My slant on The Slants and other Asian American “N” words

Simon Tam is both the manager and the bass player of a rock group known as The Slants.

Are you offended yet?

Tam, 30, came up with the idea for an Asian American, 80s dance-rock band four years ago. With members of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Filipino descent, his band is a Pan Asian Flock of Seagulls, with a little Depeche Mode thrown in.

When it came time to name their musical conglomeration, they all looked at each other and noticed their eyes had the same shape. They’d heard the adjectival term “slant-eye” but hadn’t felt the sting.

They were just looking at themselves.

“None of us heard it as a racist term before,” Tam said to me by phone last week. I had a hard time believing that. But then Tam told me about the real racism he’s personally experienced.

He said despite being born in the U.S., having Chinese immigrant parents got him placed in an ESL program in elementary school. And even in California, he noticed whites and non-Asians often targeted him.

“I was bullied,” Tam said.

It happened frequently, at least five or six times, he said. They would chase him, or throw rocks and balls at him, knocking him down at school. “It was bullying and teasing,” Tam said. “They would call me chink or gook, sometimes Jap. But I was born here, I was an American.”

Chink, gook and Jap are our “N” words. That’s what Tam heard.

Back then no one called him a “slant.”

Maybe your detractors were slightly more inventive than his. Tam had the garden variety type, but he was still traumatized. “For a number of years I was ashamed of saying I was Asian American,” said Tam. “I told my father, I was ashamed of being Chinese.”

The electric bass became Tam’s refuge, and after high school, Tam followed his musical dream to Portland. That’s where he learned to embrace his Asian American heritage and now works as an activist by day and a musician at night. To him, calling the band The Slants was a point of pride. And if it’s known as a slur to some generations, he wanted to take it back for all Asian Americans and own it.

But then he noticed some other bands, non-Asians, using the name The Slants, to ridicule Asians. That’s when he decided to own the name officially. He sought protection of his positive branding of the term through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Twice he has applied for a trademark on the group’s good name , and twice he has been rejected.

The reason? Section 2(a) of the 1946 Trademark Act, disapproves of a trademark that “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage …”

The Patent Office does have to show a substantial composite of the group in question is offended. But Tam said no such evidence was included in the findings.

“They used an definition that said “slant” was a racial slur. That was it,” he said.

The Patent Office didn’t respond to my calls by deadline.

Tam also said the Patent Office used a photo of Miley Cyrus stretching her eyes in a slant to prove its point. Tam found that offensive, but there is a real difference here between Cyrus slanting her eyes and what the Slants are doing.

Cyrus’ action is indeed offensive racist mimicking.

The Slants are just updating a word and making it positive.

So he appealed last year. The answer was the same.

It would seem that the Patent Office is trying to protect its right to political correctness, but selectively so.

For example, the Washington Redskins can trademark a slur. So can NWA, which conceals the “N” word in an acronym. And then there’s a few less famous groups, like a band called The Crackers.

Why deny The Slants the trademark protection they seek?

The Slants are planning one last appeal this Summer. Only this time, instead of being private about it, they want the community to know. And they want to show the Patent Office that a real cross section of the community wants to take back the word “slant.”

It’s a good strategy.

Slant may have been offensive to generations prior. But what seems more offensive is the Patent Office telling the community what should or shouldn’t be offensive to us.

You’d think we’d know. Really, I don’t need the Patent Office to protect me from the harm the term “Slant” may induce.

And then there’s the argument that if we get to use a double-edged phrase or word, then others should be able to as well. It’s a variation of the “who gets to use the “N” word” argument.

Sure, anyone should be able to use any word. They just better be up to the consequences that follow.

You don’t need some 1946 rule at the Trademark office to decide that one. There’s a slightly older law on the books that could settle that. It’s called the First Amendment.

Last month, the Supreme Court seems to have already ruled that the right to free speech is absolute. How else should one view the decision that defends the Westboro Church’s insistence to be as vile as possible with its anti-gay protests at military funerals? Makes The Slants seem tame. I don’t know about their music, but you’ve got to love their name.

(The Slants are on tour and will be in New York, April 19 at Fontana’s, and April 20 at Union Hall in Brooklyn. Their website:

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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