An Open Letter to ‘The Slants’: Racial Slurs Aren’t Inherently Progressive
Reclaiming racist stereotypes for yourself isn’t political or edgy when it harms the very people to whom you owe your basic political rights.
When it comes to “freedom of speech,” white, cis, able-bodied Americans have a long history of valuing their right to say whatever they want over the bodily safety of everyone else – even and especially when their words openly inflict violence on Black, Indigenous, and people of color by upholding and reinforcing systemic racism.
Speech doesn’t operate in a vacuum. We have learned time and again that, like everything else in America, speech is a commodity that, while presumably freely available to all, is in fact always distributed unevenly based on race, class, and ability. In short, those with more capital, more privilege, and more power will always have more access to platforms that broadcast and circulate their speech, thus further consolidating their power.
In particular, since the election of Donald Trump, freedom of speech has become the official rallying cry of the alt-right: white nationalists and Neo-Nazis have seized this historical opportunity to publicly insult and ridicule trans women, undocumented students, disabled people, and BIPOC, claiming that their right to freedom of speech must be protected at all costs, and that any attempt to criticize this fundamental constitutional right is a form of censorship.
Recently, Asian-Americans joined the free speech bandwagon when a rock band from Portland–comprised of entirely Asian-American musicians – embroiled themselves in a lawsuit over their right to name their band “The Slants.” The band claimed that this was a reclaiming of a traditionally racist slur against people of Asian descent, but the U.S. Trademark Office disagreed when it rejected their application on the basis of their band name containing “disparaging” references to a specific group of people.
After several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of The Slants last week. The courts argued that rejecting the band name constituted a violation of The Slants’ first amendment rights, and that any group that applies to register a potentially offensive name for itself should be allowed to do so because – you guessed it – this is America, and we believe in free speech.
The Slants argued that they have a right to reclaim racist Asian epithets in the name of self-empowerment because they themselves are Asian. A point well taken. What they did not consider, however, is how their decision would affect other groups of people of color, particularly, in this case, Indigenous people–whose stolen land they currently live on, and whose historical oppressions they have historically benefitted from.
For decades now, Native American groups have been fighting for public representations of themselves that do not rely on offensive stereotypes, and changing the official team name of the Washington Redskins – a professional American football team based in the Washington metropolitan area – has been a primary goal. Now, thanks to the Slants setting a hard supreme court precedent that protects the legal right of registered groups to include offensive epithets in their names, the likelihood that the Washington Redskins will be forced to change their name will be vastly reduced.
In other words, because an Asian American rock band from Portland wanted an edgy band name, Indigenous people, activists and organizers have been set back decades in their efforts to reduce overtly racist and psychologically harmful representations of themselves in mainstream American culture, including an NFL mascot that glorifies the genocide of their people.
As non-Black, non-Indigenous people of color, it isn’t “edgy” to reclaim a racist epithet for yourself if you harm further marginalized people in the process of doing so. In this case, that is exactly what happened. The irony is that, though few people of Asian descent in the United States actually remember this, the term “Asian American” was not originally an ethnic descriptor or a census category, but rather a political identity that explicitly acknowledged an alliance with and debt to Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.
Before 1968, people of Asian descent in the United States were referred to either as “Orientals” or “Asiatics,” both terms that white people invented, and which, as a consequence, conjure up racist stereotypes of submissive women, colonial coolie workers, or terrible operas. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that, inspired by the efforts of the Civil Right Movement, the Black Power Movement, and other third world liberation movements that followed on its heels, activists of Asian descent – specifically two students at the University of California, Berkeley – invented a new, self-appointed name to describe themselves: Asian-Americans.
Related: ON PHILANDO CASTILE, AKAI GURLEY, AND NON-BLACK PEOPLE OF COLOR’S COMPLICITY IN ANTI-BLACKNESS
However, this term wasn’t just a way to re-name and thus liberate ourselves from a white gaze; it was specifically a term that implied solidarity with other people of color. At a rally to inaugurate the newly founded Asian American Political Alliance on July 28, 1968, Richard Aoki, an Asian American activist and member of the Black Panther Party, declared:
“We Asian-Americans believe that American society has been, and still is, fundamentally a racist society, and that historically we have accommodated ourselves to this society in order to survive. We Asian-Americans support all non-white liberation movements and believe that all minorities, in order to be truly liberated, must have complete control over the political, economic, and social institutions within their respective communities.”
When Asian Americans mourn the death of Vincent Chin – a man of Chinese descent who was murdered in a racist hate crime by two white men in 1982 – without mourning or fighting for the Black lives lost to racist police violence; when Asian Americans grow outraged at the racist treatment of a Vietnamese doctor on a United Airlines flight but remain silent while Black Americans are pulled over for a broken taillight and murdered by cops time and time again; when Asian Americans rally mass support for an Asian police officer convicted of killing an innocent Black man instead of recognizing their complicity in anti-Black racism, they are forgetting the intersectional origins of the term“Asian American,” not to mention the profound debt they owe to Black and Indigenous people and activists.
Again, to repeat: reclaiming racist stereotypes for yourself isn’t political or edgy when it harms the very people to whom you owe your basic political rights.