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Taking Back A Racial Slur Through A Trademark Fight

The Slants
Courtesy of The Slants
The Slants

In 2007 Portland bassist Simon Tam wanted to start a band that celebrates his Asian heritage, and he wanted a name that captured that pride and at the same time takes back a common racial slur.

He asked his friends what’s something that all Asians have in common. “They immediately said slanted eyes,” Tam told KUOW’s Bill Radke.

He named his band The Slants. He went to register that name for a trademark, the government told him no.

“They said there’s a law against things that are considered scandalous, immoral and disparaging, and The Slants is considered disparaging to persons of Asian descent,” Tam said.

“What’s interesting about this law is that they said a substantial composite of the reference group has to be offended. In other words, Asians as a whole have to be outraged over it,” Tam said.

In the rejection letter, included as evidence, “They did not find a single Asian who was upset, but they did find an definition, a Wikipedia entry and a photo of Miley Cyrus holding her eyes back in a slant-eyed gesture.”

Tam decided to fight back.

“I don’t think we should be drawing the line of morality on trademark registrations," he said. "If the government really cared about using trademark registrations to prevent hate speech, then they should strip trademark registrations away from the KKK and other white supremacists groups. They have never done so."

He continued, “If you take that one word away from everybody, then you’re also taking it away from the communities that need it, who can use it as a form of empowerment to gather power and to create social change.”

The Slants ultimately prevailed at the federal level and got their trademark. 

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012