A few years ago, I filed a trademark application for my band, The Slants. The US Trademark Office rejected it, claiming it was disparaging towards Asians. I was baffled: I’m Asian. At first, we fought it by collecting testimonies and letters of support from Asian American organizations; having several independent surveys done (they showed the majority of Asian Americans supported us), getting linguistics studies, and so on. Over the years, we have sent over 2,500 pages of evidence.
However, the Trademark Office defended their decision. They used internet sources such as urbandictionary.com, Asian joke websites, and several dictionaries from the early 1940’s.
So, we started digging deeper. Rather than focusing on their accusation of offensive behavior, we started questioning why they accused us to begin with. Afterall, “slant” can mean any number of things and the racial connotation obscure anyway. Why was did they have problems with my application but no the dozens of others who were approved? We got the answer back and it was disturbing. The issue had nothing to do with how we used the name, the decision was made based on my race.
Obviously, I believe that re-appropriation can be a powerful tool for creating social change. Sometimes, things like irony, satire, or humor are more effective in getting at difficult truths or concepts like white privilege, orientalism, and the exoticization of culture.
However, let’s push all the arguments about re-appropriation or intentions aside and focus on the real issue: people should not be denied rights because of their race.
As anti-racist essayist Tim Wise notes, institutionalized racism is the “policies, practices and procedures-both formal and informal-in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others…because of their respective racial identities. [It] involves denying persons opportunities…on the basis of race, to which those individuals are otherwise entitled.”
The Trademark Office admitted that the term “slant” is not an inherently offensive one; the reason why they chose to associate me with a racial slur was because “it is uncontested that applicant is a founding member of a band…composed of members of Asian descent…thus, the association.”
Their reasoning had nothing to do with our intentions or whether Asian Americans are actually disparaged, only my ethnicity. 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.
The deadline they gave us for our appeal was Feb 19th, anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the initiative which led to the detainment of Japanese Americans. Has the government not learned anything in 71 years?
Our case is a public record, feel free to read about it on JD Supra Law News.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Simon is best known as the founder of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. Simon’s approach to social justice and activism has been highlighted in thousands of media features across 82 countries, including: NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Bloomberg News, MSNBC, USA Today, Huffington Post, MTV, The Los Angeles Times, ELLE Magazine, and MyxTV.