A federal jury seated in Philadelphia may soon decide whether there should be a double standard regarding the usage of the “n-word” by white and black employees in the workplace. Specifically, the jury will consider the case of former Fox 29 anchorman Tom Burlington, who was fired after using the n-word during a staff meeting, wherein reporters and producers were discussing Robin Taylor’s coverage of a 2007 mock funeral led by the Philadelphia Youth Council of the NAACP to bury the n-word.
According to court documents, the dispute began when Robin Taylor, who is white, used the word while discussing the event. In that discussion, Taylor apparently referenced the fact that participants had used the full word “at least a hundred times or more” at the event. In response, Burlington allegedly stated, “Does this mean we can say ni**er now?”
In response to his question, Nicole Wolfe, a producer and one of the three African-American employees who were present at the meeting exclaimed, “I can’t believe you just said that!”
Burlington has claimed that he was “discriminated against because of his race,” because he was fired for using the full word, while African-Americans were heard using the word in the workplace without reprimand.
U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick denied Burlington’s claim that he was the victim of a hostile work environment, but allowed the case to go to trial. Judge Surrick has suggested that Burlington may have been a “victim of political correctness run amok,” and that he could not conclude that there was a “reasonable justification for permitting the station to draw race-based distinctions between employees.”
This is an issue that goes far beyond political correctness.
The n-word has a legacy in the dehumanization of African people in America, which has led to the segregation of opportunity and advancement that we experience today. To be clear, there was no n-word before the transatlantic slave trade — it was a slur created to cement the powerlessness and subjugation of a people. The root of that slur does not change because those who have been victimized by it decide to adopt its usage when referring to one another.
Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, how those with a “colonized mind” will “initially express against their own people the aggressiveness that they have internalized” without question. In other words, when African-Americans use the word — in the workplace or not, they are also contributing to a hostile environment.
Words matter; and their contexts matter. The field of journalism, and the newsroom in particular, is not known for its racial diversity. In fact, only 11.2 percent of newsroom supervisors nationwide people of color, with the inclusion of African-Americans on the decline. According to the American Society of News Editors, the number of African-American journalists has decreased by 539 since 2001, while the number of Asian American, Latino, and Native American journalists increased by 167, 23, and 44, respectively.
Unfortunately, the debate about whether and how to regulate the usage of the n-word is not unique to Burlington’s case. The recent resurgence of the debate about whether the word should be banned in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an example of how persistently we are haunted by this word and its legacy. Though referencing individuals via racial epithet is dramatically different than reading a highly contextualized usage of the word in literature, we are all accountable for the language we use.
The trial to determine whether Burlington was wrongfully terminated and whether African-Americans can dehumanize each other with immunity is set to begin on January 18th. However, the real question is whether we will use this incident as a wake-up call to demand the full recognition — from others and from ourselves — of our humanity and implementation of a higher standard of dignity in the workplace and beyond.