Monday, April 25, 2011

Chinkies and Gooks and Slants Oh My!

Owning Silliness.

The You Offend Me You Offend My Family blog recently posted an article written by musician Simon Tam, the bassist for the all Asian-American group The Slants. According to the article, the band is engaged in a struggle with the U.S Trademark and Patent Office over their attempt to trademark the band's name. Their application has been denied on the grounds that because the term "slants" has been used historically as a means of denigration of Asian people, it runs counter to the patent office's policy of not permitting disparaging terms to be used.

The article then goes on to explain that the band "deliberately chose this outdated, generational term to inject pride into Asian American culture", and that they have received substantial support from the Asian-American community. The article continues.....

"This is what angers me the most: the US Trademark Office decided that anonymous wiki sources mattered more than the voice of Asian Americans. Why does a government agency that has no connection with APA’s have the right to dictate what is appropriate for our community? Why don’t we have the right to decide for ourselves?............The role of government shouldn’t include deciding what a group can define themselves as. That right should belong to the community itself."
I couldn't help but notice the irony in the above quote. It might well be true that a government agency shouldn't have the right to determine how a group defines itself, but at the same time Tam doesn't really offer any good reason why he thinks he does. The fact that a few random bloggers and activists support him is irrelevant.

The worst thing about this idea of "owning" a derogatory slur as a means of empowerment or to inject pride into Asian-American culture (what does that even mean?!!), is that it seems to be a case of simple imitation. The reasoning seems to be that blacks have done it with the N-word so we should too! Pride and all that, don't you know! Of course, the reality would appear to be far more complex than this.

Black people owning the N-word came about after decades of civil rights work, protesting government authorities, facing dogs, watercannon, and lynch mobs, with the effect of building a community of empowered individuals. The by-product of all this activism was that the N-word became hazardous for white people to use because there weren't any more laws preventing African-Americans from refusing to accept the term from them. In this way, the N-word has changed from a socially valid descriptor into socially unacceptable slur. Therefore, for black people to use the term it is both a reminder to white society of its past brutality (and the struggle to overcome it), and it truly is owning the word because non-blacks use the word at their own peril.

The situation of the Asian minority in 21st century America is different. Words like "chink" and "gook" can be, and are, used casually in American society, and racial mockery of Asian people is the norm. In fact, it is considered so normal to concieve of Asians in mocking and derogatory ways, that American popular culture (and the celebrities it manufactures) routinely and confidently propagates these negative attitudes. American children grow up in school environments where racial baiting and harassment of Asians is casual and acceptable. There are absolutely no negative social or political repurcussions that result from using anti-Asian epithets or expressing anti-Asian attitudes. There is no social stigma attached to expressing racism towards Asian people and adopting such slurs does nothing to change that.

With this in mind it would seem obvious that striving to apply a derogatory epithet as an appropriate self-definition in an environment where few positive alternatives are used, does, in fact, reinforce and provide impetus to the practice of dehumanizing Asian people through derogatory epithets. If everybody can use them without restriction, then how are these epithets being "owned"? Furthermore, how does applying a demeaning epithet to oneself convince a society - that is quite comfortable using them - that it is actually wrong to use them?

In short, there is no logical basis to presume that Asians applying derogatory epithets to themselves, in any way promotes cultural pride or social empowerment. All it does is legitimize their use as a means to dehumanize us. Tam's article calls for the Asian-American community to show support for what he terms their "plight" - I urge readers to not support this silly campaign.


  1. This is the most well-thought post on the subject! Whites and blacks are racist to Asians and they think nothing of it because there are no repercussions. Which is partly our fault as Asians. We certainly don't need to encourage it.

  2. Good post. I agree.

    I think lots of times, people just grab for the low hanging gimmick. We live in desperate times, and people desperately look for something that helps them stand out. It's sad but true. The antidote is stronger culture, which hopefully people are actively creating.

  3. James

    That's exactly the issue - it is a fault that we downplay the seriousness of racial epithets.


    That's a great point about stronger culture. As Asian men, it also comes down to being willing draw a line in the sand and uphold our dignity as Asians and men. We are individuals with names and personalities - something that mainstream American culture likes to deny - by adopting these kinds of slurs, we are reinforcing this.

  4. Ben,

    You offer some interesting statements yet you don't back those up either. You also make several assumptions about me and my band's work without doing any additional research. That's fine, that happens from time to time...I didn't come to your blog site to start a war or anything, You're entitled to your opinions, just like I'm entitled to mine but I wanted to clarify a few points that you freely make without understanding of the bigger issue.

    First, you state that I don't offer any good reasons why I think I should have the right to protect our name and define ourselves by calling ourselves "The Slants." In the context of the post that I was asked to write by YOYOMF, it wouldn't make sense. There are a numer of reasons:

    1) We're seeking trademark for "The Slants" to be used by an Asian American live music group. I believe that API's have the right to use a self-referential term in a positive manner.

    2) We're not alone in this. The "Slant" film festival, a long running API festival in Houston has been using their name for over a decade without any issues from Asian Americans. There's also an API theatre group, TV show, magazine, multiple documentaries, comedians, and artists that all use the term "slant" in a positive manner. In a recent survey in a NW Asian newspaper, over 95% of respondents said that the term "Slants" was not offensive in the manner which we are using the name.

    3) We're using the name "The Slants" to refer to our band, not a community, not a race. The word slant in of itself isn't offensive at all. In fact, the New Oxford American Dictionary removed any connotations referring to persons of Asian descent in the 2010 edition of their dictionary (changed from their 2005 edition) because "slant" was not found to commonly used in an offensive manner at all. In fact, the term "slant" in relation to "slanted eyes" comes from a medical science, the Palpebral Slant, a feature shared by many races (not just Asians).

    You also mention that "The fact that a few random bloggers and activists support him is irrelevant."

    The fact is that we have widespread support for the band, not just from a "few bloggers." In fact, the truth is that only a few bloggers have issue with the name. The Slants perform for audiences of over a half a million API's every year and are involved with the largest API gatherings in the nation, all of whom promote the band with pride. We've been featured in nearly ever API media resource out there - from Asian Week, the Asian Reporter, Pacific Citizen (the magazine for the Japanese American Citizens League), Hypen,, and many more. We're supported by over two dozen regional and national APi organizations. Our case is supported by nearly every API legal organization, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who is at the forefront of every major API rights issue.

  5. While the situation is that occasionally people use the term "chink" or "gook" in a casual manner, it is not the same for "slant" I'm not even arguing that it is ok to use the term "slant" in a derogatory manner. The truth is that you can use ANY term in a hateful manner; words only have as much power as you give to them. When extremely well respected lexiconologist and editor of the American Dictionary recently stated: "The contemporary musical band that calls itself The Slants has selected a
    name that corresponds to the twenty-first century usage of the term slant as a racial
    and/or ethnic term of positive self-reference. Like all ethnic and racial epithets, there may
    be contexts in which slant forms a part of a more general disparaging context of
    deprecation; one may, after all, say “filthy Swede,” “disgusting lesbian,” or “lying
    American dog.” But such uses do not make Swede or American intrinsically disparaging
    or objectionable to Swedes, lesbians, or Americans."

    He continues to argue that "Moreover, the evidence of the history of entries in New Oxford
    American Dictionary supports the contention that the empirical data demonstrate: even if
    some Asian Americans in the last century may have felt slant to be an objectionable
    epithet, the term has been reclaimed by contemporary Asian Americans for use as an
    informal term representing racial and ethnic pride."

    The argument isn't "lets start making Americans call all Asians Slants!." It's call our band "The Slants" because we're proud of who we are. It's a band, not a race. Asians can use it in a positive self-referential manner, we've been doing that for years just like other terms (i.e "yellow," "fobulous," etc,)

    One final thought: I've been doing this for four years now. We've never had a situation where non-API's were using the term in a disparaging manner. If you count the audiences of just the media coverage on our band (not including concerts, appearances, workshops, or events), it totals over 25 million. We've only been associated with the Asian community and culture in a positive manner.

    We've been able to use the term "slant" as a conversational piece to address stereotypes, address discrimination, and create understanding with others. We've been able to share the Asian American experience to others who might not understand or even be interested in it in the first place. I travel across the country to 100-150 events per year speaking on the topic and address racial issues, tackle questions about API identity, etc to non-API's. We've only been associated with a positive experience and its led to others exploring the beauties of our collective cultures. Through the band, we've collected over $750,000 for API charities, champion causes and advocate for our communities. There has never been a negative experience and it has never justified others in using the term "slant" or even "chink" or "gook" in a lighthearted manner. It has only opened doors where they have been previously closed.

    Our work is important to the API community and we'll continue to fight for this because its the right thing to do.

    Anyway, that's a long explanation that you'll probably need but if you want more info, we're filing our case later this month and it's closing in over 500 pages of evidence including surveys, activists, media, language experts, racial communication experts, and case law. I'm not a lawyer myself but I hear it's going to be a page turner.

  6. Hi SImon

    Welcome and thank you for your response. My repsonse became too long, so I've just posted it as another blog post on the main page.

    Again, thank you for commenting.