Using the term "Oriental" to describe a person of Asian or Pacific Islander descent is pretty much a thing of the past. States including Washington and New York have long banned the word from official documents, and the federal government finally followed suit in 2016. That's because the term has a history of marginalizing Asian immigrants and is considered offensive by many.
But the Miami Police Department still uses the word to describe people who file complaints with its Internal Affairs section. On MPD's intake forms, the ethnicity options for complainants include "Oriental," "American," "Spanish," "Haitian," "European," or "Other":
Rodney Jacobs, the assistant director of the Civilian Investigative Panel, an independent police oversight board in Miami, says the language is archaic and needs to be fixed.
"That’s definitely an offensive use for Asian Americans," he says. "The whole list of designations is kind of off a little bit. It's somewhat surprising to me that they haven't updated it to make their record-keeping more accurate."
The Miami Police Department did not respond to questions from New Times about why the form still uses the word "Oriental" or why people of Haitian ancestry are singled out.
While some Asians say they don't find the term "Oriental" offensive, it has historically been used to slight immigrant populations. Frank Wu, the author of the 2002 book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, said in a 2017 Kansas City Star story that the term evokes a sentiment "that people don't belong here."
"Once you realize this word is at best antiquated, and at worst interpreted as bigoted, why would you keep using it when Asian American is an accepted neutral alternative?" he told the paper. "It’s no different from the change from ‘Negro’ to ‘African-American.’ If someone today says ‘Negro,’ you do a double take."
That's not to say the word has been completely removed from the American lexicon. In late 2017, a viral video showed a woman yelling the term at a Korean student who was trying to work with a tutor at Starbucks. Just this week, filmmaker Paul Schrader was criticized for referring to "Oriental" actors in a Facebook post discussing Jordan Peele's comments about white male leads.
Jacobs says it would be easy for MPD to modify the language on its Internal Affairs form.
"This is just a departmental form so ... it's not like it would take an act of law to actually change it," he says. "The form is definitely kind of antiquated and needs to be updated."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.