In middle school, Simon Tam was jumped by four older kids on the playground. They hit him on the back of his head with a basketball, then pushed him down hard into loose gravel. One of them threw sand at his face.

“Look at this Jap!” one shouted. “I can’t believe sand can even fit in those slits!” More insults, more laughter.

Tam stood up and blurted: “I’m a chink! Get it right! You guys are so stupid, you can’t even be racist right.” Astonished and confused, the bullies quit — and walked away.

Tam is still standing up for his principles. His compelling memoir, “Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court,” is about keeping true to his punk-rock heart and making history through an eight-year fight to get a trademark registration from the government for his all-Asian American band’s name, the Slants. “Nobody starts a band thinking that they’re going to go to the Supreme Court,” he writes. But his book tells the fascinating and important tale of exactly how that happened to him — and what it means for others.

Tam grew up in Southern California, where his parents, who had emigrated from China and Taiwan, owned a restaurant. At 10, he chose to play bass, because he saw it as the underdog of rock band instruments. At 23, he decided — while watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” — to start an Asian American band. It was the first time he saw an American film that depicted “Asians as cool, confident and sexy,” he explains.

With a catchy Depeche Mode-inspired sound, the Slants sing politically pointed lyrics and are known for their community activism. In 2012, in a Portland, Ore., coffee shop, a rep from a major-label record company presented Tam with a $4 million offer. But there was a hitch: He must replace the lead singer with someone white.

Tam thought of how his parents had sacrificed so much for him — and wanted him to be a man of values. He tore the contract in half.

He needed the money, but accepting those terms would undermine everything he’d been fighting for. By that time, Tam was three years into expensive legal proceedings. Tam had applied to register a trademark for the band’s name — a process a friend assured him would cost only a few hundred dollars and take a few months.

The Patent and Trademark Office rejected Tam’s application on the grounds that the band’s name is “disparaging.” Under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act of 1946, trademarks could not be registered if they were considered disparaging to “a substantial composite of the referenced group.” Tam told his lawyer-friend that the Slants had done anti-racism work for years and that Asian Americans make up its biggest group of supporters. “Who did the Trademark Office say was actually offended by our name?” Tam asked.

“No one. Not a single person,” his friend said. “But they did cite, and there are photos of Miley Cyrus pulling her eyes back in a slant-eye gesture.”

Tam appealed, after working to make sure that “the views of actual Asian Americans across the country” were used as evidence — legal declarations from “respected leaders of the Asian American community” and reports from the Asian American media that “celebrated the work of our band.” The Trademark Office rejected the appeal in December 2010.

“The government believed that they were protecting Asian Americans from ourselves,” Tam writes. But “they were imposing their own ideas of justice and order on us, without actually consulting what we wanted. ... That’s the ultimate privilege: being able to live in a world where you can determine what racism looks like for other people.”

Tam moved forward with his “battle for self-identity.” His trademark case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where he won. The Department of Justice and the Trademark Office appealed the Federal Circuit decision. On Jan. 18, 2017, the Supreme Court heard Matal v. Tam as a First Amendment case. In June of that year, the court ruled unanimously in Tam’s favor.

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