Slanting toward Reappropriation

The Slants are a Portland-based, Asian American rock band who has been fighting to trademark their name for the past six years. Their band name refers to the slur used against Asian Americans for the shape of their eyes, and under current trademarking laws, it is not possible to register racial slurs. However, frontman Simon Tam believes blocking their trademark request to be unconstitutional, which is why earlier this year he took his case to the Supreme Court. A decision is expected to be passed down in June, so until then, let’s examine the context and circumstances that led to this court case.

When The Slants first formed, they were the first of their kind: an Asian American dance rock band. They were pioneering the rock music scene as Asian Americans, so their novelty brought them attention. Their debut album was named top 5 Asian-American albums of 2007 by AsiaXpress, a website devoted to Asian American arts and entertainment. The Portland Music Awards also voted their debut as “Album of the Year”. That is to say, they have support among Asian American communities and even beyond. Their name was not an issue among any communities until the U.S. Trademark office refused to register their trademark request. For this case, the Slants conducted a survey where they found 98% of Asian Americans supported their use of the word. As a band, The Slants have performed nearly a thousand shows over the course of their existence.  An expert report by a linguist submitted to the Supreme Court for consideration found the “slant” to be an archaic term of disparagement, a description quite removed from the category of slur.

Tam believes reappropriation to be a tool of social change, so his band name is actually empowering to the Asian American community according to him. He believes that the linguistic change transforms the negative connotation into something more positive and socially just. It is his attempt to dismantle the hegemony though the legal system. (A futile attempt in my honest opinion, since the legal system itself is steeped in hegemonic oppression.) This band fully tries to sell its Asian American identity and with it, the empowerment of reclaiming a word typically used as an insult. According to a Columbia Law Review article, a self-disparaging term raises doubts as to whether the term is actually disparaging at all. It also makes the claim that reappropriation disarms historically hateful speech. The Slants are staking a claim for Asian American identity in this word.

The material discrimination of The Slants case has merit. Since they are unable to trademark their name, they are unable to license merchandising. This is a loss in possible profits. This capitalist society values revenue as a form of success, so this trademark is inhibiting their ability to succeed as a band. It also devalues their labor. When they put work into their music, they get a smaller return on their efforts as opposed to a band who is able to trademark their name. As a band of color in a country that has historically undervalued the labors of POC, this trademark refusal amounts to another example of the bamboo ceiling and how far Asian Americans are allowed to go and how much success they are allowed to have.

The Slants, though subpar in their musical efforts, are raising an important issue of race relations in the United States. The first person to have issue with their name was the Patent and Trademark Office, a federal institution, and not the many Asian Americans they have performed for over the years. In June, the highest court in the land will decide whether to award the trademark to the Slants. In June, we will find out if the bamboo ceiling has splintered even just a bit.

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