Civil Rights

The Supreme Court May Support ‘The Slants,’ But Their Decision Doesn’t Help Asian Americans

The Slants, the Portland, Oregon-based band that for six years fought in the courts for the right to trademark their controversial name, finally won Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in their favor. In doing so, they overturned a 71-year-old policy preventing words that could “disparage” groups of people from being legitimized.  

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said, “We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the 1st Amendment… Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — the same entity that initially refused to trademark “The Slants” — canceled six federal trademark protections for the Washington Redskins. That added pressure on the football team to change their name (not offensive?  How about the Cleveland Blackskins?  The Honolulu Whiteskins?). Even more confusing was the fact that The Slants weren’t comfortable with the use of the Redskins name either, but their victory will now help the team keep it in the future. As you can imagine, the Redskins organization was overjoyed with the ruling. Great going, guys.

The Slants went about it as if they were curing cancer.

Leader Simon Tam told the New York Times one of the reasons they chose the name in 2006 in the first place was to   pay homage to the Asian-American activists who had been using the term in a reappropriated, self-empowering way for about 30 years.” First of all, who are these “activists?”  Actually, never mind. It doesn’t matter because nobody knew they were trying to soften the sting of that slur, and they’ve obviously failed.   

How is this band going to succeed in reclaiming that word? They made five albums and one EP, yet none of them nor any of their tracks made a single Billboard music chart. You know how easy it is to make one of the Billboard’s various 785 charts these days? Remember in 2011 when Alexandria Wallace, the UCLA student who pissed people off by complaining about seeing so many Asian families on campus and imitating them saying “Ching Chong Ling Long?” An unknown, Jimmy Wong, recorded an answer song called “Ching Chong (It Means I Love You),“ and it sold enough downloads to make the Billboard Comedy Digital Songs Chart.

Nothing The Slants have ever done has shown up on Billboard’s radar.

But let’s cut to the chase: I don’t care if The Slants attained Bruno Mars or Katy Perry-level popularity. Throwing around “slants” would only cause confusion over who could use it and who couldn’t. Much like the white community (I’m looking at you, Bill Maher!) who’ve wondered, “if blacks can call each other ‘nigga,’ why can’t I?”

Say you’re out at night with a bunch of Asian American friends. A white guy yells, “Hey, you slants!”  How are you going to take it? Will it be OK because the term was used enough by the Asian American rock band that it was reclaimed for the entire Asian American community and therefore no longer hurt? Of course not. The guys in that crowd would have to consider addressing the shouter and preparing for a fist fight.

Back in August 2001 after my appearance on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” where I slammed Sarah Silverman for using “Chinks” in a joke, Kate Rigg (who’s half Chinese/half White) took me to task. She, like the Slants, thought she could reappropriate the word in her show “Chink-O-Rama.” I thought she had delusions of grandeur. First of all, no one knew who she was, her performances didn’t impact that many people (that remains true now, 16 years later), and all it would do was cause confusion with both the Asian and non-Asian communities.

As far as I can tell, the only disparaged group that’s been able to reclaim an insulting word, taking away the sting of its use, are gays by referring to themselves as “queer.” Not with “faggot,” just as blacks will never do it with ”nigger,” Japanese with “Jap” or Chinese with “Chinks.” Slurs on that strong a level can never be rendered neutral words–certainly not ones said with pride–because of their historic baggage for being used to oppress and subjugate its targets.

So is this really about the band protecting the merchandise on their website that bears “slants” on baseball caps, coffee mug, tote bags and hoodies?  Is this about their ability to ensure nobody else makes money with products blaring “their” name?  

The Slants said in a statement, “This journey has always been much bigger than our band: it’s been about the rights of all marginalized communities to determine what’s best for ourselves.” The only problem is, the majority of the Asian American community wasn’t asking you to legitimize the slur for business purposes. In fact, if they had their way, most probably would’ve asked you for the opposite: to ensure that those with less “altruistic goals” wouldn’t profit from putting such slurs in the marketplace. God help us now.

The group actually has more former members (9) than current ones (4).  Maybe they should worry more about keeping the band together than making “The Slants” “safe” for the rest of us.

Guy Aoki is the Founding President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) the first all-volunteer, non-profit organization solely dedicated to monitoring the mass media and advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans.  For almost 25 years, he wrote the “Into the Next Stage” media column for the Rafu Shimpo and for 17 years wrote syndicated radio shows for Dick Clark.  His views do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.


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