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The article then goes on to explain that the band "deliberately chose this outdated, generational term to inject pride into Asian American culture", and that they have received substantial support from the Asian-American community.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