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The “n”-Word: (N)Ever Contextually Appropriate, In The Workplace?

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The “n”-Word: (N)Ever Contextually Appropriate, In The Workplace?

Even if, as some have argued, the “n” word is culturally acceptable to some people in some contexts, does its intra-racial use in the workplace rise to the level of legal discrimination and/or harassment?  This is a topic of concern to employers grappling with workplace environments involving communications between people of the same race.

Two cases help identify the legal risk and cost of believing that it is permissible for a minority supervisor to use, intra-racially, the “n”-word in the workplace.  In Weatherly v. Alabama State University, No. 12-13414 (11th Cir. 2013), three minority employees alleged that due to the utterances of two “high-level administrative” employees, who also are minority, they suffered a hostile work environment and/or racial harassment during their employment at a historically Black college.  According to the employees, the use of the “n”-word “in the workplace was commonplace.”  Sometimes the “n”-word was directed at the employees.  Other times it peppered multiple comments such that the workplace of the three employees seemed to be riddled with the “n” word and its many variations.  One employee felt “‘humiliated,’ ‘stunned,’ ‘hurt,’ and ‘embarrassed.’”  To be sure, more than the “n”-word was at issue during the jury trial of this matter; for example, evidence also identified sexual harassment and different forms of retaliation.  After the federal jury reached a verdict in favor of the former employees, the district court entered a final judgment and awarded over $1,000,000.00, collectively, to the former employees.  The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment and admonished:

We are left to speculate who is in charge at ASU. Regardless, however, we are unnerved by the apparent acquiescence to, if not outright condoning of, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees.  Such conduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publicly funded university.

A different federal jury in New York reached a similar conclusion after listening to testimony regarding, and a recording of, a minority supervisor’s rant(s) using the “n”-word, supposedly as a term of endearment and constructive criticism.  The supervisor claimed that the “n”-word “has multiple contexts in [B]lack and Latino communities, sometimes indicating anger, sometimes love.”  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/04/black-woman-n-word-court-case.  The supervisor’s argument was not dissimilar from that advanced and disputed by notable and educated individuals.  See http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/03/us/new-york-racial-slur-lawsuit/index.html.

The New York, federal jury disagreed with the supervisor and awarded $250,000.00.  Tacking on another $30,000 for punitive damages, the employee’s award amounted to $280,000.00 in damages.

Apparently, the jury agreed with the closing argument of the employee’s attorney:

When you use the [‘n’] word … to an African American, no matter how many alternative definitions that you may try to substitute with the [‘n’ word] …, that is no different than calling a Hispanic by the worst possible word you can call a Hispanic, calling a homosexual male the worst possible word that you can call a homosexual male.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/04/black-woman-n-word-court-case; http://bigstory.ap.org/article/ny-case-puts-n-word-use-among-blacks-trial.

Regardless of what side of the debate of cultural acceptance an employer may fall on, two federal juries and at least one federal court of appeals have spoken.  The intra-racial use of the “n”-word has legal consequences and can be dangerous.  It can amount to legal discrimination and/or harassment and has no place in the work environment, even when uttered between members of the same race.