Speaker Spotlight

Simon Tam

TedXBend | 05.10.17

1. This year’s theme is “US Humans” What do you immediately think of when you ponder US Humans?

When I see “US Humans,” I see that it can be read as “U.S Humans,” or “Americans” since many people just shorthand the United States to “US.” It’s interesting because more than ever, people are moving forward into an “us first” mentality, leaving out others who don’t necessarily fit into their own defined group. Some prefer to create their own division in this way, be it based on nationality, class, gender, religion, race, or otherwise.

Of course, there are others who take the concept as “us,” as in “all of us” are humans – we have parallel experiences and values, strengths and weaknesses. We have more similarities than differences…and as a result, should be working together building communities.

So when I see something that says “US Humans,” I think about responding with a question: who is included in US?

2. Who has had the most significant influence on you in your adult life and why? 

The person who has more of an influence on me than any other is my mentor, Allen Diaz. I met him when I was a teenager. He gave me a book called “Developing the Leader Within You” by John C. Maxwell and it changed my life – from that point on, I decided to read at least two works on leadership every month for the rest of my life.

More importantly, Allen showed me that we should defy conventions. We shouldn’t blindly take information for granted, whether it was from parents, teachers, or faith leaders – we should view everything with our core values and think about how things may affect others. He always encouraged me to connect with others that I disagreed with, and it be confident in truth. He taught me to take initiative by telling me, “There are three kinds of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who wait for things to happen, and those who wonder, ‘What just happened?’ Be someone who makes things happen.”

3. What is it about your work that keeps you going?

My work is rooted in my values. Whether it is working on helping Oregon pass better environmental policy or addressing issues of racial justice, I believe that lives are on the line. When I see marginalized communities empowered by finding their voice and working to heal the deep pains being experienced by our country, I’m inspired to do more.

4. What is your passion outside your idea worth spreading?

I love music and using the arts to awaken our country’s social consciousness. Whether it’s the backbeat of drums or the marching of protesters, art and activism is what drives change in our world.

I also love a good burger.

5. Where’s the one place you’ve visited that you’ll never forget and why?

I spent seven years working in the colonias, or unregulated settlements, of Mexico. We helped establish community centers, worked with local churches, and brought necessities to these villages. I was always inspired by the residents who had such tenacity in their approach to cleaning up their neighborhoods, driven by a depth of compassion I’ve never seen before. They were always filled with a contagious joy that would inspire me to bring that kind of community ethic back to the cities where I lived.

6. Describe an unforgettable moment that shaped who you are

My first real lesson on the power of language was at the age of eleven.

In the basketball courts at school, I was tormented by other students. They’d throw balls, punches, rocks, and insults, while yelling “gook” and “jap.” One day, I had enough. I threw back: “I’m a chink, get it right.”

Stunned, they didn’t know what to do. Confused, they stopped.

The act of claiming an identity can be transformational. It can provide healing and empowerment. It can weld solidarity within a community. And, perhaps most importantly, it can diminish power from an oppressor, a dominant group.

The idea of reappropriation isn’t a new one. The process of turning negative words, symbols, or ideas into positive parts of our own identity can involve repurposing a racial epithet or taking on a stereotype for socio-political empowerment. But reappropriation can be confusing. Sometimes people can’t figure out the nuances on why something is or isn’t offensive.

Nearly a decade ago, I started what many have referred to as the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. In addition to our brand of 80s-inspired synth pop, we got involved with social justice: We toured the country fighting stereotypes about Asian Americans, led workshops, raised money for charities, and provided a bold portrayal of our culture through our music. It was an incredible time and letters of support from marginalized communities poured in.

During this time, our attorney recommended that we register the trademark on our band name, something that’s commonly done for national acts. However, the US Trademark Office rejected it, claiming our name was disparaging to Asians.

I named the band The Slants. The name that represented our perspective—or slant if you will—on life as people of color. It was a deliberate act of claiming an identity as well as a nod to Asian American activists who had been using the term for decades. But the Trademark Office didn’t buy it: they used sources like UrbanDictionary.com, a photo of Miley Cyrus pulling her eyes back in a gesture, and anonymous posts on internet message boards to “prove” that it was offensive. In 2010, the Trademark Office denied my first application to trademark our band’s name.

So for the past eight years, I have been fighting. I’ve been fighting in numerous courts, including up to the Supreme Court of the United States. I’ve supplied thousands of pages of evidence, including letters of support from prominent community leaders and organizations, independent national surveys, an expert report from a co-editor at the New American Oxford dictionary, and more. The Trademark Office was not swayed. They called our effort “laudable, but not influential.” With just a few keystrokes, they wiped away the voices of thousands of Asian Americans and told me that I had no right to represent all Asian Americans. Yet somehow, this attorney in the Trademark Office with no connection to our community had that power.

The law that the Trademark Office is using was written in 1942, decades before the Civil Rights Act. It’s been disproportionately affecting minorities for almost 70 years, abridging free speech rights from those groups. Almost a century of oppression in this area is now riding on the case of one Asian American rock band.

Social theorists say that our identity can both be influenced by, as well as influence, the world around us. Every scientific study confirms that the stigma of derogatory terms like “queer” and “bitch” are mediated by perceived power when the referenced group owns them. The role of the government shouldn’t include deciding how a group defines themselves. That right should belong to the community itself. You can see in example after example that the dominant group is not only inconsistent, but completely off-base when it comes to the sentiment of people who have been marginalized for centuries. The Trademark Office does not have the resources, capacity, nor cultural competency to make those kinds of decisions.

It is an undeniable that a person’s quality of life, their opportunities, and their rights may hinge on their identity. When the Trademark Office refuses to register a form of my artistic identity but instead extends that same right to anyone outside of my community, it’s a big deal. It’s racism. It’s suppression of free speech. The denial of reappropriation is refusing poetic linguistic justice.

It is my hope that my case brings meaningful discourse on identity in this country, that it can push people to look at the actual systems of privilege and underlying attitudes and assumptions that people have about culture. But it all begins with ability to make and protect that choice about language.

The choice of how you identify yourself is your right, but the protection of that right is our responsibility. Then again, my view is a little “slanted.”

7. List three words that describe you.

Stubborn, driven, troublemaker.

8. Are there any books that contributed to who you are? Is so, which one(s)?

“Developing the Leader Within You” by John C. Maxwell
“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
“Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” by Jeff Chang

9. For your talk content, what’s recommended reading?

“Between the World and Me” by Ta-nehisi Coates

10. Why do you want to speak at TEDxBend?

I believe that my idea, which is basically about the need to connect with others, is fundamental to the survival of our democracy.

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