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Relegate the ‘O’ word to the dustbin of Chicago history

Beginning this month, Chicago's Oriental Theater is now the James M. Nederlander Theatre. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The marquee Oriental Theatre sign is being taken down, helping make the “O” word just a piece of Chicago history.

And last week newly elected state Sen. Ram Villivalam and state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz introduced legislation to ban the term from all state documents, as the federal government under President Barack Obama and other states already have done.

OPINION

The “O” word is outdated and offensive. Like similar terms that were imposed upon African Americans and Latinos, it is a racialized term that has been used to caricature, demean and discriminate against Asian Americans as perpetually foreign non-Americans, as permanent and inferior aliens.

For more than 100 years, the word has motivated and justified exclusionary immigration policies, anti-immigrant violence, political disfranchisement and racial discrimination and segregation.

In 2016, I made history as the first Asian American elected to a countywide board in Cook County, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. On the campaign trail I constantly was asked where I was from, endured comments about my eyes and compliments on my good English.

Many assumed I was an immigrant simply because I was Asian. They couldn’t imagine that I was born here.

In fact, I am sixth generation Chinese American and fifth generation Japanese American. My family has lived in the U.S. for 165 years, since 1854.

Asian Americans are growing in population and political power. We make up about six percent of the city. But we are the fastest growing population in the state. And for the first time, we have Asian Americans elected at every level of government, from U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth to U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Lake County Treasurer Holly Kim to Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th).

For decades, 93 years to be exact, tens of millions of people have walked through the Loop and seen the word “Oriental” light up the Chicago sky. While many might smile or think nothing of it, it always made me — and many Asian Americans — cringe.

The Oriental Theatre, opened in 1926, was designed by Rapp and Rapp, who also designed the Palace Theater and the Chicago Theater. It was the center of Chicago nightlife, with Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and the Three Stooges as regulars.

It was named “The Oriental” and decorated with ornate faux Indian architecture to be “exotic” and “otherworldly.” Going forward, it will be called the James M. Nederlander Theater, named after the founder of Broadway in Chicago and its new owner, the Nederlander Organization.

Now we should all do our part to put this term in the past — beyond our buildings. While it will continue to get used to refer to antique objects (like rugs), please stop using it to refer to people.

We are Asian American.

Josina Morita is a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner and chair of the Joint Asian American Leaders Caucus.

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