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The Slants’ Battle Over Their Name Wages On

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Loyal readers may remember back in October of 2013 we ran a post from Simon Tam of the band The Slants. They have been engaged in a long battle with the US Trademark Office to trademark the name of their band. But the US government, always sensitive as it is to perceived racial injustice, believes the name to be a racist slur. The backstory can be read here. This is an open letter Simon Tam has written to the US Trademark Office as their battle continues.

To the US Trademark Office:

Of all government departments, you should know that the purpose of a trademark is twofold: to aid consumers in product differentiation and protect the brand investments. Yet, due to a widely criticized and outdated law from the 1940’s, you decided to reject a trademark registration for my all-Asian American band, The Slants. This legal battle has lasted over six years now and it’s time that a few things were cleared up.

 When our attorney first suggested that we file an application for trademark registration in 2009, it was after a wave of national press for our work in the Asian American community: we had just been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” for taking on stereotypes about Asians, we raised money for numerous charitable organizations, and won several community leadership awards. We never imagined that we would be denied for being too closely associated with Asian American activism.

 You cited disparagement as the reason for denial of our trademark, claiming that “The Slants” is an inherent racial slur referring to Asian Americans. In justifying your actions, you cited sources that wouldn’t even be acceptable in a junior high classroom, yet somehow seem suitable for a court of law:, a photo of Miley Cyrus, and The real joke of course is that out of the 800+ trademark applications for the term “slant,” the only one you ever rejected for being racist towards Asians is for a group of all Asians.

Also, your assertion of the facts has been incorrect. We’ve provided thousands of pages of evidence, including an independent national survey, a dictionary/linguistics expert report, dozens of Asian American leaders and organizations showing support, and more. Yet, you continued to be dismissive, calling that effort “laudable, but not influential.”

I understand that due to limited resources and lack of cultural competency of your office, mistakes may be made. However, lying in a court of law should be held accountable. For example, you misquoted me several times and mischaracterized events, claiming that one of our band’s performances was canceled “due to controversy over the name.” Yet when the steering committee of the event in question corrected you on this, stating that we were cancelled due to logistical issues (in fact, we were invited for future performances and keynote presentations), you continued to willfully assert the false claim, even before a panel of judges at the U.S Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

 When you were questioned about using my ethnicity as the basis for the denial, you backpedaled and wrote “An application by a band comprised of non Asian-Americans called THE SLANTS that displayed the mark next to the imagery used by applicant . . . would also be subject to a refusal.” The problem is that the “imagery” comprised of photos of our band – we are perpetually tied to our ethnicities, so of course a band of non-Asian Americans wouldn’t face the same issue. You’re basically suggesting that anyone can register a trademark for “The Slants” as long as they don’t look Asian American. This lack of equal protection, and in fact, enforcement of discriminatory practices is staggering.

You had several opportunities to demonstrate competency but you failed to do so. Thousands of Asian Americans raised their voices, yet you ignored them, only to favor unsupported claims and six anonymous internet posts. One of the foremost linguistics experts in the country explained the history of the term “slant,” yet you continued to rely on sources from the 1930’s and wiki-backed sites. Several organizations, including members of the Japanese American Citizens League wrote in our support, yet you distorted their words and claimed that they stood against us.

Now, we just received a Sua Sponte Hearing En Banc, and will be proceeding legal arguments before the near-full panel of federal judges. Ironically, the only Asian American judge, Raymond Cheng, has been removed from this hearing, which means that you’ll continue making decisions on behalf of the Asian Pacific Islander community without a single Asian involved.

The Federal Circuit has strictly limited the argument to the constitutionality of the law you’ve been using against us, meaning that the nuances of our case may be lost. However, we of the Asian American community have not forgotten. I’m ashamed that this type of systemic racism and results-oriented approach has a complete lack of accountability in our government.

Like so many others who have been wrongfully accused of disparagement before me, you tried to quickly shove us aside. However, know this: we are not going away. We plan to fight you every step of the way. This is about our identity, our activism, and our art. This is about the truth and your very “slanted” process.

11 replies on “The Slants’ Battle Over Their Name Wages On”

Keep up the fight , many of our government agencies need help working on clearly what is lack of cultural awareness, what is acceptable or unacceptable is categorized and one this happens it is almost impossible to correct their erroneous ways . Good luck i shared your story good luck!!!

[…] In what seemed like a century ago, we filed a simple application for a trademark registration but it turned into an unimaginable legal debacle that has spanned six years, thousands of pages of argument, when the Trademark Office decided that the band name was a racial slur. They said that my intention didn’t matter: my ethnicity provided the context for the common, everyday word to become a racial slur. The logic used by the Trademark Office is troubling: anyone may register a trademark for “Slant” except Asians. We are too Asian. But we aren’t afraid to fire back. […]

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