Simon Tam of The Slants: “I am not the floodgate of racism that some think I am.”

8A-2015-08-04-TheSlants2015I am not the floodgate of racism that some think I am.

I am not the Pandora’s Box of hate speech that some afraid I’ve turned into.

I am an anti-racist, social justice activist who has been battling in the trenches. My weapon is a bass guitar, not a bullet. I believe in creating meaningful conversation, not shutting down people, especially those with opposing views.

I started an Asian American band called The Slants. These days, we’re probably more known for fighting the government than for fighting stereotypes. But in either case, we’re challenging systemic racism.

In what seemed like a century ago, we filed a simple application for a trademark registration but it turned into an unimaginable legal debacle that has spanned six years, thousands of pages of argument, when the Trademark Office decided that the band name was a racial slur. They said that my intention didn’t matter: my ethnicity provided the context for the common, everyday word to become a racial slur. The logic used by the Trademark Office is troubling: anyone may register a trademark for “Slant” except Asians. We are too Asian. But we aren’t afraid to fire back.

Our justice work has been called empowering, racist, important, shameful. I’ve received death threats from white supremacists and encouragement from activists of all stripes. I’ve thrown into the media spotlight to have my intentions scrutinized under a microscope. I’ve heard more false stories, assumptions, and misquotes about me than I can count.

Most recently, and what has stung the most, was that I received accusations from several Asian American legal groups. There’s a guest blog on Angry Asian Man, which explains the ethical problems that I have with their approach here.

The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), the South Asian Bar Association of DC (SABA-DC), and Korematsu Center of Seattle University filed a legal brief in full support of the Trademark Office’s action.They believed that it was important to do so because our case “may affect the power of the government to deny or cancel trademarks that contain disparaging content,” which could give a “federal stamp of approval” for said behavior or content.

In other words, it came from a position of fear. It was an ends-justify-the-means, broadly sweeping process that meant some people along the way had to get hurt. In this case, those targets included my band, as well as all activists, artists, nonprofits, and businesses that engage in reapproriation as a method for creating social change. They believe that my case may open the floodgate of hate speech.

However, is it worth suppressing the voices of the oppressed in fear of losing one avenue for protecting against disparaging trademark registrations? Is the solution for hate speech censorship? No, the solution is more speech. Better speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union writes, “Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.”

By upholding the law the Trademark Office is using to oppose The Slants (and all trademarks that on their surface look to be disparaging), it further equips hate groups to dismantle the work of groups like the NAACP, since “colored people” can be considered a disparaging term. It also puts the sole power of determining what is and isn’t offensive in the hands of trademark attorneys who aren’t trained in cultural competency, equitable practices, or the nuances of poetry, irony, reappropriation, or linguistic changes.

Those same attorneys demand, “prove to be that you are not offensive” but are allowed to dismiss any evidence that they disagree with. In my case, that meant dismissing over 2,000 pages of evidence, including national surveys and linguistics experts testifying. It meant that they took the words of racist wiki-websites over those of internment camp survivors, activists, and community leaders.

This law is subjectively and disproportionately applied.

The trademark law reveals that it has been used to punish marginalized groups more than anyone else. In any area of law, that should be considered unacceptable. Yet, the Asian American legal organizations are supporting it, for fear of encouraging the Dan Snyder’s of the world to rise up, even if it means undermining decades of work from activists in their own community.

That work of reappropriation spans far beyond this Asian rocker. It includes Native Americans, Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, the disabled community,  women, and every group that has ever been marginalized. Studies show that reapprorpiation demonstrates a shift in power from the oppressor to the oppressed, creates a greater awareness of issues, and empowers minorities.

It doesn’t “mainstream” hate speech or makes it more acceptable. It doesn’t create a tidal wave of racism. As Eric Liu states, “wit can neuter malice…Americans can take words, language…meant to be used to hurt them and claim them in ways that change their meaning and context.”

The Trademark Office already extends that protection to the KKK and numerous other hate groups. Through copyrights, Congress already protects numerous books, films, and songs that contain hateful content. Why is the moral line being drawn at trademark registrations?

Dealing with hate speech, especially at a trademark registration level, only deals with the symptoms of racist behavior. It relegates “racism” to surface level conversations instead of systems and “reduces issues from substance to appearance” (Frank Wu).

Selling out activists, like what NAPABA, SABA-DC, and the Korematsu Center have done to create false protections against hate speech only perpetuates inequity. It preserves a system that is using race as a justification for the suppression of rights. Which, let’s face it, is real racism.

Please join me by signing this petition and asking for a more culturally competent approach. Marginalized communities should not be victims of bad law, and we certainly shouldn’t be denied rights simply because we’re afraid others might misuse them. Sign this petition today to demand that we stop undermining the work of activists and justifying racist policies in the name of fear.

My case is not the floodgate for hate speech. It’s the door for anti-racist speech. Let’s open it up.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Simon is best known as the founder of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. Simon’s approach to social justice and activism has been highlighted in thousands of media features across 82 countries, including: NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Bloomberg News, MSNBC, USA Today, Huffington Post, MTV, The Los Angeles Times, ELLE Magazine, and MyxTV.

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