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A Slanted View

by Simon Tam

I play bass in what’s often known as the first and only all-Asian American dance rock band in the world. We perform at many of the largest Asian cultural festivals in North America. We’ve been featured in and on over 1,500 radio stations, websites, magazines, and tv shows talking about the Asian American experience. My band members and I often facilitate workshops on cultural diversity, racism, and stereotypes about Asian and Asian American culture. In fact, when you look up information on the band, it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t associate us with Asian American culture, which is why when the U.S Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) said that our band was disparaging to persons of Asian descent, I was rather shocked.

The name that I and my cohort of pan-Asian Americans chose for the band is The Slants. We deliberately chose this outdated, generational term to inject pride into Asian American culture. Because of the broad support that we’ve had from Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) — not only from media and blogs, but lifelong activists who are aware of the sensitivities of the community at large — we never expected the USPTO to have an issue when we filed for a trademark on the band’s name.

The Trademark Office doesn’t allow terms that are deemed disparaging to be approved. In order for them to reject an application for a trademark on these grounds, they have to show that a substantial composite of the referenced group are offended by the word.

When we responded to the Trademark Office with evidence of support from the community, we included dozens of examples of Asian Pacific American media supporting our band. Well-known lifelong APA activists wrote letters of support for our use of the name. We also showed other examples of Asian Americans using the term “Slant” in a positive manner, such as major APA Film Festival “Slant” and Chicago-based TV show “The Slant.”

So what kind of evidence did the USPTO bring to demonstrate the collected outrage of APAs who are offended by our name?

First, they cited UrbanDictionary.com. Then they found an anonymous post on a message board from someone who said they didn’t like our name. After that, they put in photographs of Miley Cyrus making a slant-eye gesture. They sent this to us along with a rejection letter that said the vast support we demonstrated from the APA community was “laudable” but not influential.

This is what angers me the most: the Trademark Office decided that anonymous wiki sources mattered more than the voice of Asian Americans. Why does a government agency that has no connection with APAs have the right to dictate what is appropriate for our community? Why don’t we have the right to decide for ourselves?

Our plight reminds me of another case. You might know of the NFL team The Washington Redskins. The litigation over their name has been going on since 1992; however, in this case, the Trademark Office continues to defend the name despite formal objections, legal challenges and lawsuits from Native Americans who find the term “Redskins” to be an offensive racial slur. Again, a government agency that has no connection with the referenced community is making decisions as to what is appropriate or offensive for them. In our case, they deny our trademark in the absence of any valid complaints from Asian Americans. With Native Americans, they continue to defend “Redskins” even in the face of formal objections.

The role of the government shouldn’t include deciding what a group can define themselves, as that right should belong to the community itself. While I would love to win the trademark to protect my band’s name – and frankly to end the process because it’s been a long and expensive one – this case is bigger than “The Slants.” This will help determine what other community groups can do in the future.

Perhaps what I find most disturbing about all of this is that in the entire history of the United States Trademark Office, there has only been one case that triggered the “race” issue when it comes to the term “slant.” That’s my case. None of the dozens of other applications were even flagged for having a possible derogatory connection with the Asian community. They believe that because I am of Asian descent myself (unlike the other trademark applicants in the past), people will automatically associate it with Asian culture at large. In other words, if a non-Asian applicant was trying to trademark “The Slants,” this would not be an issue.

Sure, I could probably sidestep this if I let someone with a more “white” sounding name apply for this trademark on my behalf or if I replace everyone in my band with non-Asians, but that would not change the law for everyone else who is not part of the dominant culture being unfairly targeted by this law. I want to change this outdated, biased law.

Then again, my view is a little “slanted.”

Marylhurst community, would you join me in this endeavor? Are you interested in being a part of changing history for communities affected by poor laws? Whether you are studying law, business, intercultural exchange or you just want to be a part of something that is meaningful to us as Americans, I would love to talk to you more about joining the cause. It doesn’t take much, just a willing heart. Please send me an email at simontam@theslants.com.

Simon Tam is a musician, author, marketer and social justice activist. He is currently pursuing an MBA at Marylhurst University and can be found at simontam.biz and Twitter @SimonTheTam. A different version of this article was published in Where Are You From? An Anthology of Asian American Writing (2012).

Photo: The Slants, photographed by Ro Tam