Gov. David Paterson signed a bill sponsored by state Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) into law last week that will eliminate the use of the word oriental on all preprinted state documents by the beginning of next year.
The words we use matter. We in government recognize that what we print in official documents or forms sets an example of what is acceptable. With this legislation, we take action against derogatory speech and set a new standard, Paterson said. The word oriental does not describe ethnic origin, background or even race. In fact, it has deep and demeaning historical roots.
Though once a commonly used word in government documents to describe people of Asian descent, Merriam-Webster now defines oriental as a derogatory term. Meng, who sponsored the bill alongside state Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), said eliminating terms that cast a blanket over a broad and diverse group of people may be a subtle change on paper, but sends a strong message about racial insensitivity.
Derogatory and insensitive language, like that Sen. Johnson and I are addressing with our legislation, should not be allowed to linger in official state forms, Meng said. This bill will hopefully serve as an important vehicle to eliminate any future derogatory classifications of people from all ethnic backgrounds. We are all Americans regardless of our ethnic backgrounds and as such should not have to suffer being referred to in an offensive manner.
Paterson signed the bill into law in Manhattan last Thursday, which directs all state agencies to make any necessary changes by Jan. 1, 2010.
Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at sstirling@
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