Language, SCOTUS, Rock & Roll

Editor’s Note: SCOTUS is right now hearing this case.

This article is the second from our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow Amanda Ong. Amanda is an undergraduate student at Columbia University. She was born in Hong Kong to Chinese-American parents and grew up in Southern California. At Columbia, she works on the Daily Spectator and is a member of the Asian American Alliance. She is very passionate about writing as well as social justice and is continuously working towards activist causes.

The Slants with Hello Kitty

Courtesy of The Slants

As of fall of 2016, the case of Lee v. Tam will be taken to the Supreme Court, a case which, despite bringing up a unique conflict for Asian Americans and social justice, has been seldom discussed. So allow me to provide the low down on this case, in hopes that we can garner some discussion.

Lee v. Tam concerns Asian-American rock band, The Slants, and their pursuit to trademark their band name. They however were denied the right to trademark their name by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on the grounds that the name “The Slants” is offensive to Asian Americans and has been used as a racial slur. My first thought was upon hearing this—doesn’t that violate our First Amendment rights to free speech? Isn’t that unconstitutional? And I wasn’t entirely wrong. But in fact, another law (Section 2a of the Lanham Act), states that pending trademarks can be denied registration if they are derogatory to a person or group of people.

It was on these grounds that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board refused the Slants registration. The case was then brought to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where the previous decision made by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was overturned. The Federal Circuit defended this decision by stating that our first amendment rights should protect even hurtful language, and the Lanham Act is unconstitutional. Due to this discrepancy in rulings, the case is now being brought to the Supreme Court of the United States.

As this case is brought to SCOTUS, I urge the Asian American community as well as other to consider what it for the Slants to try and trademark their name. The band is attempting to trademark simply to give themselves a name, and let their name be officially recognized. They as a band, seek to identify themselves as they choose, and be acknowledged as they have chosen to identify themselves. More than that, they as a group of Asian Americans have chosen this identity, have identified with a word that has been used to insult and hurt Asian American individuals. They acknowledge that “slants” has held a negative connotation for Asian Americans, but they want to make it into something positive. They said of their name, “We want to take on these stereotypes that people have about us, like the slanted eyes, and own them. We’re very proud of being Asian – we’re not going to hide that fact. The reaction from the Asian-American community has been positive.” (source)

I cannot pretend that I have not been hurt by these kinds of words before. I cannot pretend I haven never been called slanty eyed by giggling children pulling back at the skin of their own eyelids before, or that it has not hurt me, but it is something else entirely to acknowledge that hurt, and respond by saying, what’s wrong with having eyes like mine? What’s wrong with who I am? The moment we make such a statement is a moment of power. It is a moment we claim a voice, we claim our identity.

There is a danger to this, of course, because many Asians don’t have the characteristically deemed Asian monolids, and Asians have eyes that vary greatly. By calling themselves the Slants, the band perpetuates the idea that an Asian has to look one way, that to be Asian is to have slanted eyes. There is also the possibility that other groups, seeing acceptance of the “slanty” label, believe that it is therefore okay for them to continue to disparage Asians for their “slanty” eyes. Neither of these possibilities seem beneficial to the Asian American community.

Regardless of whether or not the reclaiming of slanted eyes should be condoned or punished, we must look to the Supreme Court. There has never been an Asian American Supreme Court Justice. Even if there had been, SCOTUS as an entity should not be trying to speak for the Asian American community. For all that I am bound to respect whatever decision SCOTUS may make, I also believe that as far as I am really concerned, they should not have the power to tell a group of Asian Americans how to identify. They do not get a say in this discussion.Whatever the Asian American individual’s interpretation, we, not others, will decide our identity. It’s not whitewashing, but has the same ill feeling.

Issues of Asian American identity are given little voice in our country, and even if an issue of a band’s name seems small, it does come up and have greater implications for Asian Americans and racial relations. In the end, what is most urgent is that we garner greater Asian American representation in government, and garner together a stronger Asian American voice. I hope you join me in achieving it by furthering these discussions.

Note: The AAA-Fund welcomes a diversity of views and voices. In that spirit, the views expressed in this article are the author's own. Unless an article states that it was written by the AAA-Fund or its Board of Directors, it does not necessarily reflect the views of the AAA-Fund.

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