University faculty talk reclaiming derogatory terms, The Slants Supreme Court decision

Monday, September 17, 2018 - 8:43pm

LSA professor Matthew Countryman speaks on issues of free speech and hate speech at a discussion session hosted by A/PIA studies and WeListen at Hatcher Graduate Library Monday evening.

LSA professor Matthew Countryman speaks on issues of free speech and hate speech at a discussion session hosted by A/PIA studies and WeListen at Hatcher Graduate Library Monday evening. Buy this photo
Alice Liu/Daily

University of Michigan students and faculty discussed issues of free speech, derogatory terms and minority groups’ efforts to reclaim these terms Monday night at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. The Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Department and student group WeListen hosted the event, which used the example of The Slants — an Asian-American rock band who went to the U.S. Supreme Court to trademark their name — as a starting point for the presentations and WeListen discussion.

Last week, the A/PIA Department invited The Slants to campus for a concert and a keynote lecture discussing their case. The Slants band name originated as an attempt to reclaim the derogatory term for the A/PIA community. Their trademark was rejected in 2010, but after years of legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled the government could not deny trademark protection to names considered derogatory.

Five University faculty members spoke on the topic, including a free speech and hate speech specialist from the Law School and several ethnic studies professors. John Kuwada, director of A/PIA studies, said he reached out to faculty with diverse backgrounds and research interests to speak at the event.

“I asked faculty who had quite a bit of experience with this idea and I tried to cover the whole wide range,” Kuwada said. “There’s a lot of slurs out there. These things are very nuanced and very complex.”

Former A/PIA Director Amy Stillman also spoke on The Slants case, showcasing a quote from lead singer Simon Tam about why he chose the band name. He wanted to use the word “slant” to present the band’s perspective, or slant, on life as people of color in the entertainment industry. She reiterated a question Tam brought up in his lecture the week before.

“The question he really put forward in his concert last week is Shouldn’t a community really have the right to name itself?’” Stillman said. 

The panelists’ presentations went beyond The Slants case with panelists discussing their own areas of specialty. Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, an associate professor in the American Culture Department who specializes in LGBTQ and Hispanic Caribbean studies, spoke about examples of reclaiming derogatory terms such as “queer.” Law professor Leonard Niehoff discussed the legal complexities of the case. Bethany Hughes, an assistant professor in the American Culture Department who focuses on Native American studies, talked about the infamous Washington Redskins football team.

The Redskins, Niehoff noted, are an example of a group benefitting from the Supreme Court decision and are not reclaiming a hate term for empowerment purposes. Niehoff explained how other organizations too, like the Ku Klux Klan, could potentially use this case to trademark hate speech of their own.

“The First Amendment has a kind of fearful symmetry to it,” Niehoff said. “Whatever you get on one side, you get on the other side as well.”

Building on this idea, Matthew Countryman, an associate professor of American Culture, noted how the meaning and intent of a disparaging word alters based on which side is using it, specifically focusing on the use of the n-word in white and Black communities. He also discussed further complexities within the Black community about whether the n-word should be used at all, recalling a debate between two great African-American thinkers during his freshman year of college.

“I have this very distinct memory when I was a college freshman of... the African-American literary community arguing about the word,” Countryman said. “(We argued) about whether or not it was evidence of the power of a kind of internalized self-hatred in the Black community or whether it was proof of a sense of masculine solidarity in those communities. It’s always a contested question, whether or not it’s possible to reclaim the word.”

Following the panelists’ presentations, WeListen split attendees into dialogue groups to discuss the issue. LSA senior Eli Rachlin, a leader of WeListen, talked about the importance of The Slants case and how he hopes the discussion will delve into deeper themes.

“It pertains in a lot of way to that Supreme Court case, but also in a broader sense just the idea of reclaiming derogatory terms, which shows up in many situations,” Rachlin said.

LSA freshman Zhehao Tong said as an international student, he has much to learn about reclaiming hate terms. He appreciated the panelists’ speeches, saying they encouraged him to look more closely into these issues.

“(The panelists) gave me a clear picture of the current situation of hate speech and reclamation,” Tong said. “Also a lot of things they talked about really provoked me to think deeper and so gave me a direction of what is the key I need in order to grasp this sort of thing.”