What’s in a name? Well quite a lot if you’re the Washington Redskins football team. In 2013, former US President Barack Obama suggested the historic team should change theirs. He said it was offensive to the Native American community.
The team defended the name as honoring Native Americans. Others called it a ‘sad reminder’ of a more bigoted and racist past. In 2014, the US Trademark Office ruled the team’s trademark should be cancelled.
The team’s owner, Dan Snyder, has vowed that he will never change the name. The team claims the name honors and doesn’t disparage Native Americans.
The Washington Redskins have launched an appeal with the Supreme Court. They have found an unlikely ally in the rock band The Slants. They are both locking horns with the US government. Yet are they fighting the same battle?
Growing up in San Diego, The Slants founding member was exposed to racism at a young age. As a Chinese American in middle school, Simon Tan was a sitting duck for bigoted bullies.
He recalls cleaning up the sports equipment one day, when a gang of other students attacked him. Their punches and kicks were fierce, but their insults fiercer.
Snarling with hate and ignorance, they called him a ‘Jap’ and a ‘gook’. Simon snapped and shouted back, “Do you know what, I’m a chink.’ He remembers thinking, ‘If you’re going to be racist at least do it properly.’
The moment he stood up to the bullies stayed with him. Years later he formed an all-Asian rock band in Portland. He wanted the name to assert their Asian identity. He asked friends what all Asians have in common. They replied, “Slanty eyes!”
Simon decided to reclaim the offensive term. He wanted to turn a name previously considered abusive into something empowering. He named his band The Slants and they hit the road.
Simon tried to register his group’s name as a trademark with the US government, but he hit a brick wall. They said the name was disparaging to people of Asian descent.
Simon legally challenged the ruling. For eight long years he has been fighting for his right to legally use the name in court. In his hands, he believes it can be a tool for Asian self-empowerment.
His case in now going to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the US.
What do you think? Should teams like the Washington Redskins have the freedom to trademark and profit from offensive words? And can people like Simon reclaim offensive terms in a way that fights racism?
Note to English Learners: Jap is a racist word for a Japanese person, gook is a racist word for a Vietnamese person and chink is a racist word for a Chinese person. All are equally offensive and should never be used.
Update: This week Simon Tan won his case before the Supreme Court. The court said, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”