Journal from January 17, 2017: the night before oral arguments at the Supreme Court
One of the questions I’m asked most often is, “How does it feel to go to the Supreme Court?” If I’m to be completely honest, I would say that it feels unnecessary. Yes, it is very exciting, humbling, and overwhelming to be part of a much larger conversation on the role of racial identity, intellectual property law, and freedom of expression, but this was a routine process that should not have taking this path. Is I have stated before, if I was caucasian or had an English middle name rather than a Chinese one, I would have received my registration eight years ago.
Of course, things ended up going a different direction.
As we navigate our way through DC, it’s clear that our story is pretty big news. Almost everyone we run into – Uber and Lyft drivers, patrons at restaurants, our hotel staff – is talking about our case. With an upcoming Trump presidency, apprehensions about the First Amendment and how communities of color will be affected by the administration shape that discourse. Being in DC, the shadow looming over everything is the home football team, the Washington Redskins. Nearly every person that I speak with understands that the connection is tenuous, but that still doesn’t stop knee-jerk reactions and accusations from flying on social media.
Here are some of the most popular conspiracy theories and false assumptions around our case:
1. Trademark registration equates a government endorsement. Most people don’t believe this at all. After all, trademark registrations exist for all kinds of things that we probably wouldn’t associate with government approval, like TAKE YO PANTIES OFF, URBAN NEGRO, RETARDIPEDIA, TEENS DO PORN, DICK BALLS, and many other scandalous/offensive content. Yet, a common argument against our case is that if the government approves of THE SLANTS (or any other controversial mark), it would be lending its imprimatur or seal of approval.
2. We’re doing this to help the Washington Redskins. This is absurd. Not only do we explicitly call them out on our website and explain the differences, but the Supreme Court’s ruling may be narrow and/or be based on statutory grounds (in other words, we win, they lose) – we wouldn’t have included that as an option for the court if our motivation was to actually help them. But even if the court were to rule broadly and it inadvertently helps them regain their trademark registrations, the more important result is that it would stop the government from disproportionately targeting marginalized groups by using their race, sexuality, and gender against them (which is currently happening).
3. We’re only doing this for the publicity. This is also a ridiculous accusation. First, if we only wanted publicity, we could have spent the same tens of thousands of dollars on a major radio campaign that would actually lead to album sales (news junkies aren’t exactly the target audience for an 80s synth pop band). Second, in order to do so, we’d have to somehow be able to manipulate federal court judges, layers of Trademark Office staff, and Supreme Court justices for eight years to lead us to the high court – it’s a feat that no one could possibly orchestrate. Third, EIGHT YEARS. No one starts a band wanting to spend almost a decade of their life in court.
However, even if we were to benefit from the increased attention, is it such a bad thing to highlight the work of an anti-racist arts group? We donate large amounts of our meager income to nonprofits, work with dozens of social justice organizations, and facilitate diversity and inclusion workshops across the country. We use our platform to support causes like Black Lives Matter, challenging the Redskins to change their name, and increase Asian Pacific Islander voter rates. And, the increased attention on our case helps create important conversations about race and identity in this country. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.
Despite doing many interviews with the media, being proactive in social media, and writing Op-Ed pieces explaining the complexities of our case (like this one for NBC Asian America), I’m still bombarded with accusations or misinterpretations of our intentions. I understand that most of the assaults and threats are rooted in pain and misunderstanding but things do get overwhelming, especially when I’m running on empty.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we take the rest of the band to the Supreme Court and play a few songs out front. It’s especially meaningful as we stare at the Capitol building in front of us, where the inauguration will take place in a few days. We make our way to the MLK Jr. memorial and sing with other activists and visitors who are paying homage to his legacy.
As we are there, I read many of his powerful quotes, including one of my favorites: “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As I think about our campaign for self-identity through our trademark case, I’m reminded of an important caveat: the moral arc does not bend on its own. It requires deliberate, thoughtful intention with a focus on justice.