When bass player Simon Tam decided to form an Asian-American rock band in 2005, he had the group's name ready: the Slants. Tam, who says he is Chinese-Taiwanese, wanted to reclaim the slur and transform it into a term of pride.
Today, the Portland-based band's lyrics tackle racial stereotypes, and the group holds workshops and panels to encourage Asian-American youth to embrace their heritage. In 2009, the four-member group, which calls its sound Chinatown dance rock, sponsored an Asian-American youth leadership conference in Portland.
But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has twice refused to trademark the band's name, deeming it "disparaging."
"They say the term 'slant' is disparaging to people of Asian descent," Tam says. "Do they not realize that we're of Asian descent? Thanks for being offended on my behalf."
The first rejection of the band's trademark application came in June, followed by a second refusal in December. In its rejection letters, the patent office cites urbandictionary.com and Wikipedia articles as evidence that the term "slant" belittles Asian-Americans. Such shortsighted, knee-jerk rulings earn the trademark office this week's Rogue honors.
Spencer Trowbridge, the Slants' attorney, says the rejection astounded him. The Slants play cultural festivals nationwide and have gotten significant ink in the Asian-American press.
"It seems ridiculous to me that the band is in this position, considering that the community has supported them," he says. "This is a band that's celebrating being Asian."
After the initial trademark rejection, the band collected statements of support from local activists, including Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons, coordinator for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and Mari Watanabe, executive director of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment.
"While the declarations of Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons and Mari Watanabe are notable, they comprise merely the views of two individuals and are insufficient to show that the broader Asian community does not find the term offensive," reads the December rejection.
Both Trowbridge and Tam argue the U.S. government should not be determining how minority groups refer to themselves. Both pointed to other instances of the use of the term within the Asian-American community, such as the Slant Film Festival in Houston and the Chicago television show The Slant.
"They're stripping the rights of minorities to discern what is right for themselves," Tam says. "They're saying we can't decide for ourselves what is right or what is wrong for our community, and they're not taking into consideration the opinion of the community at large."
The Slants plan to file a formal appeal. The Rogue desk hopes its appeal board looks beyond the word of urbandictionary.com.