Day of Judgment

After a Supreme Court ruling goes his way, a musician realized winning can be complicated.

Violet Reed

I woke that Monday morning in June bleary with exhaustion after a month of fifteen-hour workdays. As I stumbled to the restroom, I caught a glimpse of the light on my phone: 753 notifications.

I fumbled with the device as I read Oregon Public Broadcasting’s tweet: “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of @theslants.” Then I opened my e-mail and saw my attorney’s one-word note: “Congratulations.”

A file was attached to the e-mail. My hands shook as I opened it. I read through the document, trying to work my way through the dense legal opinion written by Justice Alito. I wanted to know if the court was divided, what the justices actually said, how my life’s work had been judged by the nation’s highest court. 

I’d just spent the previous eight years of my life fighting for the right to register the name of my band, the Slants, as a trademark. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, the government had used laughable sources like UrbanDictionary.com and photos of Miley Cyrus to defend its position that the name was disparaging to Asians and denied us trademark registration, despite national surveys, dictionary experts, and community leaders supporting our work. They put us through countless legal hoops for almost a decade, hoping we'd simply give up, but I pressed on because I believe self-representation is an inherent right. It was eight years that I would never get back. And the considerable debt I’d accumulated as a result of fighting this legal battle would follow me for much longer. 

I texted my publicist: “Supreme court ruled in our favor.” Then I published a statement on the Slants’ website and social media accounts.

A call from a reporter. Then another. My e-mail count was doubling every few seconds; it had been thirty minutes since the decision was released, and I was already at two thousand messages. 

My publicist texted me back: “Fuck yeah. I’ll get press release out. Will be a busy day!!! Congrats!!!” 

As we set up interviews with reporters, I quickly scanned the news and saw how most major media outlets had begun reporting on the ruling: “Washington Redskins Win Supreme Court Decision,” “Redskins Score Major Victory in Supreme Court Case,” “Offensive Speech Now OK Says Supreme Court.” 

I clicked on the only headline that mentioned the band’s name, and a photo of a Redskins football helmet appeared on my screen.

For years, I’d dreamt of this moment, imagining how it would feel to be a part of the legacy of social justice, even if it was only through an obscure legal ruling. I imagined that the curiosity about our David versus Goliath case would cause people to look at how the law was being applied: inconsistently, subjectively, and improperly. In my dreams, people were finally paying attention to the narrative of the marginalized, not talking about football teams. 

By ruling that we had the right to trademark our band name, the Slants—a term that some Asians considered offensive—the Supreme Court affirmed our right to choose our name, free of government censorship. But the decision, made on the basis of the protection of free speech, might also be used to allow other entities with potentially offensive names to register or protect their trademarks—and not all of these entities had social justice in mind.

The euphoria that I was expecting was instead replaced with dread and disgust. Our struggle had been reframed into a narrative around a racist football team. I knew what the inevitable follow-up would be: the collective anger about Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins and one of the most hated men in football, was going to come my way.

Throughout the day, I received hundreds, if not thousands, of congratulations from friends, colleagues, attorneys, and fans. But I also received a flurry of tweets and e-mails from a number of individuals expressing their dismay about what seemed to be a victory for Snyder, as well. And on that day, I was the person who had made this possible. The court’s decision on trademark registration law was seen as opening the floodgates of hate speech. I was accused of perpetuating the work of colonizers, of single-handedly dooming longtime efforts to remove racist mascots from pro sports. 

I tried to address some of these concerns by offering clarity around our process and how trademark laws work. I tried to express how the law I’d been fighting had allowed the government to deny rights based on people’s race, gender, and sexual orientation. I even explained that I’d met with people from more than a hundred social justice groups, including many tribal leaders. I wanted to engage with people with sincerity and empathy, but on Twitter, my words only seemed to create greater fury, harsher personal accusations of bad will and selfish motivations. On a day that should have been about victory, I felt frustrated, confused, and sad.

I don’t even know how many interviews I did that day. Some went well, but some—the ones where interviewers hadn’t done even basic research about the band or our case—didn’t. During one of these, I said with irritation, “You can Google that—all of the info is on the website.” 

My wife, Faina, overheard and looked surprised. She’d seen me deftly handle interview after interview over the years, but she had never seen my veneer crack in public.

Shortly after that interview, my phone buzzed again. It was Spencer, my friend and attorney, who many years earlier had recommended I apply for a trademark registration.

“Congratulations!” he said. “I wanted to wait all day to call because I knew you’d be busy and probably overwhelmed. I hope you’re celebrating.”

I responded that I’d mostly been doing interviews, but he heard something in my voice. He asked me if I was OK; in ten years, he’d never heard me like this.

I told him I was just really tired and hadn’t had time to process it all. “I think I’m happy,” I said. “I’m probably excited. I snapped at the last reporter, though, because I’m sick of the misunderstanding about this case and our band.”

“Listen,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this all day. There were so many times where you could have given up. But you didn’t. You had every opportunity to just stop, and no one would have blamed you. You kept fighting because you saw an injustice. Everyone else in history just gave up fighting this law because it was too tough. You stuck with your principles. And you won.” 

Hearing his words helped me get through the next interviews. But I still felt troubled. While I wasn’t directly taught the ideas of guanxì or miànzi, the Chinese concept of “saving face” by my family, it was still imparted in how we interacted with others. As children, we were told not to contradict people, especially in public, and even more so if they were our elders or strangers. Nevertheless, it was heartbreaking to see my mom smile and nod to store clerks who would make fun of her accent, as if she couldn’t understand what they were doing. The worst was when these were customers in our family’s restaurant. My mom would be extra kind to them, even when it was extremely degrading.

“I want some flied lice! Chicken flied liiiice,” they’d say with a chuckle.

“Chicken fah-ride rice,” would be her response. She’d speak more slowly, trying to carefully articulate each syllable. “Anything else?”

“Egg frow-wah soup.” More stifled laughter.

“No problem,” she’d say with a smile.

In the back, I would tell her that the customers were being rude. But she would scold me instead. She never wanted to upset them, to cause a scene. She believed in killing people with kindness: always be respectful and things would work out sooner or later. She didn’t want to let others get a rise out of her; it was her method of being subversive.

My father was a bit different. Though he had a short temper, he was also good-humored and thought many of the microaggressions he dealt with in his life were harmless jokes. He’d often joke back, tit for tat. When I asked him how he dealt with people who were mistreating him, he’d respond, “Fight back!” But when it came to family members, especially those who were being misogynistic or homophobic, he’d admonish them in private so it wouldn’t “lower their face” in front of others.

As I got older, I developed my own sense of justice and my own ways of fighting back. In addition to my parents’ approaches to dealing with injustice, I absorbed what I thought of as a kind of American bravado: not caring what others thought doing what I thought was right, even if it was controversial, misinterpreted, or cost me some pride. And though I didn’t care what people thought of me, I did worry that my actions might cause suffering to others. 

So on the day of my so-called First Amendment victory, I felt a tumultuous mix of trepidation and sorrow for those who felt that a primary protection against offensive speech had been lost. I also felt exhilaration at knowing that the win liberated marginalized groups from government overreach and inequitable processes.

I felt as if my heart were on a pendulum, wildly swinging from one side to another, but without the ability to stop and process the experience. Almost eight years of my life—about 2,800 days—had been poured into this battle for self-identity. But I hadn’t had even a second to pause in solitude and reflect on the outcome. When reporters and angry activists pulled me to one side, comments like those from Spencer brought me back to my center. I didn’t care what other people thought; I cared about how they felt. The problem was, I didn’t know how I felt.

After the final scheduled interview of the day, I went out to dinner with Faina for a low-key celebration. My mental and emotional state remained a graded blend of bittersweet contradictions. I was weary, as if all eight years of my journey were being experienced in one day.

Throughout dinner my phone screamed at me like a petulant child, and I tried to ignore it. Faina said I looked depressed. I mustered up all of the positivity I could and we talked about happier things instead. We wondered what life would be like moving away, starting over, and living without the expectations of others pressing down on us. I had spent so much of my life focusing on the idea of expanding liberty for others, but right then, I just wanted liberation from my own life. 

When we got home it was 8:00 p.m. and still sunny. I’d promised Faina I’d mow the lawn, and even winning a Supreme Court ruling couldn’t get me out of that chore.

I started up the electric mower and began crisscrossing my way across the yard. A moment of panic set in: I couldn’t hear my phone or feel its incessant vibrating notifications over the whine and bumps of the mower, but I knew it was ringing and beeping. I didn’t answer it. I stopped mowing and turned the phone off.

As I mowed, I finally had some peace in which to think and consider everything that had taken place: the trip to the Supreme Court in January, the weeks I’d spent on the road talking to law students and experts about our story, the recent wedding to Faina. Words and emotions swirled, kicking up memories like the blades of grass flying around me and sticking to my skin.

Some of the messages of pain and anger replayed in my mind. Comments about me being self-absorbed and apathetic about the plight of others seared through me. It didn’t matter if my critics knew me or truly understood the nuances of obscure trademark laws or not: my heart ached at their suffering. I knew that they might even be right.

I also thought about Spencer’s words and those of people I’d met over the years who’d sent their personal congratulations. People who understood the pain of having the power to self-identify stripped away. The ruling would return that power to them. Maybe they were right, too. Striving for justice doesn’t always mean universal consensus, as differing efforts to create a more equitable world will sometimes create apparent winners on one side and losers on the other. 

The oft-quoted words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. rang through my mind: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, most folks aren’t aware of the original quotation that King was paraphrasing: part of an 1853 sermon written by abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, it reads: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. … I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” And they often forget that the arc doesn’t bend on its own. It requires patience, persistence, and people who are willing to do the work.

I continued working my way around the yard, meditatively going over the contours. My heart’s palpitations slowed, and calm started to settle in. This isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. I can help those who are hurting. I can find peace in this process, too, even if things unfolded differently than I thought they would.

I thought back to January 18, the day we were in oral arguments at the Supreme Court. As I eagerly watched arguments unfolding before the justices of the court, my frustration grew. They continued to use my name and the name of my band, but none of them knew our work. They couldn’t grasp what it meant to have the dignity of self-identification. 

As I walked down the steps of the high court, two teenagers approached me. They told me they were from California, freshmen in high school who had convinced their parents to let them skip school to be there in DC. They said that they wanted to go into careers working on public policy because of me. 

“For almost our entire lives, we heard about the band who was willing to fight for us, for our community,” one of them said. “You were willing to stand up when everyone else just accepted things the way they were.” 

That memory reminded me why I fought for so long, why I started the Slants to begin with: to represent my community. 

Not long after the decision, Faina and I moved across the country to Nashville, Tennessee, though my band still resides in Oregon. The move gave me an emotional and spiritual reset. It allowed me to start a new nonprofit organization that uses the platform of the Slants to provide scholarships and mentorship to artists of color who want to engage in activism. I had done what I could—now it was their turn.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

I don't give a flying f*** about the general public. It's about how we define ourselves and you're not going to do it for us. If you don't have the faculties to understand that context, usage, and intention matters in language, that's on you. We're moving forward.

Gen | September 2018 |

This case sets a precedent for racist names getting an official government trademark and in the process promotes racism. That is the main result. All the convoluted arguments about reappropriation are lost on the general public. Due to ego and self interest you wanted to win and get your 15 minutes of fame and you were oblivious to the larger context. I would like to have seen your parents kick out the racists from their restaurant. Can't really blame them for not doing so, they probably felt vulnerable and figured it was safer to play along. Unfortunately you have done the same kind of thing by putting a racist name on your band. You call yourself a troublemaker. However there are more similarities to Uncle Tom than being a rebel.

Mark | September 2018 |

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