Last week, APANO Board Member Simon Tam appeared before the US Supreme Court to present the oral arguments in the historic case, Lee vs Tam. At the core of the dispute is whether or not Tam can legally trademark the name “The Slants,” which is both the name of his band as well as a term that historically has been used to disparage Asian Americans.
For the past week, Tam has appeared on the front pages of The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times Magazine, and virtually every other major media outlet. On Friday morning, just before Donald Trump was sworn in as America’s 45th president, APANO interviewed him about his case and what it has taught him about the US legal system.
You are in Washington DC at a historic time–your band’s case is appearing before the Supreme Court and Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as US President. What has it been like to witness these two things?
Throughout this city, you can sense serious trepidations from everyday citizens who are worried about the president elect (for those unaware, Washington DC voted at almost 94% for Clinton). The concerns were especially strong among communities of color. Our country is experiencing such turmoil right now…but the real experiences of the marginalized are often lost in ideological conflicts at times.
It was especially interesting walking out of the Supreme Court and seeing the U.S Capitol Building across the way, where Donald Trump will be sworn in. As I descended the steps, I kept thinking about the many ways to advance justice and we will need access to as many tools as possible for this incoming administration.
The legal battle over your name has been going on for over eight years. How has the experience changed your view, if all, of the US legal system?
This experience has showed me the brokenness of our system, a system that doesn’t understand nor address the complexities of our communities. Spending almost a decade in court and having to go to the highest court in our country simply because I decided to start an anti-racist band called The Slants is not an effective government system. I have spent almost a fifth of my life in court fighting an outdated law. I wasn’t accused of committing a crime, it was just a fairly obscure bit of procedural law that was allowing the government to justify denial of rights based on people’s sexuality, gender, religion, or race.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” However, I think we should remember that the moral arc does not bend on its own: we each play a role in advancing justice. Being that arc is a deliberate act.
On Facebook, you often post that media outlets misunderstand your case. What is the biggest misperception about your case that you wish to correct?
Almost everyone frames my case as if it is only about providing a pathway for Washington’s football team to regain their trademark registrations. They rarely show how the law I’m fighting impacts marginalized communities who don’t have resources to file an appeal, a law that often can substantially hurt nonprofits and small businesses. In our society, we’re often taught that the ideal of justice means punishing the evil. In this case, we’ve become so obsessed with punishing Dan Snyder and his football team, we’re allowing communities of color and LGBTQ people to bear the brunt of that collateral damage by having their own rights denied.
We shouldn’t be writing or interpreting our laws around the most privileged members of society – instead, we should think about their impacts on those who have less agency. That’s how you approach equity, especially around complex ideas about basic human rights like freedom of expression. To call for culturally competent laws is noble, but that also means placing that power around agency and identity in a flawed government that naturally favors dominant groups. It also requires additional resources from already marginalized communities to fight against false accusations and I believe that furthers injustice.
Some also argue that removing this provision of trademark law would legitimize racial slurs. That’s intellectually dishonest for a number of reasons. First, racially charged and offensive content already receives trademark registrations on a regular basis – the current system isn’t stopping that from happening at all. Second, it’s naive to think that people will treat a trademark registration as a form of cultural approval or government support over the message that someone wants to express. People don’t feel that way about offensive books, music, or films that receive copyright protection…the same goes for trademarks.
Remember, the cure for hate speech isn’t censorship – it’s better speech. It’s more nuanced speech. But that speech requires protection.
You have become a role model for Asian Americans, first for your music, and now for your activism. Many Asian Americans are nervous, especially with Trump’s inauguration. What can Asian Americans do to empower themselves?
I’m not sure if I am a role model, but I can say that ultimately, the choices I make are about my values. I champion compassion above all else and use that as a driving force to create change. Of course, that sometimes makes for some very uncomfortable situations. For example, it’s too easy to put ourselves into a bubble and ignore others’ experiences or perspectives – many people find it easier to simply delete, block, unfriend, or avoid relationships with those whose views they find repulsive.
The common saying is “ignore the comments section.” I think it’s important to sometimes ignore that advice and see what’s out there and view it with compassion instead. Remember, behind those hateful messages is a story of pain or ignorance. We have to find ways to connect with those whom we disagree with the most, tap into shared values, and build from there. Using disagreements and flippant comments as a way to further drive wedges between groups only perpetuates the problem.
Love is not compatible with apathy. Love yourself and your community enough to fight for your rights. Even when members of your own community may turn against you, continue to fight for them anyways.
What advice would you give a young Asian American who wants to get into rock music like you?
Asian Americans who want to get into the music industry need to prepare themselves in ways that many other ethnic identities won’t have to. Not only do you have to develop your music skills and business acumen, but you’ll have to face other struggles as well: tokenization, skepticism for your marketability, and outright racism from the entertainment industry who firmly believes that Asian Americans aren’t capable of success. Rock music is often about defiance…and whether you are political or not, know that being an Asian American artist is defiant of social norms, you’ll essentially be an activist in your way. If you embrace that activism, your music will have the ability to change the world in so many other ways!
Read more about The Slants’ case here