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You Say You Want A Revolution: taking a slant on racism in America with the rock band "The Slants"

Updated on January 19, 2017

The Slants when they're not rockin


While music has always expressed the sentiments of people, Rock music specifically has been the preferred voice of the people since it rose to prominence in the 60’s as an effective and powerful tool to bring people together according to common feelings, values, and hopes. Songs have become indispensable historical records, soundtracking the progressions and regressions of those in a free society yearning to be heard.

Rock music is never more potent or valuable as when it incites positive social change; such is the purpose of a little rock band from the the North Western United States called “The Slants” whose case in the Supreme Court could very well change the landscape of our liberty and cause much needed progress on the issue of Racism in America.

The Slants did not set out with this lofty goal in mind. They were formed in 2006 by Simon Young (Tam) in Portland, Oregon to be a 80’s throwback dance-rock band that kicked ass, but when they were denied trademark rights to their own name on the grounds that it may be disparaging they did not just hang their heads and accept injustice, instead they did what rock and rollers do: they rebelled, they rebelled against a system that was formed to protect their inalienable rights and was now instead depriving them of those rights.

The idea that 4 asian-americans took a word once used to disparage them, stripped it of it’s derogatory content and cruel connotations, and made into a badge of pride was, to them, a very important process to overcoming the power of racist thought. Instead of supporting the idea that to even BE of their cultural heritage is somehow innately bad, they replaced the speech of racial cruelty with a dignity in one’s ancestry.

“If ‘slant’ is a word that means ‘asian’, then it is not disparaging unless being asian itself is disparaging. Because I believe that being asian is a good thing, I believe being a ‘slant’ is a good thing. It doesn’t make sense for me to be offended to be called what I am,” explained one fan named Michael who is Korean-American.

“What this perspective does is it takes away the power of the bigots and racists to harm me just by uttering a word. That’s too easy. If you’re going to be an asshole, I’m not going to make it easy for you to hurt me. You’re going to have to sweat a little to be prejudice. You’re going to have work a little display your hate. Being offended by a racial slur is just like handing your enemy a loaded gun. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to give him anything that I know he only wants to use to do harm. Why would I?”

Calling someone of asian heritage a “slant” referred to the way that their eyes looked. Naming the band “The Slants” was not just an affront to racism, like all great titles it has several meanings: it means to come in at an angle; it refers to each person's “slant” on life which is an individual's own perspective-- everyone has their own “slant” on things; it’s also a musical term for a type of guitar chord, like a barre chord, that they use in their music; it also means to diverge from the vertical of horizontal; it also just sounds like a name that a fun 80’s dance rock band should have.

By denying the band their ability to trademark their name, you deprive them of the ability to protect their intellectual property, a key feature of the free enterprise system. It is a form of censorship that says “because we do not like or agree with your ideas we will not participate in the protection that others enjoy” and censorship is always a difficult minefield to traverse. This particular censorship is relying on the grounds that they do not have to approve a trademark if it “may disparage...persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” The main problem is the vagueness of the word “disparage” and the all-encompassing broadness of the subjects that might be disparaged.

On the one hand, you have the hypocrisy of enforcing this censorship on “The Slants” when other racial slurs have been granted protected trademark status such as “Uncle Cracker” (slur regarding white people) and “N.W.A” meaning “Niggas With Attitudes” (slur regarding black people), among others. Certainly precedent has already been set that using slang that has become to be regarded as slurs, which are assumed to be disparaging, are allowed to be trademarked if they are used in a non-disparaging way.

To be “disparaging” means to “undervalue, belittle, represent as being of little worth”. By this definition, the band name “The Slants” does the OPPOSITE of disparaging as it exalts and appreciates asians and asian-americans.

Another point to consider is that the word “slant” has acceptable use outside of its ethnic reference. Like “cracker”, “fairy”, or “frog” it is a slur only when USED in that matter. While some slurs, such as “kike” or “spic”, do not have other non-offensive uses. This brings up the idea that these particular people are being denied these trademarking rights BECAUSE they are asian-american, while a non-asian group would probably have been approved. This is certainly discrimination and it is ironic because denying trademarking disparages, by definition, these young americans while the band's name does not.

Or does it? A lot of the problem lies in the fact that if trademarks are denied because they MAY be disparaging to some, then that is grounds that almost any trademark can be denied on. Some might be offended by the band “Banana’s” as it disparages those with schizophrenia or dementia. Some might be offended by the name “Nirvana” because it could be disparaging to buddhists. Some might be offended by the name “America” because they believe America is the Great Satan. Some might be offended by the name “Bread” because they hate carbohydrates. Some might be offended by the name “Madonna” for a rock star because it disparages the Mother of Jesus. Some might be offended by the name “Beatles” as it disparages those that like small, compact volkswagens….The point here is that anything MIGHT be disparaging or offensive, but it is the INTENTION of the word or phrase that is of most importance

Denying trademark protection on the grounds that it might be found to be disparaging is ridiculous and unreasonable. If censorship must take place, then it should be on proposed trademarks that INTEND to be disparaging. If one wanted to trademark the name “Slants Have No Value” or “Honkey’s Suck”, then clearly the intent is to disparage. (If one wants to argue otherwise, a simple statement explaining how the name is not disparaging can be made and then considered for its plausibility.)

What we want to overcome in terms of racism in America is the support of discriminating thinking and prejudicial ideologies. Banning words or phrases does not extinguish the effectiveness of racism, it empowers it. “Flip it [the racial slur] on its head” as Mr. Young said when speaking about what his intentions were, is exactly the sort of revolutionary thinking that overcomes disparagement by changing our perspective of a word from something negative into something positive. Language is ours to use and change as we see to be most beneficial, hopefully the Supreme Court will recognize the value of what is at stake here and allow this band to keep on rockin in the free world.


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