Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dialogue WIth Simon Tam

My Response

Thank you for your comment and the clarification of your point of view. Welcome to my blog - and thank you for not starting a war! My response to you in the comments section bacame overly long so I hope you don't mind that I've posted it as an actual blog post.

Let me also start by clarifying. You wrote that I said this......'[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."'

Your paraphrase is inaccurate. I wrote nothing like that. In fact, what I actually wrote was this... 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. Which was a response to this statement made by you……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?

Words are not entities with relative meanings, by necessity they must adhere to some kind of standard in order for language to make any sense. Unless the words that you wrote above have a different meaning to you than they would have for most other people then it is fair to conclude that, clearly, you have decided that a historically derogatory term is an appropriate way to define or label our community. What you have written goes way beyond merely wanting to use an epithet to label yourselves because you are trying to convince a government agency that it is okay to for a society think of dehumanizing terms as positive. That affects the whole community, past, present, and future. I also find it strange that you think that this (or any) government agency has no connection with APAs. Isn't the point of activism and political involvement ultimately to forge connections between individuals, the communities that they constitute, and their governmental agencies? The fact is that all government agencies must and do have connections with APAs whether we like it or not, and whether it is good for us or not. It seems to me that this particular agency is showing great sensitivity toward APAs.

Fair enough, plenty of Asian groups utilize the term "slant" to label themselves, but unlike yourself, they don't seem to have appealed to the general community to support them in trying to convince a government agency in making a term acceptable that was and still has the potential to be used to dehumanize Asian people. Surely the bigger issue is that we do indeed live in a society that shows a proclivity, and desire even, to dehumanize Asians. It seems obtuse and meaningless to argue that "words only have as much power as you give them" or that derogatory epithets lose their power if we understand them in the context of their pure or absolute meaning. This is nonsense. A dehumanizing epithet reflects a social and political reality that places some individuals in a hierarchy above an entire group. So yes, whilst it's true that words in their pure form may not be demeaning, it is ultimately a meaningless argument because it is social and political inequalities that enables such words to have power.

That is what I tried to get across in my post. Derogatory epithets do not lose power because we might "own" them or use them to describe ourselves. They lose power when the structures that enable a given group to utilize them as a means to reinforce ideas of social, racial, and political superiority over another group, are dismantled or are themselves disempowered. This means that racial epithets are not merely intended to offend (that's a mundane and naive perspective) - the goal is not and never has been to bruise the egos of minorities, but, rather, to reinforce the idea of  social and political inferiority by "putting them in their place". This why the N-word can be said to be reclaimed and owned - it can no longer be used with impunity because the structures that empowered it have been and are still in the process of being dismantled. The Asian community is not there yet. This is because so much of the negative attitudes directed at us stem from issues of ongoing economic and potential military conflict that affect the very sense of survival of the American state. That's how deeply ingrained is the fear of Asian peoples.

Perhaps I have underestimated the degree of support that your case may have received from a few bloggers and activists, but that still doesn't make your case any more logical or coherent, and I'm almost never swayed by appeals to popularity. I still fail to see how making the term official contributes to dismantling the structures that empower the usage of the alternatives still being used today. Most mainstream Americans don't even know that Chinese labourers were used as slaves in the 19th century. They don't know that Chinese workers were lynched by bloodthirsty mobs of Americans, and don't realize that quaint Chinatowns began as nothing more than ghettos intended as a means of segregation and a step in ethnically cleansing America of Asians. Most Americans don't know of the brutal and inhuman treatment of Filipino migrant workers in the 1920's an 30's, or the discriminatory legislation that restricted Japanese immigrant's opportunities. They just don't know or understand the extent to which epithets have reflected and reinforced deep seated institutional and personal prejudice towards Asian people.

By contrast, you might well notice that many white Americans are visibly embarassed and uncomfortable when they hear the N-word and might even try to disassocociate themselves from its use. This is because the term is associated with slavery, rape, murder, and inhumanity. This is not the case with anti-Asian epithets which is why it is incoherent to reclaim terms that mainstream America isn't ashamed of. I don't want the term "slant" to have a positive connotation. When people hear it, I would like for them to understand that it means violence, hatred, injustice, brutality, and dehumanization and to subsequently be embarassed because anti-Asian racial slurs are not something silly and mundane like "fart-face" or "dick-wad". They are not the cause of the inequality, but a symptom of it. Many Americans believe that anti-Asian slurs are funny, and that earthquakes that kill thousands of Japs are hilarious. By changing this connotation, you are effectively contributing to the obfuscation of Asian-American history and allowing America to remain comfortable in its ignorance of its historical prejudice towards Asians - a past that still has repurcussions today.

The amazing work that you have apparently done is admirable, but I can't help but wonder if the positive reactions that you receive  from Asians and non-Asians might have less to do with your name and more to do with the actual work and activism that you engage in. In fact, I might even be inclined to believe that making "slant"  a positive thing undermines your real activist work.

On a final note, you have stated in that the term slant is not longer used as an epithet, yet in a post that you wrote for the AALDEF and linked to on the bigWOWO blog I read the following......"But then he noticed some other bands, non-Asians, using the name The Slants, to ridicule Asians". Have I misinterpreted this - are you saying that "slants" is still being used to demean Asians?


  1. By the way, someone e-mailed me yesterday about the AALDEF post that Simon linked on bigWOWO.

    He wrote:

    "If you’re curious for some more history of why I deliberately chose the term “slant” and why we’re getting widespread support from the API community, try this blog from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You’re probably familiar with them since they have done more in API rights than anyone out there on broad level:"

    My reader pointed out that even though Simon seemed to imply that he had AALDEF's support, the page Simon linked clearly says that that is not necessarily the case:

    "The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF."

    I've spoken to other bloggers about this. The support is not widespread. It's just that most people who disagree with the name would rather not say anything. I'm basically the same way--I support Simon's right to do whatever he wants; I just happen to be sharing my opinion on your blog and mine.

  2. "The amazing work that you have apparently done is admirable, but I can't help but wonder if the positive reactions that you receive from Asians and non-Asians might have less to do with your name and more to do with the actual work and activism that you engage in. In fact, I might even be inclined to believe that making "slant" a positive thing undermines your real activist work."

    Good point, Ben.

    Again, Simon, people aren't saying that you're a bad person. Your claim to have independently raised $750k sounds kinda high to me in a profession where even many mainstream stars complain about how little they make, but I'm not a rock musician, so I have no idea what rock musicians make.

    Your name offends and alienates a lot of people. Someone on your blog mentioned the dialogue your band creates about "equality," but honestly, most of the dialogue I've seen and heard is about your choice of name. I've never heard anyone talk about equality from your work.

    Ben makes a great point. You could be achieving much more if you dropped the name.

  3. Hi bWW

    Yes I agree. The stated aim of Simon is to generate dialogue by using this term. Well, that's exactly what we are doing!

    Like you, I'm simply voicing my opnion and not making character judgements on Simon or his band. This dialogue is a positive thing.

  4. I caught this on a Google search again. As you point out in your post, the comment section isn't exactly the best for conducting a discussion because of length and other constraints. However, I'll just say this:

    While we disagree on the appropriateness of reclamation in terms of racial epitaphs (both in necessity as well as their effectiveness in the advocacy efforts of Asian Americans), I think that we can agree on one thing: it's imperative that we continue to give voice to issues affecting the Asian American community.

    While I can't disclose everything that we have done in our trademark case legally at the moment, I can assure you that we've done more than extensive scientific and linguistic research as well as public opinions from Asian Americans of all backgrounds, age groups, income levels, and regions on the matter. The entire file is public record and you're more than welcome to examine it once it is processed.


    P.S: Byron - I don't make $750,000 a year. In fact, this band is only something I do on the side not my day job. But then again, fundraising efforts and income are not relevant to one another, no matter the profession. Just look in the nonprofit world, most people who raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through fundraisers for a living substantially less than they raise.

    As far as reactions to the name, many of the positive reactions come from people who are unaware of our activism - they're simply form people who are proud that there's a bold, positive image of Asian Americans in the rock music industry.