In 2011, the Portland, Oregon-based band were denied the trademark application for their name on the grounds that it was considered offensive to Asians. The decision seems cut and dry until you consider that the band consists only of Asian-American members who had chosen “slant” as a point of ethnic pride and as a way to confront racial stereotypes. The U.S. Trademark Office, however, had in fact taken the band’s racial identity into consideration; combined with the definition of “slant” at urbandictionary.com, among other sources, it defended its decision. But on Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the band’s challenge to the federal law that denied them their trademark.
But it isn’t just the fate of The Slants that’s at stake. The Washington Redskins football team, which was stripped of their trademark on the same grounds last year, have hitched their wagon to The Slants’ case, much to the band’s dismay. The band has distanced themselves from the football team, saying that the word “redskin,” unlike “slant,” has a “long history of oppression” and was an “inherent racial slur.” But the Redskins have no such qualms, and filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hear the band’s case and perhaps even hear their cases at the same time, which the Court did not agree to do. Still, the outcome of The Slants’ case would definitely have a ripple effect on the Redskins’ case.
The two cases are similar only in a superficial sense. Native Americans have protested the team’s name for decades. In the Slants’ campaign to receive their trademark, they invoked a long history of cultural re-appropriation of stereotypes by Asian-Americans, from the Slant Film Festival to the popular blog Angry Asian Man, as avenues for tackling discrimination and engaging in racial discourse. At a time when cultural appropriation has become a highly contested battleground, distinguishing between who is doing the appropriating and how groups are affected by such actions seems to be a basic first step in bringing nuance to the discussion.