Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I Saw It Coming

A Slippery Slope Of Slanty Silliness.

I saw it coming, I really did. The attempt by Asian-American band, the Slants, to get their name trademarked has seemingly empowered  and encouraged others to increase their efforts to trademark racially demeaning terms.

Since my exchange with Simon Tam of the Slants that was published in "Where are you from", I've stayed largely out of the debacle of the Slants attempts to have the US government trademark their band's name. But recent events have caused me to sit up and take notice.

In the wake of the band's attempts to trademark their name, and following an important legal ruling, none other than the representatives of the Washington Redskins have stepped forward to voice support for the right of cultural and business entities to trademark racially demeaning titles. For those who don't know, the Washington football team has been embroiled in an ongoing battle with the trademark office to keep their team's name - redskins - which Native Americans find extremely derogatory and dehumanizing. I agree with the Native Americans - any name applied as a descriptor for an entire group of people is inherently dehumanizing even if its intent is not to be so or it is not ostensibly negative.

In a recent article, posted to his blog, bassist Simon Tam rejects the claim that his case can be reasonably used to support the Washington bid. He outlines three points that show, he feels, the differences between the two cases.

The first point follows...
Unlike REDSKINS, THE SLANTS is not an inherent racial slur. “SLANT” means a number of different things and the racial connotations are so obscure, nearly every major dictionary publisher removed the racial slur from its list of possible definitions. REDSKINS always has been used as a racial slur and has a long history of demeaning Native Americans. “SLANT” has not. It has been and is a commonly used “neutral” term (according to dictionary experts, it was obscure even during the height of its racial use in 1920-1940).
The problem here, is that there seems to be great degree of uncertainty about the origin of the word "redskins", and that it is not at all certain that the term was coined to be derogatory, or even that it was not used - in the past - by the First Americans to describe themselves. Some argue that the term was itself a "neutral" term that simply described the cultural habit of some tribes who painted their skin red. According to a study by Smithsonian historian, Ives Goddard, the term's origins were both benign and used by Native peoples to describe themselves.

If you peruse some of those links, you will notice that some supporters of the Washington football team are using some familiar arguments to bolster their case. In this article, a guest panelist for Fox news, argues this....
"When’s the last time you heard someone use that as a racial slur?" asked Pete Hegseth, a guest panelist on the Fox News show Outnumbered. "It’s not used commonly at all as a racial slur. It’s used historically to refer to — a term of respect to people."
This is remarkably similar to what Tam has argued in his quest to enlist support for his case - the term "redskins", like "slant" is no longer used to demean or dehumanize, but rather, these terms are being used in a positive way (somehow!).

On a final note on this point, the argument that the term "slants" was obscure even at the height of its usage seems to somewhat ignore the fact that Asians themselves were "obscure" during the same period of history. Decades of strict immigration controls that all but halted Asian migration, coupled with the fact that Asians were largely herded into segregated ghettos, meant that the vast majority of non-Asian Americans were unlikely to have encountered many Asians on a regular basis and so the prevalence of usage for the term compared to the population size of non-Asian Americans would likely be small.

Furthermore, this reasoning further damages Asian-Americans, since it relegates the Asian experience of racism relative to the term "slant" to a secondary significance to that of the racists who abused them. Tam is effectively saying that we can determine the significance of a racial slur based on how it is utilized by the racists who use it, and not how it affects those being targeted. This becomes clearer when we consider the relative population sizes of Asians to non-Asians at the time.

Between 1930 and 1940, the Asian-American population fell by around ten-thousand from 264,766, to 254,918. The general population rose by roughly ten-million during the same time period from around 122 million to 132 million. This means that  during the period when the term was most common, at no time did the Asian-American population ever reach even half of 1% of the total population. If we grant that the vast majority of this 132 million people had no contact on any regular basis with Asians who were largely concentrated in small enclaves on the west coast, then it becomes clear that any racial slur directed at them would have been an "obscure" occurrence within the society at large.

Tam does a disservice to our Asian pioneers by ignoring their experience - it's absolutely irrelevant how often this slur was used by non-Asians when spread across the wider population who had little to no contact with Asians. What is important is how frequently this term of dehumanization was experienced by the Asians themselves. If all 264,766 Asian at the time were abused with the slur every day, it could still be considered an "obscure" term because set against the larger population it might never find widespread usage even though the Asian targets were experiencing it regularly. To ignore this possibility simply deprives Asian -Americans of that era their voice and their history.

Tam continues with point two.....
REDSKINS has a substantial composite of Native Americans demonstrating serious concerns over the name. THE SLANTS has not garnered wide protest from Asian Americans; in fact, quite the opposite. Our band has been supported by lifelong activists, organizations, academics, and other experts who understand the sentiment of our community.
This is a bit of a double-edged sword. We can again refer to demographics to illustrate how spurious this argument is. The Washington football team is a national franchise with an international following whose players, and those otherwise associated with the team, receive far more media and societal attention in one game day than the Slants might receive over a period of weeks or even months. By contrast, not only are the Slants less visible due to their comparative anonymity, they are possibly not known to most Asian-Americans 75% of whom are foreign born and average forty-four years in age and who, therefore might not be into popular music or culture of this kind, may not be familiar with the history and significance of racial slurs and how they represent the popular simplified expression of millenia of western racist philosophy and science.

The point is that it is possible that the Slants' support derives from a mere fraction of the actual population of Asian-Americans and does not represent the attitudes of the majority at all. In fact, I might suggest that it is more likely that Tam's support comes from a demographic of Asian-America that is in the minority (even, perhaps, of the American-born), but which has greater engagement with social media, America's and Asian-America's cultural milieu, and which is more vocal and visible within it.

As for Asian activists supporting the right of Asian-Americans to demean themselves - I'm not surprised nor impressed. My observations of Asian activists is that they are not even remotely close to understanding our community's sentiment and quite often seem engaged in attacking their own communities. If these activists who support Tam's case are anything like these guys, then all the more reason to oppose!

Where Tam's argument becomes a double-edged sword is in his appeal to popular support for how his case is different to the redskins' case. According to this Forbes report from last year, Washington revenues amounted to roughly $440 million dollars, working out to around $40 "per fan". This means that the Washington support probably runs into the millions - possibly more people support Washington than there are Native-Americans who number roughly 3 million people, not all of whom may actually find the term "redskins" problematic. Thus, we have a situation where there may be vastly more Americans who believe that they have "reappropriated" the term and are using it positively, than there are who oppose the word. If the majority of people using the term "redskins" positively outnumbers those who find it offensive, then the demographic numbers argument fails to support Tam but supports the case of the Washington football team.

You might argue - as Tam does in his third and final point - that the "referenced" group's attitude should be taken into account, but this has no logic or reason to support it as I'll explain next.

Tam's third point is as follows....
The owners of “REDSKINS” are not members of the “referenced group,” unlike THE SLANTS. It’s important to remember that of the 800+ trademark applications for variations of the term “slant,” only one was denied for being a “racial slur.” In other words, the Trademark Office never considered it to be a slur against Asians until an Asian applied. The Trademark Office clearly expressed that the only reason why they associated our trademark application with a racial slur was because of my race. They wrote, “it is uncontested that applicant is a founding member of a band…composed of members of Asian descent…thus, the association.” In other words, if I were white, like every other applicant in the history of the country, it would have not been questioned to begin with.
This is where the whole house of cards falls apart. Tam complains that the association of his race with the term "slants" is why it has been viewed as a slur by the trademark office. Yet, elsewhere, he has argued that he is not referencing the Asian race by his use of the term, although in his article he clearly states that his band does use the word as a means of referencing his race. I'm confused too.

Worse, there is nothing implicit in this argument that excludes people who are not the group referenced by slurs from deciding to use them positively - to say that white people cannot be allowed to reclaim a slur and change its meaning is racist. This means that although there may be some cause for concern that non-Asians could trademark the term slant, whilst Asians are prevented from doing so, there is no reason why non-Asians should be forbidden reference to racial slurs in their trademark as long as they can show that they have used these terms in a positive way. And Washington wins.

This is exactly what the Washington football team is arguing - they have reclaimed the word "redskins" and are using it in a positive way. Given Tam's argument, and the fact that the trademark office seems set on granting his band the trademark, it should follow logically - and perhaps legally - that Washington will be granted the same rights. After all, isn't it racist to deny trademarks based on race?

Finished with his three main points, Tam writes....
Also, while I personally believe in the power of reappropriation as a tool to create social change (as I explain at YOMYOMF here and here, TEDxUofW here, at RaceFiles, and to TIME), our legal argument isn’t constructed on this point. You can read our entire brief and all of our arguments, via JDSupra.
This is a somewhat disturbing point. As the links in his own article indicate, much of Tam's writings that I have read have argued that his band has used their name as a way to reappropriate a formerly derogatory term. In and of itself, this contradicts claims that their name is not a racial reference, even though the band has garnered support from the community precisely by pushing the idea of empowerment through reclaiming a slur. Of course, one has to wonder how you can reclaim a slur that has apparently fallen out of common usage without first re-acquainting society with its derogatory meaning.

That aside, it seems as though there has been a bait and switch used on Asian-Americans - on the one hand, arguments have been made, articles written, and seminars given that seem to put forward the idea that the band is fighting to appropriate a racial slur, then we find out that this has absolutely nothing to do with their legal challenge at all! Call this what you will, but to me it throws doubt on the alleged outpouring of support that the band has received - do people actually know why they are supporting the band? I'm not so sure any more.

What the Slants' case highlights is that the Asian-American experience of race is often hidden behind a thin veneer of racial double-entendres and vagueness. The fact that the racial slurs that dehumanize us are so deeply ingrained in the language that we can hear and experience terms of racial abuse even when these terms are not being used racially, is a testament to the throw-away and off-handed nature of anti-Asian racism in America. 

Racial slurs sometimes used to describe Asians also have benign, alternative definitions which means that they can be, and are, often used in a way that permits plausible deniability on the part of the user. I often argue for greater nuance in the Asian-American conversation on race, but in the case of ambiguous, double entendre racial slurs directed at Asians, I think that more nuance is the last thing we need.

Instead of adding definitions to dehumanizing racist language, we should be striving to reduce definitions so that all ambiguity is removed from them. This is especially pertinent in the case of ambiguous anti-Asian racial slurs which enables a kind of verbal racist hit and run that strikes, then disappears into the safe ambiguity of the language. 

The Oxford Dictionary recently made moves to change its definition of the word "marriage" so that it includes same-sex unions as opposed to solely male/female unions. Although they are not the first dictionary to do this, it highlights the significance of words and labels to help establish social and cultural norms and practices. If it is that easy to redefine words, then vague, racial double-entendres that characterize anti-Asian racism can and should be redefined to help to establish social and cultural norms and practices that diminish opportunities for racism to propagate behind the ambiguity of the language.

The word "marriage" is not implicitly demeaning towards homosexuals just like the terms "chink" and "slant" are not implicitly derogatory towards Asians, yet, unlike the latter two terms, it is hard to use the word "marriage" to actively demean homosexuals. If word definitions can be changed to avert the "passive" negative ramifications of their meaning, how much stronger an argument we have to redefine ambiguous words that are co-opted to actively demean Asians so that their most racially negative, dehumanizing meaning becomes the predominant or, perhaps, only one.

In this light, it is difficult for me to see how the Slants' case would benefit Asian-Americans in any meaningful way. Other than to add more confusion to the mix in a situation where confusion and ambiguity already empowers anti-Asian racism, the Slants case would make it even easier for such racism to exist. There are absolutely no benefits to Asian-America, nor are there benefits to the causes of other minorities. If anything - and this has become obvious given the support offered by Washington - a win for the Slants would set all minorities back.

In summary, while I can appreciate that the Slants are one of the only bands of their kind, and that we should support them with our fandom, nothing has happened since my previous engagements with Simon Tam to convince me that his cause has any benefits either for Asian-Americans or minorities in general. As I - and circumstances - have shown the Slants' case has merely given impetus to entities whose cause is harmful to ethnic minorities. In this case, fears of a slippery slope are not fallacious - by supporting the Slants, Asian-Americans "activists" have empowered white racism, again.

Of course, being the rational and fair-minded guy that I am, if someone can explain how and why the Slants' case benefits, empowers, or advances Asian-Americans or their issues in any way, I would be quite willing to change my view. 

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