What do you call a band of Asian-Americans from Portland, Ore.? If you’re Simon Tam, you call them The Slants. Tam, the founder of the “Chinatown dance-rock” group, has been trying to trademark his band name for years, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has denied him registration on the grounds that the word, with its racially charged connotation, is offensive. This week the 32-year-old bassist plans to take his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C.
The USPTO says they do not comment on pending cases, but in denying Tam’s application officials wrote that while the “applicant, or even the entire band, may be willing to take on the disparaging term as a band name, in what may be considered an attempt … to wrest ‘ownership’ of the term,” that “does not mean that all [Asian-Americans] share the applicant’s view.” TIME spoke with Tam about racial tension, reclaiming words and what, exactly, Chinatown dance-rock is.
How did you come up with the name?
The name came before the band did. I was talking to a friend of mine and saying I want to start this all-Asian band and address some underlying issues with racism. And I said, “What do people think of when they think of an Asian? What’s a common stereotype?” He said they all have slanted eyes and I thought: The Slants. It actually sounds like a fun, 80s, New Wave-kind of band. And it’s a play on words. We can share our personal experiences about what it’s like being people of color—our own slant on life, if you will. It’s also a musical reference. There are slant guitar chords that we use in our music.
But, primarily, the name is a reference to physical features and racial stereotypes.
That’s where we got the inspiration, but our use of the term is to share our own personal experiences … Early on, we had several occasions where non-Asians who didn’t understand our band would call us racist because we wanted to only have Asian-American members. People buy into this false notion of reverse racism, where they believe that just because there’s a group of people getting together to share something about their heritage that we’re excluding white people. But that’s not the reality, just like an all-girl group is not a sexist group.
Your latest release, the Yellow Album, also plays on a sometimes derogatory word. Are you trying to reclaim words like yellow and slant for Asian-Americans?
Prior to the term Asian becoming in vogue, the term that the Asian-American community used [to describe themselves] was “yellow.” It’s empowering when people use it and embrace it as part of their identity. The words don’t necessarily have to be loaded down with this historical context. It’s almost like social justice achieved through linguistic change. And on top of that, there’s a fun musical play. The Beatles had the White Album, Jay-Z had the Black Album and we have the Yellow Album.
Is it possible for people to be legitimately offended by the band name?
I think it is a legitimate concern but the problem is that the trademark office is assuming that Asian-Americans are actually offended when they’re not. We play Asian cultural festivals all over North America, and not once have people complained about the name being derogatory. [The USPTO referenced articles reporting that event organizers had canceled a performance at an Asian youth conference because "they found The Slants’ name to be offensive." Update: Tam says the evidence is 'distorted' and that concern was over objectionable lyrics, not the band name.] Asian-Americans understand it as a term that we can use in an empowering manner. In my opinion, the concern is a little misguided. We have people being offended on behalf of our community, yet they’re denying us rights.
How would you describe your interactions with the U.S. government in trying to trademark the name?
We applied as recommended by our attorney. It’s just a normal thing that bands do. We got the rejection and it cited section 2a of the Lanham Act [which prohibits “immoral” and “scandalous” trademarks], saying our name was disparaging to persons of Asian descent … This law was scripted in the ’40s. Who would ever think to talk about race and how minority communities identify themselves in the ’40s? Nobody. We didn’t even have a civil rights law passed yet.
You call your sound Chinatown dance-rock. What is that, exactly?
It’s a symbolic identifier of our music. Chinatowns in general comprise many immigrants of many different Southeast Asian cultures, not just China. Yet people lump them up and think it’s all about dim sum or something. But a lot of new immigrants have to band together and work together, and we all come from different heritages. In terms of actual music, we have a bit of ’80s dance in us but we also bring the rock’n’roll.
What are the ethnicities of the band members?
In the current lineup, we have Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Filipino.
How much of your band is about music and how much is advocacy for Asian-Americans?
It’s almost as if in the day time, we’re doing workshops and addressing racism. And on the weekends, we say we’re melting faces off with rock’n’roll … I describe myself as an American. But it’s interesting that I can’t describe myself as an American without a hyphen in front of it. People have to say, “What are you? Chinese-American? Asian-American?” and so on.
A name like The Slants seems to draw attention to the fact that there is another part of your identity you want people to consider. How do you balance emphasizing sameness and difference when you’re making a statement about race?
It’s a complex situation. I don’t subscribe to the notion of seeing no color, that we’re all the same and race doesn’t exist. It’s a social and political reality that we live in. The problem when people say we should concentrate on similarities is that they’re ignoring glaring parts of our humanness—our skin, perhaps the color of our hair, the way we speak, or even the shape of our eyes.
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.