In middle school, Simon Tam was jumped by four older kids on the playground. They hit him on the back of his head with a basketball, then pushed him down hard into loose gravel. One of them threw sand at his face.
“Look at this Jap!” one shouted. “I can’t believe sand can even fit in those slits!” More insults, more laughter.
Tam stood up and blurted: “I’m a chink! Get it right! You guys are so stupid, you can’t even be racist right.” Astonished and confused, the bullies quit — and walked away.
Tam is still standing up for his principles. His compelling memoir, “Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court,” is about keeping true to his punk-rock heart and making history through an eight-year fight to get a trademark registration from the government for his all-Asian American band’s name, the Slants. “Nobody starts a band thinking that they’re going to go to the Supreme Court,” he writes. But his book tells the fascinating and important tale of exactly how that happened to him — and what it means for others.
Tam grew up in Southern California, where his parents, who had immigrated from China and Taiwan, owned a restaurant. At 10, he chose to play bass, because he saw it as the underdog of rock band instruments. At 23, he decided — while watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” — to start an Asian American band. It was the first time he saw an American film that depicted “Asians as cool, confident and sexy,” he explains.
With a catchy Depeche Mode-inspired sound, the Slants sing politically pointed lyrics and are known for their community activism. In 2012, in a Portland, Ore., coffee shop, a rep from a major-label record company presented Tam with a $4 million offer. But there was a hitch: He must replace the lead singer with someone white.
Tam thought of how his parents had sacrificed so much for him — and wanted him to be a man of values. He tore the contract in half.
He needed the money, but accepting those terms would undermine everything he’d been fighting for. By that time, Tam was three years into expensive legal proceedings. Tam had applied to register a trademark for the band’s name — a process a friend assured him would cost only a few hundred dollars and take a couple of months. But in the snowball-to-avalanche manner of life, this routine application lead to “a crash course in intellectual property law that would last longer than my undergraduate and graduate studies combined.”
The Patent and Trademark Office rejected Tam’s application on the grounds that the band’s name is “disparaging.” Under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act of 1946, trademarks could not be registered if they were considered disparaging to “a substantial composite of the referenced group.” Tam told his lawyer-friend that the Slants had done anti-racism work for years and that Asian Americans make up its biggest group of supporters. “Who did the Trademark Office say was actually offended by our name?” Tam asked.
“No one. Not a single person,” his friend said. “But they did cite UrbanDictionary.com, and there are photos of Miley Cyrus pulling her eyes back in a slant-eye gesture.”
Tam appealed, after working to make sure that “the views of actual Asian Americans across the country” were used as evidence — legal declarations from “respected leaders of the Asian American community” and reports from the Asian American media that “celebrated the work of our band.” The Trademark Office rejected the appeal in December 2010. Tam wanted to drop the case — he was already skipping meals, and his credit cards were maxed out — but his attorney friend convinced him that the case was bigger than he was.
“The government believed that they were protecting Asian Americans from ourselves,” Tam writes. But “they were imposing their own ideas of justice and order on us, without actually consulting what we wanted. . . . That’s the ultimate privilege: being able to live in a world where you can determine what racism looks like for other people.”
Tam moved forward with his “battle for self-identity” and made it public, saying: “Let’s blow the doors open on this. Everyone should know what’s happening.” His trademark case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where he won. The Department of Justice and the Trademark Office appealed the Federal Circuit decision. On Jan. 18, 2017, the Supreme Court heard Matal v. Tam as a First Amendment case. In June of that year, the court ruled unanimously in Tam’s favor.
Still, Tam struggled with the unintended consequences of the decision. The Federal Circuit court’s power to strike down the law could allow “more vile trademarks to be registered,” such as the Washington football team’s. “I didn’t take that choice lightly,” he writes. Policymakers and activists urged him to “focus on whatever would create more options for those who had the least. For me, that was the power of expression.”
For the last two years Tam has been speaking out about re-appropriation, which he defines as the process of reclaiming disparaging terms. “When communities co-opt terms for self-reference or self-empowerment, it’s saying you can’t use that word against me. It belongs to me now,” he explains. “In that sense, refusing to be defined by others is an act of creation. It is both activism and art.” He has also started a nonprofit, the Slants Foundation, which aims to help Asian Americans “looking to incorporate activism into their art.” His nuanced book shows how he did just that.
Diana Michele Yap is a freelance writer in Washington. On May 28 at 7 p.m., Simon Tam will be in conversation with Washington Post reporter Robert Barnes at Politics & Prose, 70 District Square SW.
By Simon Tam.
Troublemaker Press. 326 pp. $27