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Story of O-rientalism

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Meraz Mostafa, MA Anthropology and Sociology

There is a thought loop that I can’t get out of my head: If I were to graffiti the word “oriental” on the walls of SOAS, would it be considered a hate crime?

Well, okay, I’d probably just get into trouble for sprawling ink on the walls, subsuming a much more interesting conversation about not only about the school’s history but its name. Let’s say, for argument’s sake then, I started using the word on campus to describe people.

Not everyone, obviously — just folks vaguely from north Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia.

I mean, it would put the university in a glorious Catch-22 position: to punish me would be to admit its own racist name; and not to punish me would be outright awful.

It’s this awkward fact that most of us are aware of but somehow choose to ignore (which seems to be a very British style of racism #slaveryexistedheretoo).

Although, I guess I technically herald from the “orient” and perhaps get in-crowd privileges? Then again, it’s not very hard to be part of the “orient” given that more than half the human population is.

And sure, “oriental” is not exactly in the same category as other such racial slurs like the n-word (no, I was not going to say it) and the p-word (is that how it’s referred to here?). As far as I am aware, people don’t actually shout the word “oriental” in moments of White fragility and misdirected frustration.

But that’s because it’s more of a conceptual form of racism: People have a hard time imagining diversity of the billions of people living in north Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia (and even those categories feel reductive!).

As we know, this sadly has laid the ideological foundation for wars, anti-immigrant legislation and probably the so-called ‘European migration crisis’.

Maybe it’s a petty thing to be worrying about in 2019 given that fascism is somehow once again on the rise (okay, okay, “neo-Fascism” — Is this what the new Star Wars trilogy is about?); and white supremacists are apparently drinking milk as a symbol of racial dominance. But given that the university is celebrating its 103rd birthday this year, one would have assumed somebody somewhere in the institution would have lobbied to change the name by now.

Perhaps the School of Orientalism and African Studies, in honor of Edward Said’s foundational text for postcolonial studies; though I suppose the book mainly focusses on Europe’s relationship with the ‘Middle East’ (an imaginary in-itself). Or more simply, the School of Asian and African Studies.

Now I imagine there’s a group of people losing their hair reading this (provided they’ve made it this far, which is unlikely given the average attention span these days; and provided they have hair). The same people who trembled with fear when students across the UK demanded their universities be ‘safe spaces’ for young people with historically marginalized identities, because they felt this was censorship (the same people who apparently have no qualms about the Prevent program that actually targets students for expressing certain ideas #Islam).

Well, not that the actions of any head of state are ethical standards to go by, but the last United States president (Obama, not Trump) did ban the use of the word in official government documents.

Anyway, it’s kind of funny given SOAS’ history that we all ended up here; an institution that was literally charged to train British administrators on how to effectively manage the colonies; countries that many of us are from. LSE, on the other hand, began with a bequest from a socialist organization. Hilarious, how history plays out.

I realize more than an opinion piece worthy of any newspaper, this is more of a glorified Facebook post. I doubt anybody reading this, especially at SOAS, would strongly disagree about the institution’s uncouth past (then again, the Oxford recently did have a not-so-secret conference on the positive aspects of colonialism). But I guess my point is — would it be a hate crime?

After all, it is always already written on the walls.

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