For the last six years, the Slants—a rock band based in Portland, Oregon—have been locked in a dispute with the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) over the band’s name. In 2010, the PTO rejected the band’s $500 application for trademark because they found the term “slants” disparaging towards Asians, using sources like Urban Dictionary and joke websites to support their claim. Band founder and bassist Simon Tam said in a recent correspondence that the PTO “denied me this right because of my race.”
The band, which consists of six American men of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, reapplied in 2011, explaining that the term “slant” has different meanings. When the PTO rejected them again, Tam asked, “Why did you choose to apply the racial connotations to this application, but you've never done that before in the entire history of this country? Why this case?” The PTO responded that it was because Tam is Asian American. The band has been working on an appeal based on their right to free speech since 2013. On April 20, 2015, the US court of appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the PTO’s decision, thus leaving the Slants without claim to their brand yet again. So far, Tam has spent over $10,000 on application and legal fees.
On CNN, attorney Marc J. Randazza writes that the court’s decision “offends” him: “...by trying to protect Asians from racism, the court issued a disturbingly racist decision based on the fact that these were, in fact, Asians who intended their band name to invoke their ethnicity.” Tam said that this case is about principle: “Not only is it important to me as an activist to be able to reappropriate or claim language, but I want to see the legal process improve. Right now, it is incredibly biased and the law we're dealing with in particular has placed undue burdens on minorities...” Tam has frequently spoken on the racism and bullying he suffered as a child. Many kids taunted him by pulling their eyes back into a slant. The band’s use of “slant” is to reclaim the word from its racist connotations. On Bitch Magazine, Tam writes, “The act of claiming an identity can be transformational. It can provide healing and empowerment. It can weld solidarity within a community. And, perhaps most importantly, it can diminish power from an oppressor, a dominant group.”
“[The PTO’s] reasoning had nothing to do with our intentions or whether Asian Americans are actually disparaged, only my ethnicity,” Tam writes on 8Asians.com. “This is why ‘the Slants’ is something that anyone can trademark, anyone except Asian Americans. This is also why you see whites trademarking terms like ‘chink,’ ‘jap,’ and ‘oriental’ without even being questioned. Asians need not apply, whites only.”
Consider the divergent cases of the Slits and Viet Cong. The all-girl English punk of the Slits sought to promote empowerment among a marginalized group through provocation and the clever reclamation of a term, whereas the all-white, Canadian Viet Cong called themselves that for over three years without a social agenda, context, or a full understanding of the phrase. In March 2015, when Viet Cong’s performance at Oberlin College was cancelled, guitarist Andy Gill of English rock band Gang of Four said that banning a band because of its name is “ridiculous”: “We can all think of dozens of bands with really quite offensive names and as soon as you get into being the guardian of public morality, taking it upon yourself to decide what's OK and what is not, you are acting in an illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive way.” Viet Cong apologized to the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities and others that took offense shortly after the cancellation.
For the Slants, Tam said, “…the government needs to reexamine how they treat free speech and…the trademark office needs to recognize legitimate forms of social and political speech.” These forms of speech, according to Tam, involve fighting the system and social structure of racism.
The major question currently at hand is whether or not the court’s decision regarding the Slants’ case will affect the decision pending the problematic trademark use of a racially derogatory term for the Washington Redskins. Some have asserted that granting the Slants trademark for their name would necessitate dismissing any cases filed against the Redskins. The important distinction here is that the Native American community has repeatedly expressed grievances about this disparaging phrase being appropriated by the NFL and billionaire, non-Native American team owner Dan Snyder, but, so far, no Asian American group petitioned against the Slants for using “slants.” In fact, a national survey has shown that Asian Americans are in favor of the Slants’ case.
Both the court and the public must recognize the distinction between the Washington Redskins’ case and the Slants’; one involves a discriminatory trademark that hurts the Native American community that has been vocal on the NFL’s inappropriate use of “redskins,” whereas the other involves a group’s creative effort towards promoting empowerment. Although the cases may be different, the effort by both groups is the same, as they are made in the name of social and racial progress in the US.
Tam said the band is currently “sitting before the Federal Circuit now,” and that they can “appeal the decision to the Supreme Court” if things don’t work out in their favor. Visit the Slants’ website for more information.
Grace Jung is the author of Deli Ideology and translator of The Abject by Lee Cheong-jun, forthcoming at Merwin Asia Publishing. She is currently producing a feature documentary entitled A-Town Boyz. She is a former Fulbright scholar. Follow her @aechjay on Twitter.
Image via Oregon Music News.