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Orientalism: The Roots of Racism



This is a research paper I did on Orientalism from my college English 102 class in 2014. I chose to tackle Orientalism from the perspective of Orientalism being very well able to be said to be the roots of racism and how art, which to this day has enormous impacts and effects on a person's consciousness, perspective, way of thinking, feeling and etc can be said to have had a large impact on the way racism still lingers in our minds to this day. Perhaps a revolution, through art, with the right level of knowledge of it's roots, can reverse racism, instilling in us a new way of thinking, feeling and perceiving of each other, regardless of color, race, or sex.



Kaizer Hossain

Professor Ladjache

English 102.8421

January 11, 2014

Orientalism

Dating as far back in history since the 15th century, Orientalism has had an extremely significant effect on much more than what is known as the Orient (the Orient being Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, practices, beliefs, customs and traditions, and society in general). It can be said that Orientalism has had an impact on just about every conception, practice, and affair whether it be political, cultural, psychological, or even in the fields of visual, musical, and theatrical arts. Orientalism was more than just an ideology and a form of expression in the representation of and against the Orient. It was created almost to be used as a political weapon of societal dominance and power. In other words, Orientalism gave Europe (particularly the British and French) a sense of superiority – or hegemony against basically anyone and everyone who was non-European and especially Oriental. It gave birth to the way many viewed the Orient, the way people thought, and gave room for a more flexible and universal way of thinking due to the fact that many paintings and other forms of Oriental art were so vivid and non-objective that the study and pondering of these works had an enormous effect on the way people interpreted things. Many have questioned the standpoints regarding the impact and influence Orientalism has had on post-19th century society and with proper research, the transition Orientalism has gone through up until today is undeniably irrefutable.

During the late 18th century, European writers, travelers, artists, and academic scholars of all types have been dealing with the Orient and labeling them as such. European scholars traveled to many of the Oriental countries such as China, Japan, India, Korea, etc. The European scholars would translate the writings of the Orient into European language and scriptures, creating their own interpretation of the Orient and basically categorizing them as a single region of exaggerated religious, rebellious, uncivilized, charismatic, and eccentric people. This creation of the Orient allowed countries from all around the world to observe and create their own interpretations of what they believed the Orient to be. In turn, this allowed many societies not only to be deceived, but also, remarkably, made them more aware of what could be created in terms of fashion, music, art, politics, etc. The birth of Orientalism that Europe (also referred to as the Occident) had created gave them a sense of superiority over the rest of the world. If a nation has the ability to manipulate and deceive the minds of many societies from all over the world while simultaneously paving the way for greater human consciousness, what could possibly get in the way of that kind of power? “Under the general heading of knowledge of the Orient, and within the umbrella of Western hegemony over the Orient during the period from the end of the eighteenth century, there emerged a complex Orient suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum, for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses about mankind and the universe, for instances of economic and sociological theories of development, revolution, cultural personality, national or religious character” Said, 24. Thorough examination and study of Orientalism and such works of Edward Said can be seen as clear proof – simply insurmountable and too effective to be discounted for.

One specific work of art called Prayer in the Mosque – drawn by a French painter by the name of Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1871 after a visit to Egypt in 1868 depicts a group of religious, barefooted Muslims praying inside of a Mosque. There are a group of pigeons drawn randomly inside of the temple which may represent the looseness of civility the Muslims had or it may even represent what the Europeans believed to be a holy worship – where Muslims prayed to animals. This type of belief may come from the closeness the Muslims felt with animals and how only certain animals were to be eaten. This is a good example of how Europeans used the Orient (also known as the Other as a way of possibly isolating or alienating them) in order to represent and control them. There are many different ways to interpret the painting and there seems to be a lot of discrimination against the Orient as well. Another thing that stuck out in the painting was a man praying in front of a beautiful rug with a gun strapped to his chest. This could easily be interpreted as the European belief that Muslims may go to extreme and even violent measures and sacrifices in order to protect and serve their religious beliefs. One more thing that was interesting about the painting was a young man that was seen not too far off from where the pigeons were. This man is almost completely nude, with just a piece of cloth covering his lower body and what looks like possibly a small hand bag. This seems to be an act of uncivilized and defiant behavior, especially inside of a Mosque and is just another example of the negative impact that Orientalism has had on society and the way it allowed people to think of certain groups of societies.

Looking further into the impact that Orientalism has had on today’s society and American culture, art, politics, and views – the racist, alienating, and discriminating beliefs that have been created can still be found alongside the positive psychological, analytical and developmental outlook people continue to hold today. Focusing on the negative effects that Orientalism has had, it can be extremely beneficial in understanding where these views originated from in order to disengage and re-examine the true nature of these beliefs and views. In relation to the way that Orientalism has represented this negative outlook on certain societies, The Mikado was a great example. The Mikado was an operetta (light opera) that focused on the exaggerated antics and cartoonish brutalities that Japanese stereotypes would engage in. The plot revolved around Japanese men and women (whose characteristics, social interactions, and behaviors were given a very over-defined light) who were basically running around trying to execute each other for ridiculous reasons. This is a great example of the stereotypical views that have been absorbed by society and continue to be an issue today. “In different historical moments and contexts, Orientalism has taken a variety of forms, such as the racialization of Orientals, the exoticism and essentialism of Oriental people and cultural practices, eroticizing Oriental women while emasculating Oriental men, the gendering of civilizations, commoditization and consumption, primitivism and demonization, and institutionalized racism” Moore, 389-390. Simply understanding the roots in which these labels have derived from and been executed, the insight in knowing of Orientalism could have far more benefits than it already has had on society, period

In general, much can be said about Orientalism. The enlightening concepts that it’s given to human consciousness, the rich history of scholars and artists, the manipulation and domination Europe had over the rest of the world because of the Orient, and the negative labels that have been created in the process all represent the influence Orientalism has and continues to have on today’s society. It is important to understand our history in order to work together in allowing a more positive development in politics, arts, culture, and consciousness in general. Racism, sexism, and discrimination have also been a huge problem for society for centuries, and Orientalism is a clear representation of how it affects us even when we aren’t aware of why we think a certain way. Orientalism is a perfect example of human development and why it is important to understand the history of different cultures of all types.


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