Thursday, March 7, 2013

Where Are You From?

An Asian-American Anthology.

Last year I received an e-mail from Byron Wong - owner of the bigWOWO blog - who offered me the opportunity to take part in an anthology that his activist (Thymos) group was putting together. The idea was to gather together Asian-Americans from different walks of life, with different perspectives, and ideas, and to allow them to "let loose", if you will, with their creative potential and contribute a piece of written work on a subject of their choice. I liaised with Byron's co-activist and writer Val Katagiri who had taken note of a couple of blog posts I had written as part of a dialogue with Simon Tam of rock group, The Slants

In brief, Tam had asked for community support for his band's efforts to trademark their band name - "The Slants". Tam's position was that words only have offensive power if we allow them to and, thus, by making racial slurs commonplace - like African-Americans have done with "N"-word - they lose their power to offend. As such, trademarking their name is a step in this direction of diminishing the offensive power of this particular slur. My position was (and continues to be) that racial slurs are not intended to offend and that if we are merely offended by racial slurs, then we miss the point of their purpose, and even worse, the opportunity to meaningfully address the profound, centuries-old, casual, and comfortable, foundation of anti-Asian prejudice. In the Western world, slurs of all kinds, but especially racial slurs, serve as a means to dehumanize individuals by assigning derogatory characteristics and qualities to the entire group which can then be distilled down to a single word that represents all of these negative characteristics. 

Thus, "slant", or "chink", or "gook" are not commentaries on the shape of Asian people's eyes, they serve as a means of putting Asians people "in their place" by reminding us and the people using them, that we are not humans who deserve respect and dignity, but creatures of a lower order whose actual individual names are not even worth knowing. Racial slurs serve as a record of the injustices inflicted on people of colour throughout America's history, and to be a slant meant that you were subject to oppression, abuse, and violence. So, being offended by racial slurs is a childish response to name-calling, because it is far more than childish name-calling. To truly see the absurdity of Tam's position, consider this; spitting in someone's face serves the same purpose as using a racial slur. Spitting on someone means that you have so little respect for them, and so little regard for their humanity that they are only worthy to receive your spit. With this in mind, should we also spit on ourselves to remove the "offensive" power of it?

With this in mind, my participation in the anthology is included as part of the dialogue between Tam and myself. You can read the general gist of the dialogue in these two posts, but the anthology contains pieces by both of us that greatly expand on the opinions expressed on this blog. So far Tam's efforts have been (and continue to be) denied on the grounds that the term "slant" is considered derogatory by Americans of Asian descent - it is a racial slur, after all. So in short, casually using a derogatory word does not challenge the profound underlying prejudices that enable the word to exist or the culture of racism that produces it. By coincidence I came upon this hilarious video of Russell Peters talking about how the word "Mondays" is (according to him) being used by white people as a devious way of referring to black people. It illustrates my point - the N-word isn't openly used by most white people but the underlying culture of racism obviously thrives and is finding more creative ways to express itself. In short, my position is that it is fundamentally a bad idea to try to persuade a government agency to take derogatory terms and make legitimize them. 

It is also worth remembering that the N-word is as "offensive" now as it ever was despite having been re-appropriated by African-Americans and becoming common usage amongst them. If you do not believe me, then I invite disbelievers to go up to the next African-American you see and address him with the N-word. Let us know what happens - my guess is that you will cause offence.

The anthology was published last year, but due to postal difficulties (things tend to get lost in the post, or might sometimes take weeks or even months to arrive), I only received my copy a few weeks back - hence my tardiness in mentioning it. The work is a collection pieces, including poetry, personal testimonials, essays, as well as intellectual pieces, all contributed by both men and women with backgrounds from all over Asia. This book is self-published and, perhaps, represents the beginning of a new avenue for Asian voices to be heard in print media that is free of the limitations, self-recrimination, and requirements of exotica, so often required of Asian-American writers hoping for publication in the mainstream. It was nice to read something from both Asian men and women that didn't lapse into the tired "pay attention to me mainstream America" cultural contrition characteristic of some works that cater to mainstream America.

The highlights, for me, were Byron Wongs' (author of the bigWOWO blog) essay on Asian-American masculinity, a piece by Sapna Cheryan on the effects of the perpetual foreigner stereotype on the Asian psyche, Robert Francis Flor's piece on his "manong" heroes, and Val Katagiri's touching piece called "Hikabusha" in which she describes her close connection with her grandmother. These are just the highlights -  the whole book was a joy to read and I thank Thymos, Byron, and Val, for including me and kudos for the idea to bring together diverse voices and opinions. The list of writers includes published authors and poets, activists, academics, and even no-bodies like me! My piece is called "What a Difference A Word Makes".

You can find the book on Amazon......Buy it! Now!!

Where Are You From?: An Anthology of Asian American Writing (Volume 1)


  1. Hi Ben,

    Looks like we'll just have to continue over our disagreement over the power and effectiveness of re-appropriation, and that's fine, I understand that it is something that some members of communities believe and sometimes it is one that isn't. But I didn't want to dive in to argue about re-appropriation or anything like that, just wanted to submit a correction on this.

    "So far Tam's efforts have been (and continue to be) denied on the grounds that the term "slant" is considered derogatory by Americans of Asian descent - it is a racial slur, after all"

    Actually, "slant" isn't a racial slur. It's a term that people occasionally use as a racial slur, which is why it will never be on the same level as the "n-word" or other hurtful terms. Slant has many definitions, none of which have anything to do with those of Asian descent and the "racial slur" of it is obscure at best, which is why most dictionaries are removing that definition from their works.

    The reason why our trademark is being denied isn't based on an inherently racist word. In fact, the Trademark Office acknowledges this, which is why many trademarks have been given out for "slant," "slants," "slanted," etc. The reason why ours was denied is because I am of Asian American descent. They claim that it doesn't matter if we're using it in a disparaging manner or not, people will associate it with the slur because of my ethnicity. It's the reason why whites can trademark that (along with some of the other terms you've listed - chink, gook, jap, etc.) and why I cannot. The decision was based on my race alone.

    The law is certainly an interesting one, it's one of the few where systemic racism and discrimination exist, where white privilege exists, and is continually reinforced all in the name of "protection"

    1. Simon

      Welcome back and thank you for your comment.

      No-one actually knows where the N-word comes from - but it is acknowledged that it probably originates from non-derogatory terms. Some of the more popular theories suggest that it is a bastardization of the Spanish word for black - which makes sense since the Spanish were some of the first Europeans to explore the African coasts. There is also the suggestion that the N-word derives from the name of the river "Niger".

      Regardless of how it originated, few people doubt that it is a word that was invented or existed solely as a racial slur although it evolved into one.

      That aside, a racial slur is a racial slur whether it is "part-time" or not. The fact that the word "slant" is only occasionally used as a racial slur simply highlights the fact that the word still has the effect of putting Asians in their place by distilling an entire culture, history, and philosophy of racism down to a single word.

      You can't say that the term is not a racial slur and then say that it is a racial slur.

      I would be interested in knowing who has trademarked the word "slant" and the context of it.

      I'm also curious about what your band is referring to when it uses the name "slant". Are you using it in a racialized way - to refer to the fact that you may have slanted eyes - or is it being used in some other context? The reason I asked is that if it is a racial context, then the trademark office has a good point and the term is disparaging regardless of whether you believe to be the case or not.

  2. 'slant' as the controversial usage for the name of an asian american band is neither here nor there, it could be considered cool or not, but the point is whether the band is any good or not

    i checked out again 'how the wicked live'

    when i check out most aa bands its usually meh. people support them solely because they are asian or whatever

    the above video based on battle royale seems kinda ok, id give it a 6.5/10 except when the lead singer gets strangled by the black guy who is guest rapping over the track( ?)

    i think the idea of referencing japanese culture is quite chic for asians, but i think the editing could have been tighter

    as for the music the composition has some interesting musical hoice of elements but overall it sounds run of the mill rock, needs more of an edge.

    as for the use of the word chink like the word nigger, well like you said, people are less afraid of using the c word to an asians nowadays, although that is questionable with the rise of china etc. but i think the discussion is based around is it okay to use self referential words amongst ourselves like say blacks call each other nigger. asians need to establish self respect and social solidarity before they can call each other chink, which can only happen with more quality aa artists

    and besides, i dont think the use of chink as a reference its a good idea. its disrespectful to themselves and other asians and its whitey created terminology. and like most self-depreciating humour, is exactly that, depreciating the self to make the individual look like a moron.

    most good culture is based on social happenings. being excluded from the mainstream asian americans live in a social vacuum. so one plus is that anything goes creatively , as long as its good and unique. for that you dont need to resort to puns or trends

    1. Anonymous

      Well I think that my issue is that Tam wants to convince a government authority that this slur is now "okay" which, almost by definition, means that it legitimizes its common usage.

      Also, Tam has stated that he is using the term non-racially, which doesn't make sense since he is obviously using it as a racial term.

      Adopting racial slurs as self-reference is a vastly different proposition to what Tam seems to be doing - legitimizing its use as a racial connotation associated with an Asian band. Plus there is no such thing as "re-appropriating" racial slurs and making them less "offensive". "Nigger" is still offensive even though black people use it all the time in self-reference.

    2. yea thats what im saying 'self-depreciating'.

      in fact all of the above words just come across as vapid attentionseeking shot at controversy.

      this is how you make it in the western world - controversy. but unless their audience are mainly composed of largely whites and or bunch of self-hating asians. and regardless of the name they can call themselves nigger spic kike wop from planet crakkker and noones going to notice anyway if the music isnt up to scratch