Simon Tam is the founder and bassist of the band The Slants. The U.S Patent and Trademark Office denied Tam’s trademark registration for the band’s name, claiming it disparaged people of Asian heritage. So, the band, whose current three members are all Asian-American, began a nearly decade-long legal battle that ended at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tam says the patent office said it was “incontestable” that he is of Asian descent and is part of an Asian band, therefore the name is derogatory. The word “slant” is associated with a racial slur that dates back to the 1930s and ‘40s. But Tam disagreed with the office’s interpretation. He says there’s nuance involved with the name choice.
He felt the same frustration when the case was heard at the Supreme Court.
“They were arguing about what was offensive to Asian people and the only Asians in the room could not weigh in on the issue,” Tam says. “It wasn’t until this little voice popped up about halfway through the arguments.”
That voice belonged to Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who defended the band’s use of the name. She argued that the members of the band were using the word to describe themselves, and, in doing so, removed the sting of a word that could be interpreted as racially insensitive.
“I think I’m in love with the Supreme Court Justice,” Tam says. “The Notorious R.B.G. was bringing it. I finally felt seen.”
Tam says the lawsuit brought out a different side of him. He started to see himself not just as a bassist for his band but as someone with a larger purpose: both an artist and activist.
“We don’t think about what’s possible,” Tam says. “We just simply think about the world that we want to create and then we work out the steps to get there.”
Written by Geronimo Perez.