Asian-American band The Slants is empowering, not hateful
Rock music is rebellion. It is a revolt against power, authority, and social norms. For most bands, their battle takes place on the stage, but for the all Asian-American rock group The Slants, their dissonant defiance takes place in the Supreme Court.
These social justice musicians, in a mix of artistic defiance and dry humor, branded themselves with the most hackneyed stereotype in Asian-American culture: slanted eyes. When Simon Tam, a bass guitarist, founded the group in 2006, he was tired of being the “token Asian” in every band. Tam told the Washington Post that when he was putting together the first Asian-American band, he asked his friends what they think all Asians have in common.
“The first thing they said: All Asians have slanted eyes,” Tam said. “I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ Number one, because it’s not even true. But then I thought, I could call it The Slants. It would be this play on words — because we could talk about our slant on life, what it’s like to be people of color, to be Asian American.”
However, when Tam applied for a patent, which is a necessity for every band, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected their application on the grounds that the term “slants” is disparaging to Asian-Americans. True to the defiant creed of rock, they fought back, and now, after a seven-year legal battle, The Slants are finally appearing before the Supreme Court.
This audacious practice — to take a slur against oneself and make it one’s own — has been in practice long before The Slants made their own ironic, incendiary transformation. It is the center of much intense debate among many artists and racial groups, and many who oppose The Slants do so because they’re afraid that it could lead to the sanction of other, much more hateful speech, such as the n-word. Others, however, support the band’s desire to take ownership of the “language of oppression” and use it “until the words can’t hurt us again,” as they declare in their new EP, The Band Who Must Not Be Named.
However, the Supreme Court judges constitutionality, not by clever invectives or Harry Potter references, and so they are evaluating this case for what it fundamentally is: a freedom of speech issue. What many don’t realize is that the First Amendment protects even “hate speech,” which means that whether the word “slants” is considered offensive or not, it is private, protected speech. This is the full power of words in America — the government cannot restrict speech based on their own agenda or others’ opinions. The Slants have the constitutional right to use their name to comment on race or politics or society, as musicians have been doing since the birth of rock’n’roll. Yet, after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected their application, it accepted that of another group with the same name. This alternate group didn’t have any Asian members, and so their name wasn’t considered offensive to Asian-Americans. The irony is astounding.
From rappers to football coaches, all inflammatory speakers await the court’s momentous decision, which may expand or contract the limits of free speech in many controversial cases, such as that of the Redskins football team and their painfully banal Native American parody. The Slants are less than thrilled to be associated with other, more offensive groups, as Tam asserts: “Our case is not the floodgate for hate speech in this country.”
While it won’t be a “floodgate,” this ruling will undoubtedly clarify the true freedom of ‘free speech,’ and solidify the constitutional rights of all Americans, Asian or otherwise. The Supreme Court has entertained many eccentric guests in its courtroom, but this Asian-American dance-rock band will be a groundbreaking addition. And, hopefully, their verdict will be one as well.