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Culture Q&A

Simon Tam

Seeing eye to eye

Why an Asian American band took its controversial trademark battle to the Supreme Court—and how its frontman saw humanity in others

Seeing eye to eye

Simon Tam (The Slants)

In 2013 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied an Oregon punk rock band’s request to trademark its name, “The Slants,” on grounds it disparaged Asian Americans. The band, led by California native Simon Tam, appealed: He says its goal was to reclaim the term from racial slurs and “inject it with pride.” In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the trademark denial violated the First Amendment and granted the band’s request. Since then, Tam has written a memoir and started a foundation to help Asian American artists.

How did you decide on the name for the band? I started having conversations with people around me. I asked them, “What’s something you think all Asian people have in common?” Over and over, the answer was the same: slanted eyes, which I always thought was interesting because it’s not true. Not all Asian people have slanted eyes, and we’re not the only people on earth to have slanted eyes. But also, we could sing about our perspective, our “slant” on life—what it’s like to be people of color. As a kid I was ridiculed for having slanted eyes, and I thought, “How cool would it be to reappropriate that, to inject it with pride and empowerment instead of shame?” 

‘I realized that you don’t win by shutting other people down, by censoring them. You win by having a discussion, by being able to articulate and engage.’

What in your life prepared you for going to the Supreme Court? A lot of my life experience has taught me to try and avoid these kinds of up-front assumptions that we make based on stereotypes of race, religion, and political identity. It’s just so easy to force people into these convenient categories. Growing up, I was the last person to be called on in English class, even though I had the best grade in the class. I was the first person to be called on in math, even though my math grades were terrible! I was beat up many times, violently attacked for looking the way I do, for having an Asian face.

Were you angry? I saw this as an opportunity to extend compassion to other people. I truly believe that behind hate, behind ignorance, there’s probably a story of pain. There’s a reason why people are hurting and why they choose to lash out at others in that particular way. I found rather than just trying to fight back violently, if you find a way to tap into someone’s humanity, we can generally move forward.

Easy or hard to arrive at that conclusion? It took me a very long time, and I had to go through a lot of different experiences to find this out. But that’s also when I realized—this probably ultimately informed my attorney at the Supreme Court—that you don’t win by shutting other people down, by censoring them. You win by having a discussion, by being able to articulate and engage. Those experiences, whether they were bullying or watching how my parents were treated by other people who could be very ignorant, helped me realize the only way to build that community we want is to treat it like a community. That means working with others and not just trying to push them away.

Any one turning point for you in this? One particular moment was when we were invited to play at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Sending an Asian American band into prison with one of the highest populations of neo-Nazis in the country—most people would think this is a terrible idea, but I just had Johnny Cash on my mind: “Folsom Prison Blues”! This could be our moment! At the end of this concert—we performed for about 2,000 inmates—someone covered head to toe in swastikas approached me. He had very large words tattooed across his chest: “White Power.” Of course I froze. The man just said a couple of words to me that broke right through me: He asked me for an autograph, gives me this piece of paper, and says, “It’s for my daughter.” 

Why did that strike you? It was then that I could see that humanity within him. And once we actually had a chance to have a conversation and talk about each of our life experiences, we both left changed that day. That was probably the most powerful experience I’ve ever had as a musician. And I realize that’s something that can’t be created through legislation. It can’t be forced. It was just taking a moment to see eye to eye as people. When I saw that this person literally covered head to toe in white supremacist tattoos took the time to talk to me, I realized anything would be possible. It’s so easy to get caught up in pessimism and assumptions, but when we actually take the time to have questions rooted in our values, I think we can truly make a difference. 

When the Patent and Trademark Office denied your trademark registration, how did you know what to do next? I didn’t know what to do next. I’ve relied heavily on my attorney, but the law that the trademark office uses is so obscure that most people don’t really know what to do. We had to all of a sudden prove that we weren’t offensive to ourselves. How do you go about doing something like that? We looked at other cases as that model. We got experts, like community leaders. At one point we got dictionary experts and surveys and all kinds of folks to weigh in on this—hundreds of pages of evidence showing that we weren’t offensive to ourselves. That didn’t work. It wasn’t until a couple of years before our case was resolved that this junior attorney throws in a First Amendment argument to see where it goes. And the courts picked up on that right away. So using our civil liberties got us through. 

What’s your feeling about the American legal system? Mixed. On one hand I see the opportunities to make change to make a difference. That is really powerful. Some college dropout, punk rock kid like me was able to make a difference at the Supreme Court. That’s astounding to me. At the same time, I spent eight years of my life in one court or another, and I didn’t even commit a crime. I wish justice could move a little more swiftly. But I understand there’s a tradition and there is a process. I just hope the process can be refined and improved for people like me.


Excerpt: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in Matal v. Tam

“It is claimed ... the Government has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend. And, as we have explained, that idea strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

Comments

  • HJM
    Posted: Tue, 07/23/2019 11:50 pm

    I am thankful for articles like this, articles that infuse hope and give doable examples in stepping forward towards being united as Americans and human beings.  Simon Tam has great wisdom for such a young man, I hope we will listen and apply his wisdom as we reach out to build relationships with those around us.  Thank you for sharing this good news.