies.

In reality, the truth lies somewhere between these two viewpoints. “Other” cultures have indeed contributed to Western society as distinct entities, but are frequently reduced to simple constructions through assimilation. Portrayals of Asian and Middle Eastern societies and culture often exaggerate, intentionally or not, the differences between Western and non-Western people. This, in turn, influences general perceptions of Asian and Middle Eastern societies and culture in the West by essentializing non-Western people as “Other” cultures.

This process occurs at all levels of Western society, even at schools such as Dartmouth. For example, there is an exoticization of Asian student clubs — I have heard friends wanting to stop by an event organized by an Asian student organization to “grab some lassi” or to watch “that Asian dance troupe.” Though well-intentioned, these simple statements embody essentialist and exotic perceptions of non-Western culture. In personal interactions as well, some of my peers use phrases like “ethnic” food, “foreign” people and even “Muslim” and “terrorist” interchangeably to refer to ethnic groups originating anywhere from North Africa to South Asia. While I understand that these peers are in a minority and are more often than not attempting to be humorous rather than malicious, it is worrying to hear such things casually from students at Dartmouth.

To be clear, I do not believe the debate over assimilation or my personally observed on-campus instances of Orientalist thinking mark a backward trend. Rather, these phenomena mark continuity and, in actuality, a slow decline in Orientalist thinking. The fact that Orientalist thinking has become less frequent, less malicious, increasingly unintentional and more subtle means that progress is occurring. Some will argue that certain non-Western societies themselves essentialize “Other” cultures and societies, which is undoubtedly true. However, those societies are in a completely different stage of development than Europe or the United States. While this does not excuse these countries, it still shows that Western societies have not progressed as much as they could.

In the end, I am hopeful that the impulse of “Western” and “Eastern” societies to essentialize, derogate, patronize and exoticize each other will continue to shrink. In the 70-plus years after the end of World War II and decolonization, mankind has come a long way in understanding and respecting the diversity and complexity of global cultures. But there is still a long way to go. If we, as students and people in general, are more conscious of what we say and more critical of what we believe, we can progress even further in closing the gap in understanding between East and West.