In a ruling handed down this morning, the US Supreme Court unanimously sided with Asian American rock band “The Slants” against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The Slants had sought to register their band’s name as a trademark, but was denied the mark under guidelines outlined in the 1946 Lanham Act, which prohibits the registration of any mark that might be deemed offensive or disparaging.
The Slants took issue with the US Patent and Trademark Office’s ruling, saying that their band name was not offensive, and was instead an effort to reclaim a racial or ethnic slur to empower the Asian American community.
However, The Slants’ legal battle to challenge the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause is of particular political relevance, as the clause also represents a significant legal basis for the Native American community’s protest of the “Washington Redskins”‘ name and trademark.
For the last several years, Asian American rock band, “The Slants”, has been in a knockdown fight with the US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO) over their band’s name.
The fight stems from a decision made by the USPTO to refuse registration of “The Slants” as a trademark on the grounds that the bands’ name is racially offensive to Asian Americans. The USPTO was empowered to make their decision based on the 1946 Lanaham Act, which prohibits the registration of any mark 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.”
In practice, the USPTO frequently makes such decisions unilaterally through the determination of a single case officer who by happenstance receives an application to register a questionable mark. Consequently, the USPTO has been notoriously inconsistent in their determination of a mark’s “immoral”, “scandalous” or “disparaging” content. “The Slants” is a group of Asian American musicians seeking to reclaim an offensive word they recognize as traditionally a slur; despite the USPTO’s refusal of their application, the Office has permitted the registration of “Dykes on Bikes”, which is a group named under similar reasoning.
This is a guest post by writer Jennie Stockle (@IndigeniusIdeas, Indigenius Ideas) as part of this week’s series of posts written in solidarity with #NotYourMascot. Jennie Stockle has been passionately fighting to change the Washington R*dskins team name through multiple online campaigns.
I often talk with my children about different aspects of life, without bringing up being Native American, as they grow into adults. Honestly, it had been a while since I asked them about what being Cherokee is like outside our home. What their views on identity has meant to them? Have I helped them navigate the confusing Native American waters?
A deep coversation is what followed that I want to share bits of with you. I hope after reading this you can have similar conversations with others. Being able to vocalize how we feel about our place in the world is an important topic. It can give a sense of validation and understanding between people, be it a parent to child or friend to friend.
My daughter told me that once she had watched Peter Pan without me there. “I guess you were at work or something. I don’t remember,”she said. It left her confused. She didn’t talk to me about it. She just didn’t know what to make of it. After all, none of the “Indians” in the movie resemble us. “The pickaninnies” don’t resemble the Natives we meet at pow-wows or stomp dances either. The “singing Indian’s music” doesn’t sound like the Cherokee children’s music I play for my kids in the car. Being so immature, she was unable to describe what she felt. So, she didn’t say anything to us.
Of course, I felt bad for not having prevented her watching those clips. I felt guilty that I had no idea at all about it happening. I asked her if she felt I had let her down? “No, mom. I am not confused about being Cherokee. You should see some of the Native American kids at school. Sometimes they make “Indian” jokes just to fit in. When they act like that, I just walk away.”I understood what she meant. Sometimes, when your a kid, it’s easier to leave a conversation. It shouldn’t be up to kids to explain that embracing Native American stereotypes for the amusement of non-Natives isn’t healthy for a person’s mentality. Plus, confronting a Native child in front of the peers she/he is trying to impress can embarrass a Native kid with self-esteem issues to begin with.
“Mom, do you remember when I came home with a coloring page of Pilgrims I had to do in class,” my other daughter chimed in. “I told the teacher it was a lie. She made me color it anyways,” she said.
Act Now! Please take a minute to sign this petition demanding Dan Snyder change the name and mascot of the Washington R*dskins created by 18millionrising (@18millionrising) and check out the “central hub” post for our Week of Solidarity with #NotYourMascot for more writing to share and retweet, as well as other activism ideas.
This post is part of a week of solidarity between Asian American and Pacific Islander bloggers and Native writers who have spear-headed the #NotYourMascot campaign. For a full list of posts included in the week of solidarity, please check this post.
I’ve been maintaining this blog — a personal and political blog dedicated to Asian American feminism and race activism — for over 12 years. And, in that time, I’ve dedicated my time to try and bring awareness to issues I feel are underaddressed within the Asian American community: mental health, unemployment, reproductive choice, under-education and more. My part-time activism, balanced against a full-time career, has been focused on the goal of challenging racism by dismantling stereotypes of Asian Americans and encouraging my (predominantly Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI)) readers to get more politically involved themselves.
Every day, it feels as if there is a new story that could benefit from some air. Every day, I come across a new post yearning to be written — like the distressingly high rates of suicide among Bhutanese Americans — and I feel compelled to write because no one else seems to be talking about it. Every morning, I find myself sifting through a pile of stories to pick the one that could most use some attention; and, when this becomes your daily routine, it’s easy to forget that every story is deserving of attention.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, as someone who has dedicated the last decade to this unique form of “digital journalism as activism”, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. My Twitter timeline has become a litany of worthy goals and hash-tags, each focused around a despicable example of racism, or sexism, or other kind of discrimination — a depressing deluge of anti-racist action clamouring for visibility, and the details start to bleed into one another. These days, I feel less like I’m pushing back against racism, and more like I’m just treading water.
And, sadly, it is far too easy to become desensitized to it all, and to start to see this list of anti-racist campaigns like just another pile to be sifted through, and to tune out the the individual cries of racial pain, anger, and sadness that echo through the headlines. In short, there is far greater capacity for humanity to treat one another with hatred and intolerance than there is capacity for anti-racist activists to work against it.
So, last week, when a Twitter user asked me why I had thus far been silent on #NotYourMascot — an ongoing multi-year fight to advocate to the NFL the changing of the name of the Washington R*dskins (and associated mascot) — and why it had taken Stephen Colbert’s much-discussed segment likening the team name to the archaic anti-Asian slurs “Oriental” and “Ching Chong Ding Dong”, I responded with a list of reasons. I talked about how the project of the Asian American blogging community is the important one of trying to give air to Asian American issues, and to try and keep together a political identity at constant risk of fracturing. I talked about how I felt over-worked and underpaid (which is to say, I’m still over a thousand dollars in the hole on this blog), how even within a blogosphere of several voices there are still more otherwise unheard Asian American stories to be told than there are people to tell them. I talked about how I felt like I was treading water, even while trying to cover the stories that intersect the very narrow focus of my blog. I talked about how although I supported the #NotYourMascot campaign, I felt obligated to devote my blogging hours to campaigns that didn’t even have the benefit of a hash-tag. I talked also about how, not being Native American, I felt like I didn’t want to subvert another community’s issue with my own clumsy (and potentially ill-informed) thoughts. Finally, I talked about how I’m a boxing fan and not a professional football fan, how I don’t watch Sunday afternoon football, and how until two weeks ago, I thought the Dan Snyder’s team hailed from the state of Washington (guess what, it doesn’t).
And y’know what? All of these reasons are shitty-ass reasons. They’re all human reasons. But they’re also all shitty-ass reasons.
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!