U-M faculty discuss reclaiming oppressive language


A group of University of Michigan faculty members recently gathered at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library for a panel discussion focused on the commercial use of derogatory terms used against targeted groups.

The discussion, co-hosted by the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program and the student group WeListen, comes on the heels of a concert that took place on campus last week featuring The Slants.

The Slants are an Asian-American dance rock band that made national headlines last year for resolving a nearly eight-year fight with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over the use of their group name in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Publicly discussing Matal v. Tam — which called into question the trademarking of disparaging terminology — aligns with the university’s continued effort to explore the idea of free speech in an ever-evolving contemporary democracy.

In the case, the Supreme Court struck down the section of a federal trademark law that prohibited the use of disparaging and offensive terms. The trademark office had cited part of a 71-year-old trademark law, Section 2A of the Lanham Act, when it prohibited Simon Tam, the band’s lead singer, from registering The Slants, a slur against Asians, as the name of the band.

After the case made its way through the lower court system, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the disparagement clause as a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

“One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric,” said Leonard M. Niehoff, professor from practice at the Law School, citing a Supreme Court majority opinion, written by Justice John Marshall Harlan in 1971. Niehoff shared the line to reinforce the idea that even unpopular speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Repurposing a slur

The idea of reclaiming or appropriating a word that was at one time pejorative is not new.

Larwrence La Fontain-Stokes, associate professor of American culture, romance languages and literatures, and women’s studies, and Amy Stillman, professor of American culture, and musicology, spoke of marginalized communities turning negative words, symbols or ideas into positive parts of their identity by repurposing an epithet or taking on a stereotype for sociopolitical empowerment.

With a literal meaning of unusual, strange or odd, the word “queer” was once seen as a pejorative towards members of the LGBT community. However, at the height of the AIDS advocacy movement, groups started to reclaim it. Today, young people and even academics regularly use the label.

“’Queer’ is a complex term that has gone through a variety of iterations,” said Stokes. “It’s interesting that the term ‘queer’ still maintains that edge that for some people. It is still a controversial term and a dangerous term for some but for others it has become normal.”

Presenting additional stereotypes faced by Asian communities, Stillman explained the meaning and origins of “Yellow Peril,” a term that describes racial fear of Asian culture disrupting Western values.

Stillman said people in the United States of Asian heritage have faced a history of prejudice, hatred and exclusion from the moment of their arrival in this country. She said the idea of “Yellow Peril” gave way to massive quantities of xenophobic literature, cartoons and visual representations, but in more recent decades there has also been a shift with how the term is used.

“It is also representative of Asian-American studies scholarship that is taking ‘Yellow Peril’ and addressing it head on,” she said. “With scholars and artist using ‘Yellow Peril’ in the titles of books, exhibits and papers. Further appropriation is using the term ‘yellow,’ which was originally disparaging for Asian people and turning it into ‘Yellow Power,’ an activist movement.”

While the Matal v. Tam ruling highlights the empowerment of some marginalized groups looking to recoup derogatory terms used against them, it seems to pose potential challenges for other minority groups.

For years, Native American activists have taken issue with the name and mascot of the Washington, D.C., NFL franchise, the Washington Redskins.

Team owners — who are not Native American — strongly dispute any racism behind the mascot and won’t change it, arguing the Redskins name honors “where we came from, who we are.”

Bethany Hughes, assistant professor of American culture with the Native American Studies Program, presented important questions to the group such as, “Who should be able to own a disparaging term and what is the exact percentage that would compel society, including lawmakers, to value one group’s opinion (of a disparaging term) over another?”

Since the Tam ruling, the football team has since won its own trademark fight. A group of Native American activists led by Amanda Blackhorse, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, gave up their longstanding court efforts to ban the team from using that name.

“The First Amendment has a kind of fearful symmetry to it,” Niehoff said explaining the potential negative and positive outcomes that can come from rulings made about free speech. “Whatever you get on one side, you get on the other side as well.”


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