October 31, 2022

A Presentation by Simon Tam

An Asian American Troublemaker That Took on the Government

To Reappropriate a Racial Name

Transcription made by Mina Harada Eimon

Florence Hongo and Simon Tam at the Foster City Presentation

The following is a transcription of a presentation by musician and author Simon Tam which he did at the Foster City Library on October 21, 2019.

Simon Tam may be best known as the founder and bass player for the Asian American rock group The Slants. He and his group were also involved in a trademark battle that eventually went all the way to the US Supreme Court (Matal v. Tam).

Simon Tam made his presentation in coordination with his memoir Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court.

Parts of the transcription were taken from indiscernible sections in the audio recording. With our apologies to Simon Tam, we did our best to transcribe your wonderful presentation.

The recording was started after Simon began his talk. The transcription begins with his experience as a musician doing a performance at a prison in Oregon.


…And I was a Johnny Cash fan. I was like, really excited about this. I was like, I’m gonna wear all black that day! This is going to be our Folsom Prison Blues moment. But I didn’t really think about what it would feel like to send an all Asian band into a prison with one of the highest populations of Neo-Nazis in the country. I didn’t think it might be a little bit dangerous, not until we were going through our second set of metal detectors. It was at that point, that all our IDs were taken from us. Instead, we were given bright orange vests with big numbers on them, like we were gonna go play football or something. At that point, one of my band mates looks at the guard and says, “Hey, it’s really hot out there. Is it okay if we remove the safety gear?” And the guard looks at us, and he says, “Sure. But if something happens out there, those vests lets us know who not to shoot.” So of course, I was like, “Yo, can I get two of them vests? I don’t want to lose mine.”

So I started getting sort of nervous, and anxiety. Because I realized, that I don’t know anything about prisons, or prisoners. Like, the only stuff I know come from books, TV shows, and movies. And they did not have very good things to say. And we proceeded our way through. Eventually we get led to a place that they call the Big Yard. The Big Yard is the size of a couple of football fields in length. It’s surrounded by thirty foot high walls, and you can see sentry towers where there are mounts that… had searchlights. And the only thing that was in this was a small concrete stage. That was where we were supposed to perform. Now the only thing that separated us from what was soon to be two thousand inmates, were the little orange safety cones and a thin line of yellow police tape that said POLICE. DO NOT CROSS.

Of course, at that point, I’m like, “I don’t know if they follow these kinds of instructions. Like, that’s why they’re here, right?” Nevertheless, we take the stage. And something magical happens when we have the opportunity to do this. It’s...it’s music, it’s art, the thing that we’re so passionate about. I won’t forget watching as this little crowd grows throughout the day. They’re enjoying their only outdoor time that day. One hour, that’s all they get. Just the fact that they spent it with us? That’s really, really special.

Now, at the end of the concert, I’m hanging out by one of the safety helms, on the safe side, of course. And I noticed that this group of large, shirtless white men start approaching me. They’re covered head to toe in tattoos. And as they get closer and closer, I notice that the man in front has two words carved into his chest: white power. I started getting filled with those nerves like, when and what do I have to do? I looked around for my band, and they’re 20 feet behind me, breaking down equipment. I looked for the guard, the one who was helping out for our event, and he’s 50 feet away, breaking up a different fight. I turned back around, and marked the man that was just an arm’s length away. Now he looked a bit nervous and all, and then he hands me a piece of paper, and a very sharp pencil. I’m telling you, the only thing going through my mind is that scene in Jurassic Park, where they’re like, “If you don’t move, the T. Rex won’t sink their teeth.” But it was obviously too late for that now. Then he says those few words that just cuts right through me. “It’s for my daughter. Will you please sign this?” So I said, “Of course. Of course.” And as I take this paper, I flip it around and it’s a makeshift flyer of our band performance at the prison that day. And I started asking questions, things like “So, what grade is your daughter in?” and “What’s her favorite animal?” avoiding questions like, “So why are you here?” because that seems pretty obvious. And as we had this short exchange, he looks at me, and he says, “You know, the fact that you guys would come in here and share your music, the fact that you would actually speak with me—it’s really, really incredible. I made a lot of mistakes in my life, and they’re ones that I don’t want my little girl to know. Since I can’t change what’s stained into my skin...but I can change what’s in my heart.”

I started The Slants in 2016 because I wanted to change people’s assumptions about Asian Americans. You see, I grew up in San Diego, California, in the 1980’s, and back then, they did not have very good representation of our community. I mean, this was decades before Crazy Rich Asians… or Fresh off the Boat were killing it. Back then, the only kind of representation you saw were white actors like Mickey Rooney taping his eyes back, making a ridiculous Japanese accent, or characters like Long Duk Dong—overt racial stereotypes. And I think as a result of not having any kind of nuance or depth in our representation… In 7th grade, there’s always this particular memory that always jumps out at me. You see, back then, we had this responsibility. We had to take turns cleaning the PE yard, and get the volleyball nets, and basketballs and that kind of thing, while everyone else hit the showers and get ready for class. On this one particular day, I was picking up sports equipment, I could feel myself being shoved to the ground, hard. I turned around and there were 4 guys standing over me. But the thing that actually scares me the most, is that they’re grinning. They’re enjoying this moment. And that’s when it begins. Just again, and again, and again. They hit me in the face, they kick me in the stomach, they throw sand in my eyes, all while yelling two words, again, and again. Jap and gook. I’m terrified, and I don’t really know what to do, until one point, when something in me just snaps. I look at him, and I say, “I’m a chink!” Like, that’s how stupid you are, you can’t even be racist properly. They were so stunned, they walked away. You see, I believe there’s power in claiming an identity. I believe there’s powers in “You don’t get to define who I am. Only I get to do that.” And I think some part of that lesson carried through as I went into high school.

High school was where I met Kyle, who happens to be here tonight, after like reuniting after 24 years. Kyle and I back then, we were inseparable. We were best friends. We also happened to be one of the only punk rockers in our high school, because like, Hot Topic had not hit the mall yet, and so like, the idea of me having this wallet chain that I made out of safety pins, like, nobody thought this was cool. Nobody except for Kyle. Now one day Kyle shows up, and he’s got hot pink hair, spiked in the liberty spikes all over his head, and of course, I’m like, “Kyle, you look so cool! You’re so punk!” But not everyone at the school thought that way, because all day long he got these dirty looks, and people would whisper under their breath. Now I was supposed to meet Kyle after school on this particular day. But by the time I got there, a very familiar scene was unfolding before me: Kyle, now surrounded by a bunch of guys who started pushing him around. They all started saying horrific things, like, “What’s wrong with you? You some kind of queer or something? You a fag?” At one point, one of them says, “How come your mom lets you walk out the door looking like that?” And I just decided to jump in. I said, “Hey, maybe it’s because his mom’s not stupid and ignorant like you. Maybe she doesn’t judge people by how they look, but by what’s on the inside.” Now I thought this was an excellent answer. They did not agree. They instead turned toward me. “What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do, Jackie?” They started pushing me on my chest. “What are you gonna do?” And all I could think of, was, “Why are they calling me Jackie?” I’m in class with a couple of these guys. They know my name is Simon. And that’s when I realize it. They’re calling me Jackie Chan! And all I could think was, “I’m not Jackie Chan!” The man is significantly older than me, got this bulbous nose that’s been busted a bunch of times, but more importantly, Jackie knows something that I don’t: martial arts. He could school all of these guys in a minute. And so, I didn’t know really what to do, but I thought back on that 7th grade day, and did the only thing I could do. I struck the one karate pose that I could remember, and they immediately were like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We don’t want any, we were just messing with you.” They backed off. This was the second time claiming a stereotype actually helped me out.

Now I wish that I could say all my experiences were grown-up or met with cleverness, and wit, and bravery, but the reality is that most of the time they ended the same way, with me running, finding a place to hide, and crying, because I didn’t want to be hit again. 11th grade, I walked up to my dad. I said, “Dad, I’m ashamed of being born Chinese. I don’t want anything to do with our culture. It broke his heart, because, like, my parents work so hard for me and my siblings. But I was just tired of getting killed out there.

Fast forward a few years, in college, I was about to graduate and I double majored at UC Riverside. And I did the unthinkable thing. I drop out, move across the country, and join the touring punk rock band. Now, nobody told me when I moved to Portland, Oregon, that it actually has this nickname. They call it “America’s whitest major city.” And there, in America’s whitest major city, I started feeling alone. I missed hearing my first languages, I missed my food, I missed seeing someone that looked like me. And so, to deal with that loneliness, I had to import all these movies from Hong Kong, like VHS tapes, via eBay. Most of the films are like this dude, because you know, he’s kind of awesome. But that’s how I would deal with it. Around this time period, some friends come up to me and say, “Hey Simon, have you ever seen the movie Kill Bill?” I’m like, “No, I missed it in the theaters.” But I bought it the day it came out.

It’s April, 2004, and I’ll never forget, sitting in my… apartment watching this bright yellow disc, with these three black lines slide into my DVD player. The movie kicks off, and it’s fun. There’s witty banter, there’s great action, but I’ll never forget, that there’s this one particular scene, where this woman, named O-Ren Ishii, she walks into the restaurant with her gang of Crazy 88. It’s the yakuza, or the Asian mafia that she led. Now to anybody else, this is just another trademark Quentin Tarantino scene. But for me, it was something different. And that’s when I realized, that was the first time that I had ever seen an American movies film that showed Asians as cool, confident, and sexy. And I thought, wow, there are over 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and not once have we ever gotten any love from Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, Billboard, or even MTV back when they used to play music videos.

That night, in the middle of the film, I decided that something needed to change. But, band 101, if you want a band, you gotta have a name. So I started asking my friends in America’s whitest major city, “Hey what’s something you think all Asian people have in common?” Again, and again, they would say, “Slanted eyes.” Which I was like, “That’s interesting, because first of all, that’s not true. Not all Asian people have slanted eyes. And second of all, we’re not the only people on the planet with, like any kind of slant to our eyes. But more importantly, it was these eyes. It was these facial features that got me beat in school again and again. And because Asian Americans are the most fully demographic in America, I knew I wasn’t alone. So I thought, “What if we could change it? What if we flipped it upside down from embarrassment, to empowerment. From shame, to a self identity that we could be proud of. That’s when the idea for The Slant was born.

Never in a million years could I have predicted what happened next. I launched this thing on Myspace.com, which lets you know how far back this thing goes. And kids from across the country started writing me letters.

Thank you.

Thank you for existing.

Thank you for showing me that I can be something else.

Thank you for sharing your own stories and being bold with it, letting me know that it gets better. 

I didn’t intend on starting some kind of social political movement. But when I started getting all these letters, I realized that whether we like it or not, we’re gonna be judged by this particular standard. So I started enrolling in classes on anti-racism, diversity, equity, inclusion, and counseling, because I was dealing with kids who were experiencing trauma all their lives, but they were too ashamed to turn to their parents, so they would talk with the band they found on the internet. Like, I needed to make sure that I could actually serve these kids. And so we started getting involved with Asian American social justice organizations across the country—over a hundred organizations across 34 states, playing at the largest Asian American festivals, we’re doing cultural work, holding anti-racism classes for people. It was unbelievably rewarding because for the first time in my life, I could finally see it. I could merge these two worlds I was so passionate about, art and activism.

But, as it does, everything started falling apart, when I became friends with an attorney. Spencer Trowbridge is an IP attorney in Portland, Oregon. He sees all this stuff happening, and he says, “Hey, you’re on tour, you’re on the radio, you’re doing all this great stuff. Have you ever thought about applying to register your trademark?” I’m like, “No, it sounds kind of expensive.” But he says, no, it’s only a few hundred bucks, and in like six months or less, this whole thing’s going be over with.” This is in 2009. By the time spring of 2010 rolls around, he calls me up and says, “Hey Simon, you’ve got a problem. You’ve got a problem. The trademark office rejected your application. They did so because they said the name of your band is disparaging to persons of Asian descent.” And of course, I’m like, “Does ‘disparaging’ mean what I think it means? Are they saying we’re racist to Asian people?” And he says, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “I didn’t even know there’s a law against this. There’s all kinds of offensive stuff out there, like, what does it actually say?” He proceeds to read me what’s called Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act written in the 1940’s. It says you can’t register a trademark that are considered scandalous, immoral, or disparaging. But it’s not just what anyone considers to be offensive; they have to find what’s called a substantial composite. So in this case, a whole lot of Asian people had to be really upset by it for them to deny us this right. Of course, I’m like, “We just spent the last couple of years working with our community.” Like, who did they find who was offended by our name? And he says, “No one.” And I’m like, “What do you mean, no one? You just said that the rules were that they have to find a whole lot of people. But nobody!” But they did find an entry in urbandictionary.com, a wiki joke website. And I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. The same kind of stuff that isn’t even acceptable in a junior high classroom is now being used by the federal government to deny me rights?” He says, “Yeah. Yeah, but I think they’re wrong. I think we should appeal. If we can just show them how the community is supporting, I think we can correct them on this. Let’s go ahead and fight back.”

So, we begin the process of appealing. Now think about this. What kind of evidence would you bring to the table to prove that you’re not offensive to yourself. Like, what would you do? Well in our case, for the next 18 months, we got Asian American professors, people who specialize in cultural work, talk about mass movement and social justice that our community was mobilizing and how our band was central to that. We got executive directors of numerous social justice organizations, Asian American organizations that said The Slants don’t disparage Asian identity; they celebrate it. We got incarceration camp survivors and individuals using “slant” in a reappropriated manner, like the Slant Film Festival, the Slant Kings of Comedy Tour, Slant TV, Slant Magazine. All of these people doing all of this great work without a single complaint. On top of that, we got a dictionary expert, like president of American Dialect Society, and editor of New American Oxford Dictionary. They wrote a 70 page paper on the history of the term slant, showing how even in the height of its use, it wasn’t all that offensive, but how more often than not, our community was using it as reappropriated manner. And, we got two independent national surveys that used the scientific method that showing that 92 to 98 percent of Asian Americans, supported our use of our name. It was the appeal in US history on this kind of rejection. And on December 22nd, we heard that that appeal was not enough. The government said it’s not good enough. With a few keystrokes they essentially wiped away the voices of our community, saying that our effort was laudable, but not influential. They said it was not influential because they found urbandictionary.com. They said it was not influential because they actually took the rhetoric from two white supremacist websites that justify their decision. They even used the site called asianjokes.com, thinking all of this meant more than the thousands of Asian Americans, professionals and constituents, community members and otherwise, that stepped up and bravely voiced their opinion on this.

Around this time period, my friend Spencer, my attorney, says, “I’m giving up. I can’t do this anymore.” He quits law. And I have to find someone else. So I get on the internet, and found someone who blogs about my case, on this trademarkey website called Likelihood of Confusion. And the guy who agrees to take the case pro bono, but he says as long as you fight like this, you’re not going to win. I’m like, “What do you mean?” He says, “Because nobody has ever won on appeal when charged with this law.” Think about this. The US government has laws that they can put into practice and say, “If we’re wrong, just prep us on it. Well if they don’t tell you that you could never, ever win, not a single case, successfully appealed to our government. So he says, “You’re not going to be the first. But I have a different idea. Let’s go ahead and reapply. This time, we won’t tell them it’s for an Asian band. We’ll just say it’s for our band. We’ll see what happens.” You see, he thinks we’ll maybe get someone else at that office, a different examining attorney. That person won’t associate The Slants with Asian American culture. Maybe they’ll just give us the trademark, since you know, “slant” means a lot of different things.

Well we reapply, and the trademark office gives us the exact same examining attorney. That guy copies and pastes his rejection from the old application into the new one. Now at this point, I’m frustrated. I was like, “We just lost two years of our work.” But my attorney’s like, “No, no, we caught them. They just broke their own rules. You see, according to their own manual, they’re supposed to do a fresh and neutral search everytime a new application comes in. They didn’t do that. Look at the evidence.” I did. Turns out, the evidence pre-dated my application by two years. And on top of that, it definitely wasn’t neutral, because the only time they ever found anything offensive in connection with the word “slant,” was when they search for the word “slant” plus the word “derogatory” plus the N word—although that’s not how our government wrote that one. And so we started appealing, pointing out these very technical and evidentiary based issues.

Meanwhile, we started to take a shift in perspective. We said, “Hold on a second. If “slant” is this inherently racial slur that you claim it is, how come you give it to everybody else?” Think about it. There have been over 800 applications for “slant” in our government. All of them were fine, except for one. I’m the only one in US history to be denied a trademark registration for “slant.” So we said, “How come all these other versions of this word were okay, but The Slants is not okay?” Well, the government came back, and told us something that was even more disturbing: that we weren’t, in fact, true Asian. You see, their exact words were, “It is incontestable that the applicant is of Asian descent, and part of an Asian band. Thus, there’s an association.” You see, in their minds, when people see the words “The Slants,” and they see our faces, they would automatically think, “racial slur,” and not any other definition in the dictionary. The side of how to prove how Asian we were, if you go to theslants.com right now, there’s Asian people all over that website. Of course, I’m like, “Yo, that’s my face. That’s my band!” They’re like, “Well, look at their album covers. There’s dragons, there’s pagodas, all over. It’s way too Asian.”

Now, if you were to actually chart up their logic, it will look something like this. Like, the more Asian we become, the more offensive we become to ourselves. And the problem was, that we didn’t just happen to be a band with a couple of Asian dudes in it. The problem was that our band was like, super, duper Asian. You try to remember that the media called us the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. We were working with Asian American organizations across the country. Every single Asian American newspaper, magazine, TV show, radio show, and blog, covered us and supported our work. The US government whenever they needed help reaching out to the Asian American community, guess who they called? President Barack and Michelle Obama wanted to launch a new anti-bullying program. They asked us to help them with that. When the Department of Defense had a major PR disaster, some of you might remember this in 2011 and 2012, when American soldiers had been hazed to death, like Lieutenant Danny Chen, guess who he called then? They had us spend all of our holidays with the troops to build cultural competency amongst its leadership to help with soldiers’ experiences.

So all of these other branches of government were totally fine with us and looking on us as a conduit for our community. But when it came to the trademark office, we were just too Asian. And so we appealed, using all these arguments, saying, like, “Hey, they messed up the evidence! It’s biased, it’s wrong, and they’re using our race against us.” And we lost every single round of the way. 

Eventually, we got to what’s called the Federal Circuit, which is one step below the US Supreme Court. And there, the court looked at everything, and said, “You know what? We don’t care about any of your arguments. We don’t care that the government used your Asian identity against you. We don’t care that their search results were biased, and that they actually improperly used the evidence. We only care about one thing: that maybe this law, that you’re fighting against, well maybe it’s in violation of the First Amendment. And so, we appealed, on First Amendment grounds, and there, 9 out of 12 federal judges agreed with us, striking the law down as unconstitutional. Even two of the dissenting judges, was like, “We don’t think it’s a constitutional issue, but the trademark office was a bit wrong on this. The band should have that registration.” The problem is, 6 months after this historic decision, we still didn’t have our trademark. That’s because it turned out that the trademark office, and their new BFFs, Department of Justice, filed suit. They sued me, to take me here, you know, the final last stage of this whole legal journey.

And all along, from starting this band to this particular moment, there are certain things I want to articulate, certain things I want to say that I just kind of couldn’t quite fit into a legal briefing. It didn’t makes sense to be in court but there were things I wanted to say, or show, for example, I was like, “If the Supreme Court is going to be hearing arguments about what’s offensive to Asian people, well, some Asian people better be in that room!” So we crowdfunded our way there. And the community generously raised enough money to make sure that we could afford the flights so we could be there.

And I decided to use art to express the things we wanted to say, because we couldn’t do our legal briefs, so we released an album, and we dedicated that album to the US government, calling it The Band Who Must Not Be Named. And that album actually kicked off with a track called From the Heart, which is really just our open letter to the US Patent and Trademark office, but it was also made for anyone else who did not believe in the power of reappropriation, this idea that marginalized communities could seize hurtful words and images and turn them into ideas of empowerment instead. So, we played this song on the steps of the Supreme Court. And to help celebrate, because this is another symbolic gesture, our album was released on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

That night, after we played the song on the steps, we walked to the MLK Memorial, which is actually my favorite place in DC. And I’ll never forget, walking and staring at each of these quotes that are carved in marble, my eyes eventually fell upon my favorite quote from Dr. King, which says that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I remember staring at this thing and thinking, “It’s been seven and a half years that I’ve been stuck in court. I didn’t even commit the crime. All I wanted to do was start a band called The Slants. The government was dragging me here. It’s true. That moral arc must bend towards justice. But you know what? It doesn’t bend on its own. It requires patience, it requires persistence, you know, it requires people who not only understand their rights, but who are willing to fight for them.

And as if it were some kind of sign from the universe, to bring me back full circle, like, I was that kid, that insecure little kid, who was bullied. The night before we were at the Supreme Court, I found myself in a Chinese restaurant, in Chinatown, being interviewed by a Chinese journalist from China. Like, my dad was so proud. And at the end of the meal, we’re served fortune cookies. That was interesting, because, you know, fortune cookies. I grew up in a Chinese restaurant, like, I didn’t think anything of it. People make jokes about them all the time. But that night, as I cracked open my cookie, and I pulled out the slip of paper inside, I thought, “Maybe. Maybe there’s something to this.

And so, I tried to get some rest that night. But I can’t. The next thing I know, I find myself in the early morning getting out of the car and staring up at this building. This building, with its Greco-Roman architecture, it looks like it’s primed for gladiator-like combat. Did you know, that there are four words inscribed to the front of it? It says, “Equal Justice Under Law.” And I remember staring at those words and I was like, “I hope that’s true today. I hope that’s true because every other time my community came up to this court, before this government, that was not true. It was the same argument that said it was okay to ban people from my country, from my parents’ country, my great grandparents’ country, because we were treated like vermin with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Even though my great grandpa had been here in the 1800’s and was an American citizen, he was not allowed to buy land here. And it was the same government in the same court that said it was okay to put people, American citizens, into concentration camps if they were of Japanese descent, because, safety. We did not get justice under law. Would it be different today?

And so, we get led through the court, and eventually, we’re led to seats. Now, turns out I’m not able to sit anywhere near my attorney, arguing from two tables up front. Behind them are rows of chairs that’s reserved for members of the court, basically attorneys who pay extra for the good seats. Behind them, are rows and rows of pews. Now there, in the second rows of pews, that’s where we were sitting. You can imagine the scene. Because the court starts filling up with, like, law professors and law students, and people file briefs in this case, and they see four Asian dudes in suits up front. You can feel the finger pointing and whispering. And someone makes a commotion. They signal for the court marshall say, “Hey, hey, this is Tam, of the case being argued before the court today. Doesn’t he at least get to sit in the front row of the section? This is his case.” Now the court marshall says, “I have to check with the solicitor general. The solicitor general, he is the highest ranking attorney in the government. In fact, he is the guy we’re arguing against today. Ten minutes later, he comes back and he looks at me and he says, “I’m sorry. We’re saving the seat in case someone important shows up today.” I’m like, “Ow!” You know, that kind of dig, it feels like the perfect symbol of this entire process. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because soon, the gavel strikes, and the men and women in black robes are piling in. And the next thing you know, we’re off.

Now a lot of times, a lot of people ask me, “What’s it like? What’s it like being in that room? The Supreme Court, with your name, there!” Well I gotta say, it’s like, really weird. You see, you have these Supreme Court justices, you got the highest ranking attorney in the whole country, all using my name. And using the name of my band. But I can’t help but think, “That’s not me. That’s not me. You don’t know me. Because the band they’re talking about is offensive, is hurting their community, they’re doing bad things to it. And all I could think was, “You don’t know me. Like, you weren’t there, as we raised enough money to rescue a family of four from North Korea. You weren’t there as we dedicated hundred percent of our profit from our second album to address the disparity rates of cancer that Asian American women face. And you certainly weren’t there, as I was counseling those kids away from taking their own lives because of the bulling that they received. You don’t know me. You don’t deserve to give a name, or the name of my band. But I couldn’t say anything. That’s the irony of the whole thing. I’m fighting for freedom of speech in the highest court in our whole country, and in that room, I can’t say a damn thing. So, how does it feel to have your name there? In my case, it felt small, and insignificant, and invisible.

But about halfway through the arguments, this little voice pops up. It’s Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She looks at the government attorney. She says, “Doesn’t it matter? Everyone knows The Slants are Asian. They’re not using the word to disparage, but to describe, and to remove the sting from the term.” I remember sitting in my chair, seat, just thinking, “Yo. I think I’m in love with this Supreme Court Justice, notorious RBG. She sees me. She gets it.” And the only thing that the solicitor general could say in response was, “We found a lot of articles on the internet that suggested otherwise.” And I wanted to get up and scream, “No! No, you’re talking about urbandictionary.com. You’re talking about the fact that you would rather just erase the voices of my community, rather than actually listen to it. But I couldn’t say anything. So 55 minutes passed. Oral arguments are over. And I’m like, getting my stuff out of the locker just thinking, “Nah, they don’t get it. They don’t get it.” I’m just frustrated and angry.

And as we start walking down the steps in front of the court, making our way out, I noticed the plaza in front of us. It’s filled with people. Maybe a couple hundred people. And I was like, they don’t get it either. What are they all doing here? Court’s in session. Like, there’s no tours today. Like, is this how out of touch people are? As we walked down the steps, like halfway down, the crowd looks up. They see us. They began erupting in applause, cheering for us as we walked down the steps. I’m like, “I don’t...I don’t get it. I don’t know what’s happening. And as I hit those final steps, these two Asian kids run up to me, “Simon! Simon! Our parents let us ditch school to let us be here today.” And I was like, “What kind of Asian parents do you have?” And they’re like, “No, no! You don’t get it. We’re from California. We’re freshmen in high school. You see, for our whole lives, we heard about the one, the one who was going to fight for the dignity of our community, for us to choose what’s best for ourselves. We flew here and waited all night on that cold sidewalk so we could be in that room, but we couldn’t get in. There were too many people. We wanted to find you, to meet you, to let you know this: that when we graduate high school, we’re going to go to college and study public policy and when we graduate there, we’re going to run for office. And we’re going to change the system that you fought against.” And at that moment, I was like, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose at the Supreme Court, because we won where it mattered the most, in the hearts and minds of the people actually affected by our laws.

So, with that, I joined my attorneys at the corner of this plaza. You see, they’re surrounded by cameras and microphones, and there, everyone was waiting for some kind of official statement. My attorney looked at me and said, “Simon, do you want to say something?” I was like, “Absolutely. Absolutely!” So I get on the microphone and I say that, being that no one was willing to say that day, I said, “If the government really cared about fighting against racism, why didn’t they cancel the registration of the KKK? Or Stormfront? Or actual hate groups? Why did they choose to wage that battle against an anti-racist band? Maybe it’s because they don’t actually care. They want to use so-called bad language as a distraction from bad policy.”

You see, I called them bad policy, because I found out something about the law we’re fighting. Think about it. Who are the kinds of people that reappropriate language? Well, people of color, and members of LGBTQ community. Turns out, that actually made us prime targets under the law, because we were too radical. I was not the only one who was too Asian. You see, the most offensive term for my community is the word “chink.” It was registered 8 times. It was never denied, until an activist named Randall Wu out of Atlanta, Georgia, created a T-shirt that said, “chink pride.” He was too Asian. And it turns out, every single racial slur you could imagine, were registered trademarks. But whenever members of that community rose up to say, “Hey, hey, hey! No, that’s us. We’re changing the definition. We’re doing something with this,” the government said that’s not good enough of an excuse. That’s the same reason why my friends, this amazing feminist rock band out of Seattle, Washington, called Thunder Pussy, they were rejected for their name. But whenever porn companies wanted to use the same phrase, they got the benefit of the doubt. We shone the light how the government was using this policy to benefit large corporations who got the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, activist communities were shunned. They didn’t like that, so they choose to fight us. But of course, no one in the media wanted to pick that up. It was too complex, too nuanced. 

Six months later, I found myself waking up at 6am. My phone is blowing up. There’s over 700 missed notifications. So I’m like, “I guess something happened.” I hop on Twitter, and I check OPB, Oregon Public Broadcasting. The same NPR affiliate that, in 2008, wrote the story of an Asian American band that was touring while turning stereotypes upside down. They write in a single tweet, “The Supreme Court rules in favor of The Slants.” Later that day, I found out that decision was unanimous, one of the few unanimous decisions in our country.

And so now I travel the country and I share this story. I wrote a book. I’ve done Ted Talks on this whole thing. The reason why I do it is because I want people to understand that there ought to nuance, there ought to be complexities when we share these stories.

For me, I came across this philosopher a long time ago, that said that the rules that were most fair, were the ones that we would all agree to, no matter who was in charge. And that’s why I’ve become a passionate advocate of our civil liberties, because that’s how we can guarantee things like civil rights, but of course, that all began by finding a name that was worth fighting for. And that name was The Slants.

Thank you so much for being here tonight.