A Midwestern chain of poke stores named Aloha Poke is under fire this week for threatening legal action against Native Hawaiian small businesses who use the words “Aloha” and “Poke” in combination to sell the traditional rice and fish dishes.
Aloha Poke Company — founded by former owner Zach Friedlander — registered the phrase “aloha poke” as a trademark in January 2016. Now, Aloha Poke Company’s attorneys have sent numerous cease and desist letters to other poke shops named “Aloha Poke” — many of them owned by Native Hawaiian small business owners — demanding that they change their name and branding. Unfortunately, many of those small businesses can’t afford to fight the large chain store in court for the right to use their own language, and have been forced to undergo the costly process of rebranding.
Portland, Oregon-based Asian American rock band, The Slants, received some disappointing news this week when the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Federal Circuit upheld a US Patent and Trademark Office’s decision that the band’s name could not be trademarked on the grounds that it is being used as a racial slur that a majority of the public would find disparaging. The Federal Circuit court agreed in the majority opinion, citing the Patent Office’s Appeal Board decision where they decided that the name The Slants “would have the ‘likely meaning’ of people of Asian descent but also that such meaning has been so perceived and has prompted significant responses by prospective attendees or hosts of the band’s performances.”
In 1946, the federal government passed the Lanaham Act, the principle legislation that governs the registration of trademarks. Among other stipulations, the Act prohibits the registration of any trademark that “consists of or comprises of immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute”. Federal Circuit courts have previously interpreted this to include racial slurs such as “Heeb”, “Squaw Valley”, and — of course — the “Washington Redskins” (which is currently on appeal).
However, Simon Tam — founder of The Slants who tweets at @SimonTheTam — argued that despite the popular usage of the phrase “slants” as a slur when referencing Asian Americans, the band name was intended to be a subversive reappropriation of an epithet as part of their larger project to “take ownership” of anti-Asian stereotypes.