It’s 2017, and yes folks, times are quite bleak. Not only are many of us living amid a Donald Trump presidency, but we’re also living in a time where racially derogatory terms and offensive symbols can now be trademarked with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).
Here’s the kicker: It’s now completely constitutional.
In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not prohibit trademarks they deem “disparaging” or “offensive” since it ultimately violates the First Amendment freedom of speech clause. This case was first triggered when Simon Tam tried to register his band’s name, The Slants, with the PTO. The office ultimately rejected the request, claiming that the name was disparaging to Asian Americans.
Tam didn’t stop there. He sued and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, who ultimately sided with him. The Slants frontman proclaimed the decision a victory for minorities, especially in attempts to reclaim slurs. He fought to trademark his band’s name to change assumptions and counter problematic perceptions of Asian Americans.
But since this historic SCOTUS decision, the floodgates have been opened, and just as anticipated, people are now filing disparaging names with the PTO.
The slur “chink”, seven iterations of the N-word, as well as a swastika, have been filed as trademark requests with the PTO since the June SCOTUS decision. But according to a NPR Planet Money interview, some people targeted by these slurs are racing to file the offensive names themselves so they can beat bigots to it, reclaiming the names through their own brands.
As someone who has grown up being called racial slurs, this ruling is no trivial matter to me. As an Asian American in the South, from kindergarten and even quite disappointingly into my twenties, I was called different iterations of the slur “chink.” I’ve also lost count of a number of times peers have pulled their eyes to mock me for my apparently stereotypically “slanted” Asian eyes.
Most memorably in college when I was walking home alone, a group a white frat guys in their car decided to roll down their windows to shout “CHING CHONG CHING” to me, while quickly speeding away. No amount of middle fingers in the world could give me back the power I’d completely lost in that moment.
Reclamation is powerful, no doubt. I love the way LBGTQIA folks have reclaimed the word “queer,” for example, and how it is now a legitimate identity in the community. But before we reclaim problematic terms, we need to examine the origins of these epithets and how they’ve been used to harm and erase. We need to also pay attention to who is doing the reclaiming and how.
I think of the origins of the slur “chink,” a term that has been often used against me and many in Asian America. “Chink” refers to the sounds of hammers clanking against steel railroad parts by the hands of Chinese immigrants to build the Transcontinental Railroad.
I think about how Chinese immigrants labored over these tracks to only be excluded from and marginalized in the American society their hands connected. The sounds of their labor are literally used against them, and against others that look like them.
While I commend The Slants for their social justice work and trying to reclaim a term used against them, I’m unsure of how effective taking this fight to the Supreme Court, and ultimately winning, will be in affecting how marginalized communities are perceived and treated in American society.
It takes a lot more than one band’s name to foster that kind systemic-level change. I don’t believe a trademarked slur will stop grown-ass twenty-year-old men from calling me “chink” or yelling “ching chong” at me. I don’t think it will stop people from slanting their eyes to mock Asian people. A name can foster conversations, but it won’t single-highhandedly solve prejudice.
We also can’t overlook how the implications of this Supreme Court decision affects Native Americans, who already have been tirelessly fighting to get sports teams to stop using their bodies as mascots. Because of the SCOTUS decision, teams like the Washington Redskins are poised to preserve their problematic names.
These names were created and weaponized to uphold white supremacy and carry deep-rooted harm that marginalized folks are still trying to unpack. While this case might have been a win for a narrow margin of marginalized people, it could be a loss for many others.