May 21, 2015

The Secret to Fighting Racism

by Simon Tam
Founder and bassist of The Slants

For the last eight years, I’ve been touring as the bassist and founding member of The Slants. Playing in what’s often referred to as “the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band” for nearly a decade has led to some interesting experiences in race and cultural assumptions. From encountering reviews that focus exclusively on our ethnicities rather than our music, to being known as the band willing to fight stereotypes or the government and potentially expand freedom of speech, it feels like we’ve been fighting since day one.

So what is the big lesson from all of these adventures?

Racism doesn’t have to fit your stereotype of what it is in order for it to discriminate - but overcoming it doesn’t have to fall into the same routines either. When it comes to issues that affect Asian Americans broadly such as the bamboo ceiling, model minority myth, and health disparities, there isn’t a single solution or method to overcome problems.

Most people believe in that speaking up/self-assertion and spreading information about disparities are key. Others argue that Asian Americans need to adopt the identity of being simply “American.” In the world of entertainment, you see just as many ways to fight racism: self-deprecation, humor to show ridiculous logic/ideas, using entertainment to empower, owning stereotypes to reduce their sting, or even just building visibility. So who is right?

The truth is, the solution is as diverse as our community: different methods address different levels of systemic and individual prejudices. It’s too easy to dismiss someone else’s work, even if they are making an impact in terms of empowerment, breaking stereotypes, or educating the unaware - I know, because it’s something I’ve been victim to on multiple occasions. Just because we don’t understand or agree with how someone creates social change doesn’t mean we should seek to discredit it. When it comes to social justice, we should ask questions before making assumptions. The results may be surprising.

In 2011/2012, our band spent the holidays performing for troops serving overseas. This was shortly after news about harsh hazing practices used on Asian American recruits was being spread. One encounter on that tour really stood out: we just finished playing a concert at a NATO base, when the local commander approached me.

“That was incredible,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of acts here - big names too - but I’ve never seen soldiers from all of the different countries dance together like that.” He continued, “Also, I have to apologize. As the commander of the base, I’m expected to make appearances at these kinds of things. But when I first saw your poster, I didn’t know what to make of this ‘Oriental’ band. However, now I know I should never really judge these things on the surface.”

On that night, fighting stereotypes of Asian Americans didn’t come in the form of a lecture or a workshop on the model minority myth; there was no debate over “Asian privilege,” it was just sincere fellowship powered by “Chinatown Dance Rock.” The victory that night was brought simply by showing up and having a meaningful conversation. And sometimes, showing up is what will slowly pick away at prejudice.

But of course, there are some things that I can’t just walk away from.

“Thank you so much, it’s an honor to be here,” I told him. “Also, don’t use Oriental again because it makes you sound like a racist. But thank you.”

Read more stories from AAPI Heritage Month here.

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