In a ruling handed down this morning, the US Supreme Court unanimously sided with Asian American rock band “The Slants” against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The Slants had sought to register their band’s name as a trademark, but was denied the mark under guidelines outlined in the 1946 Lanham Act, which prohibits the registration of any mark that might be deemed offensive or disparaging.
The Slants took issue with the US Patent and Trademark Office’s ruling, saying that their band name was not offensive, and was instead an effort to reclaim a racial or ethnic slur to empower the Asian American community.
However, The Slants’ legal battle to challenge the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause is of particular political relevance, as the clause also represents a significant legal basis for the Native American community’s protest of the “Washington Redskins”‘ name and trademark.
I remember when I first met Professor Frank Wu (@frankhwu). I was president of Cornell’s student-run political Asian American organization, and he was dean of law at UC Hastings (correction) law professor at Howard. He was working a book tour to promote his new book: “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black & White“, a self-reflective and easily digested exploration of Asian American identity. We had invited him to lecture as a keynote speaker for our on-campus celebration of Asian American Heritage Month.
I remember being excited and in awe of Wu as I organized his visit, hopeful he would bring with him a poignant and insightful discussion of the Asian American experience through rejection of the conventionally binary lens of American race relations.
On the morning of his keynote address, Wu was invited to give our student group an informal preview to his keynote talk in a more intimate setting. Gathered in a small conference room, ten of us conversed with Wu; it was a conversation that quickly became a grilling.I remember surprise, and even a little bit of disappointment: for an author who had penned a book about finding an Asian American experience outside of Black and White, Wu spent much of his time nonetheless comparing Asian Americana to Black and White America. In his presentation, Yellowness was situated somewhere intermediate between Blackness and Whiteness, defined predominantly by its proximity to both. Instead, I yearned for revolutionary thinking about Yellowness through construction of a racial pedagogy that had more than two points, one that didn’t ultimately and unintentionally leave Asian Americans occupying a space as “minority lite”. In short, I was and am far more radical than Professor Wu, and I didn’t hide it.
I remember at the end of that conversation, Wu — offended, exasperated and exhausted — brusquely retorted to us before shutting the session down that if we didn’t like his book, we should just go write our own.
(To his credit, Wu’s book appears to be written primarily for the non-Asian American audience and with the goal of introducing major stereotypes and tropes of the Asian American experience to those who would view “race” and “Blackness” as synonymous. Today, I feel that my 19-year-old self was somewhat unfair to Wu and what he was trying to accomplish. If he recalls our interaction at all, I’m sure he would describe us as a group of disrespectful and pugnaciously idealistic children. I have, in fact, mellowed over the last decade and if Professor Wu reads this article, I apologize for our contentious treatment of him in that setting.)
This first interaction with Professor Wu is representative of my thinking on him and his work: I thoroughly respect him for his accomplishments as one of our earlier and most prominent academics. Wu was one of the the first Asian American academics to popularize general conversation on the Asian American identity, and in so doing he mainstreamed the Asian American experience for American race relations. To some degree, his insisted presence in the proverbial room actually did push the boundaries of race beyond Black and White. But, at the same time, whenever I engage Wu’s writing, I am reminded of the wide chasm between our racial politics. I find my radical opinions at odds with his more conventional outlooks. I am frustrated by his insistence on focusing his writing primarily on the Chinese American experience, to the detriment of other ethnic identities that find themselves within the Asian American diaspora. This blog is arguably the book Wu told me I should write if I didn’t like his.
These days, Wu balances his work as Dean and Chancellor at UC Hastings College of Law with a regular writing gig at Huffington Post. Over the last several months, Wu has penned a number of op-eds, many of which explore the Asian American identity.
Last week, Wu wrote an article asking: Is The Term ‘Chinaman’ Derogatory? Wu asserts a (qualified) no. He argues that the permissiveness of slurs is contextual and should depend primarily on whether members of the target group take offense. Paralleled with Wu’s own excuse of the term “Chinaman” in a recent production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, the article leaves the reader with the impression that “Chinaman” is, itself, a largely inoffensive term problematic only because some Asian Americans would kick up a fuss where Wu wouldn’t.
It would be an understatement to say I disagree, patently and wholeheartedly.
I often talk with my children about different aspects of life, without bringing up being Native American, as they grow into adults. Honestly, it had been a while since I asked them about what being Cherokee is like outside our home. What their views on identity has meant to them? Have I helped them navigate the confusing Native American waters?
A deep coversation is what followed that I want to share bits of with you. I hope after reading this you can have similar conversations with others. Being able to vocalize how we feel about our place in the world is an important topic. It can give a sense of validation and understanding between people, be it a parent to child or friend to friend.
My daughter told me that once she had watched Peter Pan without me there. “I guess you were at work or something. I don’t remember,”she said. It left her confused. She didn’t talk to me about it. She just didn’t know what to make of it. After all, none of the “Indians” in the movie resemble us. “The pickaninnies” don’t resemble the Natives we meet at pow-wows or stomp dances either. The “singing Indian’s music” doesn’t sound like the Cherokee children’s music I play for my kids in the car. Being so immature, she was unable to describe what she felt. So, she didn’t say anything to us.
Of course, I felt bad for not having prevented her watching those clips. I felt guilty that I had no idea at all about it happening. I asked her if she felt I had let her down? “No, mom. I am not confused about being Cherokee. You should see some of the Native American kids at school. Sometimes they make “Indian” jokes just to fit in. When they act like that, I just walk away.”I understood what she meant. Sometimes, when your a kid, it’s easier to leave a conversation. It shouldn’t be up to kids to explain that embracing Native American stereotypes for the amusement of non-Natives isn’t healthy for a person’s mentality. Plus, confronting a Native child in front of the peers she/he is trying to impress can embarrass a Native kid with self-esteem issues to begin with.
“Mom, do you remember when I came home with a coloring page of Pilgrims I had to do in class,” my other daughter chimed in. “I told the teacher it was a lie. She made me color it anyways,” she said.
This post is part of a week of solidarity between Asian American and Pacific Islander bloggers and Native writers who have spear-headed the #NotYourMascot campaign. For a full list of posts included in the week of solidarity, please check this post.
I’ve been maintaining this blog — a personal and political blog dedicated to Asian American feminism and race activism — for over 12 years. And, in that time, I’ve dedicated my time to try and bring awareness to issues I feel are underaddressed within the Asian American community: mental health, unemployment, reproductive choice, under-education and more. My part-time activism, balanced against a full-time career, has been focused on the goal of challenging racism by dismantling stereotypes of Asian Americans and encouraging my (predominantly Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI)) readers to get more politically involved themselves.
Every day, it feels as if there is a new story that could benefit from some air. Every day, I come across a new post yearning to be written — like the distressingly high rates of suicide among Bhutanese Americans — and I feel compelled to write because no one else seems to be talking about it. Every morning, I find myself sifting through a pile of stories to pick the one that could most use some attention; and, when this becomes your daily routine, it’s easy to forget that every story is deserving of attention.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, as someone who has dedicated the last decade to this unique form of “digital journalism as activism”, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. My Twitter timeline has become a litany of worthy goals and hash-tags, each focused around a despicable example of racism, or sexism, or other kind of discrimination — a depressing deluge of anti-racist action clamouring for visibility, and the details start to bleed into one another. These days, I feel less like I’m pushing back against racism, and more like I’m just treading water.
And, sadly, it is far too easy to become desensitized to it all, and to start to see this list of anti-racist campaigns like just another pile to be sifted through, and to tune out the the individual cries of racial pain, anger, and sadness that echo through the headlines. In short, there is far greater capacity for humanity to treat one another with hatred and intolerance than there is capacity for anti-racist activists to work against it.
So, last week, when a Twitter user asked me why I had thus far been silent on #NotYourMascot — an ongoing multi-year fight to advocate to the NFL the changing of the name of the Washington R*dskins (and associated mascot) — and why it had taken Stephen Colbert’s much-discussed segment likening the team name to the archaic anti-Asian slurs “Oriental” and “Ching Chong Ding Dong”, I responded with a list of reasons. I talked about how the project of the Asian American blogging community is the important one of trying to give air to Asian American issues, and to try and keep together a political identity at constant risk of fracturing. I talked about how I felt over-worked and underpaid (which is to say, I’m still over a thousand dollars in the hole on this blog), how even within a blogosphere of several voices there are still more otherwise unheard Asian American stories to be told than there are people to tell them. I talked about how I felt like I was treading water, even while trying to cover the stories that intersect the very narrow focus of my blog. I talked about how although I supported the #NotYourMascot campaign, I felt obligated to devote my blogging hours to campaigns that didn’t even have the benefit of a hash-tag. I talked also about how, not being Native American, I felt like I didn’t want to subvert another community’s issue with my own clumsy (and potentially ill-informed) thoughts. Finally, I talked about how I’m a boxing fan and not a professional football fan, how I don’t watch Sunday afternoon football, and how until two weeks ago, I thought the Dan Snyder’s team hailed from the state of Washington (guess what, it doesn’t).
And y’know what? All of these reasons are shitty-ass reasons. They’re all human reasons. But they’re also all shitty-ass reasons.
Recent events have allowed mainstream media to paint a picture of Asian American and Native American communities as being at odds in #NotYourMascot: the fight to call on Washington R*dskins owner Dan Snyder to change the name and mascot of his NFL team, both of which are deplorable examples of redface stereotypes against Native peoples. Sadly, in the aftermath of the last two weeks and the attention placed on Asian American advocacy, Native peoples have been functionally “edited out” of their own campaign.
Yet, anti-racist work is a work that should bring together people of colour, not divide us. This week, the AAPI blogging community is dedicating a week of posts in solidarity with our Native brothers and sisters to try and raise awareness for #NotYourMascot and the R*dskins controversy. Many AAPI blogs have committed to writing posts in support of #NotYourMascot, and we will also be re-tweeting the powerful and compelling writing of Native writers.
Please check out all the blogs participating in this week of solidarity and bookmark this post, which will be aggregating all the writing done this week.
Please also check back for updates.
This post was last updated April 17th 12:00PM EST.