Now You Have Taken It Too Far

herodotusThis semester I’m teaching an introductory course on the Study of Religion, that is, looking at scholarly definitions and scholarly approaches to the study of religion. We’re exploring among other things, together with my students, questions like what is the study of religion? What is at stake in naming/defining/classifying things in this or that way? Although this early in the semester one question that prevails is: Continue reading “Now You Have Taken It Too Far”

Fighting Exclusion with Exclusion

Algodones_sand-dune-fenceDonald Trump’s position statement last week excluding Muslims from entering the United States generated a round of bipartisan condemnation, as the White House spokesperson asserted that the statement disqualified Trump from the Presidency and Dick Cheney, among others, argued that the position “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.” While I certainly agree that Trump’s discriminatory approach should be rejected, the effort to exclude the excluder invites reflection on acts of identification. Continue reading “Fighting Exclusion with Exclusion”

Is Your Group Oppressed?

TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitol“A war against Christianity,” a friend on Facebook asserted, as he pointed to examples in the United States and around the world. The shooting at Umpqua Community College recently and the various occasions when ISIS has executed people identified as Christians provided prime examples. Others making similar claims point to shifts in US policy, including the removal of the Ten Commandments from schools and courthouses, restrictions on official prayer at public schools, and movements to remove “God” from the Pledge and US money. Continue reading “Is Your Group Oppressed?”

Love, Community, and Cow Urine

Garba_(dance)Constructing and maintaining a group, a community, requires significant effort, and at times that effort generates disagreements. In India, an organization announced this week that they were restricting admission to Garba, a traditional dance that is a major component of Navratri, a nine-night festival honoring the goddess. Only people recognized as Hindus can participate, banning specifically those identified as Muslim. A local leader of the VHP, an organization associated with Hindu nationalism, asserted, “Incidents of love jihad where Muslim boys lure and marry our Hindu girls happen at Garba. Our only aim is to protect our girls.” Continue reading “Love, Community, and Cow Urine”

When the Census Creates Fear

3149390970_da1ce6e3d2_bAre Muslims taking over India? Recently released data from the 2011 Census of India generated various headlines, from the alarmist assertion that the percentage of the population identifying as Hindu has declined to the calmer emphasis on the slowing growth in communities identified as Muslim. One Hindu nationalist organization provocatively asked in response to the data, “Is there a larger conspiracy to Islamise Bharat [India]?” These reactions to demographic shifts look familiar, like responses to demographic change in the US concerning religious affiliation or ethnic identity. Analyzing the dynamics underneath the numbers reveals that these instruments are not simply describing changes in our world but constructing our world in particular ways. Continue reading “When the Census Creates Fear”

“I asked God to send me, right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs Sweater”

That’s Roch Carrier, the Quebec author, when he was 10 years old, in 1947.

If you know anything about the history of Canada, or hockey, you’ll know that there’s something wrong with that picture once you hear it was taken in Sainte-Justine-de-Dorchester, Quebec — near Quebec City but also near the Maine border.

Or, to put it another way, it wasn’t taken in Toronto. Continue reading ““I asked God to send me, right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs Sweater””

Strategic Ideologies

(1882)_MAP_OF_THE_TRIBES_OF_INDIAPrompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously…, and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.

Race, as many have pointed out for years, is not biological. This point raises questions about the basis on which it is determined. Is it ancestry, appearance, cultural practice, or something else? That complicated question has come to greater prominence in light of the media circus around Rachel Dolezal and her assertion of an African-American identification. While discussions of Dolezal often focus on the process of self-identification and strategic choices made in relation to that self-identification, I want to focus, instead, on the strategic nature of the act of ascribing identification to someone else. Continue reading “Strategic Ideologies”

They’re Just Old Buildings, Right?

Picture 29

Prompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously…, and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.

My brother, Elliot, who died in 1996, was mentally disabled. That’s him above, with my two sisters. And that’s me on the far right; he was 12 years older than me and, as a baby, had taken a particularly bad fall from his highchair; presumably, that’s what caused what, just a couple years later, became painfully apparent to my parents: he had no speech development and began suffering from repeated grand mal seizures. I won’t belabor the tragedy of his life and death, but suffice it to say that in the 1950s there was little choice but to institutionalize him, when he was a young boy, in a government-run institution. So his profound cognitive problems were quickly compounded by a number of physical problems — who knows what all abuse he was subjected to over the course of his life, but from the “cauliflower ears” and missing teeth that soon resulted, well…, it was apparent that life in the institution was horrendous. Continue reading “They’re Just Old Buildings, Right?”

Denaturalizing the Natural

dinoAs a little kid in the early 1960s, I guess I decided that the hooded sweaters I sometimes wore made me look like Dino the dinosaur — you know, from “The Flintstones”? I don’t think we had a specific name for them yet — at least we didn’t call them “hoodies,” as people do now. Instead, opting for brutal descriptivism (which sounds like a 1960s architectural movement), I’m guessing that we just uncreatively called them “hooded sweaters.” Continue reading “Denaturalizing the Natural”

Identity in Law and Practice: An Interview with Simon Tam of The Slants (Part 2)


This is the second installment of a two part interview with Simon Tam, bass guitarist and founder of The Slants — a Portland-based rock band that is part of an ongoing legal battle with the US Patent and Trademark Office concerning their effort to brand the band’s name. (Find part 1 of this interview here and read more about their case here.)

Culture on the Edge: As we understand it, when you came up with the idea for the group, about ten years ago, you intended from the outset to have an all Asian-American band. So, with the above question in mind, what was/is your definition of “Asian” and how do you understand it to differ (if at all) from the compound identity designator used here in the US, “Asian-American”? In practice (say, when recruiting new members), do the current members of the band have either regional limits in mind (e.g., is Asia minor Asian?) or, perhaps, linguistic or generational (what if one was born in the US and speaks only English?)? Might you not all even agree on how you use that identity marker? Or, instead, is it a big tent designator for you that, perhaps, actually reflects how people with broad, Asian-based ancestry are seen by others, such as the North American non-Asian majority? So who sets the band’s identity definition?

Simon: My original goal was to have a band comprised primarily of Asian Americans, those who have a bi-cultural understanding as well as those who ethnically identify with people of Asian origin. I believe that Asian Americans are a specific group who have a distinct identity because they have a different experience than Asians (even first generation immigrants) do. That being said, we’ve never distinguished on any criteria, such as by language, birth, or generational characteristics. We’ve had band members who were born outside of the U.S, those who were adopted, those who grew up with a strong connection to their heritage, and those who did not. We haven’t had any conflicts over identity (yet), we mainly ask applicants to self-identity and see if they have some level of awareness as it pertains to these kinds of issues.

We’d hate to imply that the Lanham Act has anything to do with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, but it is interesting that 1946, when the Act was passed (whose definitions of scandalous and immoral you’re now contesting) is also when the War Relocation Authority (which ran the internment camps) was also terminated (by executive order of President Truman, on June 26, 1946). So, while not suggesting any link between these two, the date 1946, and, specifically, the way Japanese Americans were treated during the war, provides a curious point of reference for those wishing to think about how far we’ve come, in the past 70 years, in terms of the role people of Asian ancestry play in contemporary US culture. So how far have we come? Our notions of free speech have certainly changed a lot but does it seem to you that we’ve moved very far over the past seven decades in terms of how people of Asian ancestry are represented in the US or the agency that they can exercise, even just in day-to-day life, let alone the courts?

Simon: I definitely don’t think the Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act was related to the internment camps, but there have certainly been several curious coincidences over the last few decades. My case is no different: the original date set for my first appeal was February 19, the anniversary date of Executive Order 9066, which led to the detention of Japanese Americans.

In terms of Asian Americans in contemporary US culture, there’s no doubt that there has been substantial progress: we have Asian Americans reflected in most industries, including a handful of elected seats, on prime time television, and especially in tech and medical fields.

However, that kind of agency and progress tends to be reserved for groups that have assimilated or who have been able to amass resources to progress. When individual community groups are examined, there is significant inequity in terms of employment, education resources, health disparities, and more. This is especially the case for newly immigrated families from Southeast Asian, regions including Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, and the Micronesian Islands.

It seems that the court system, education and employment opportunities, and other resources are not favorable to non-European immigrants or low-income families. Of course, this disproportionately affects Asians and Asian Americans.

That part of the globe now referred to as Asia is a pretty big place, of course, and, depending to whom you speak, it’s not necessarily clear where it begins or ends; and the countries that today are generally said to comprise it, like any regional collection of countries, have their share of differences and historical disagreements (even overt conflicts). So while seeking to rebrand such terms as “slant,” when used as a derogatory racial term, what work do you also see such a rebranded term doing in creating a larger, shared identity for subgroups today who might otherwise see themselves as sharing little in common? Or are the points of possibly different ancestry so far away for the generation of which you’re a member that onetime differences (between, say, this person’s Korean or Vietnamese and that person’s Japanese or Chinese ancestors) are now unrecognizable against the backdrop of all being “Asian American” today?

Simon: The term Asian is constantly evolving and comprises an incredible diversity of people, some of whom have the “epicanthic fold” or “slant” that people exclusively attribute to Asians, and some who do not. The process of reclaiming the term doesn’t really depend on evolving definition. In fact, when our band uses “THE SLANTS,” it’s a specific reference to our slant on life, or perspective, as people of color, not necessarily the shape of our eyes. That’s one of our approaches in dismantling the stereotype that we all share the feature. For those who approach “slant” in a re-appropriated manner (such as Asian American activists who have been doing so for the past few decades), it’s more to do with our ethnic origins and how they have been systematically used to target and denigrate our communities in a like manner – the individual country of origin doesn’t matter since our community is treated as one, monolithic anyway. It’s a sword that cuts both ways: we can use it to increase our numbers, empower disparate groups, and unite what includes divided Asian communities, but it sometimes reinforces the notion that Asians are “all the same” as well.

As mentioned previously, Asian Americans have a unique perspective as being bi-cultural, descended from Asian immigrants but are often treated as perpetually foreign, as other. The Slants reflects that experience, not necessarily that of current “Asians,” though there’s no doubt that there’s a strong connection between the two.

theslants2That an attempt to give a band an edgy and catchy identity has turned into a legal, branding and licensing issue says something about how identity (as well as the music industry) works today; apart from the band wining the right to control its name and merchandizing, what do you think other self-identified Asian Americans might gain if you’re successful in this appeal?

If our band is successful in this case, it opens up the opportunity for other marginalized communities to have their re-appropriated marks to be recognized and protected as well. I hope it ensures that ethnic identities are not used as a determining factor for “scandalous” laws again, at least for trademark registration. More importantly, I hope that it inspires a conversation about race, systemic issues, and how these are deeply integrated into our law system. The law that we’re fighting has been disproportionately affecting minorities for nearly 70 years now and it exposes the lack of cultural competency (especially in the way of identity politics) of the U.S government. For example, terms like “chink,” “jap,” and “oriental,” are seen by Asian Americans as far more disparaging to our group that “slant,” yet they’re all terms that have registered trademarks. In fact, the only person to have been denied a trademark registration on the term “chink,” was an Asian American who was trying to re-appropriate it. It’s a little like my case: over 800 trademark registrations for “slant” have been submitted to the US Trademark Office. Only one, in all of US history, was denied registration for being disparaging towards Asians – and that, of course, is my application for an all-Asian American band.

Our sincere thanks to Simon for taking
the time to answer our questions.