Freedom of speech is not absolute. No one is guaranteed employment and in private work settings, speech can be regulated.
That framework shapes a recent case where a jury in a New York federal court decided that even black people cannot use the n-word at work — even if speaking with another black person – and that using the sometimes racial slur may create a hostile work environment.
This case has the ability to set some legal precedent since the plaintiff, a black woman named Brandi Johnson, sued her employer STRIVE East Harlem, after her boss Rob Carmona, a black man, used the racial slur while reprimanding her. Carmona, a black man of Puerto Rican descent, argued in his defense that being raised in a New York City project, was full of “tough love” and “tough language” which includes using the n-word as a term of endearment.
The issue in the case is whether the n-word double standard applies to employment discrimination cases. Specifically, whether it matters that the n-word is commonly used by black people in a cultural context, makes it permissible in an employment context when two black people are involved.
This age-old debate over who is allowed to use the n-word and who cannot is one that a federal jury decided this week and the decision may set new societal norms for appropriate language in the workplace, regardless of whether the people using the term are black. “There are numerous cases where employers who have repeatedly used racial slurs have been found to have created hostile work environments for employees,”
Attorney and legal analyst Faith Jenkins told theGrio, “If you got a white supervisor on tape calling a black employee the n-word, that case would settle. Those types of cases don’t go to trial because the precedent is clear: use of that term creates a hostile work environment.”
“In this case, a supervisor was yelling and reprimanding an employee. And it wasn’t the first time the employer used the n-word with this employee.” Jenkins said. These additional facts likely added to the jury’s decision to award Johnson $250,000 in compensatory damages and $30,000 in punitive damages. “The jury made it clear it doesn’t matter who is using the word. It’s the use of the word alone to an employee that creates a discriminatory work environment,” said Jenkins.
Paula Deen is the latest celebrity scrambling to defend her use of the slur, claiming her generation and Georgia roots allow her more freedom to use the term. The fact that there is a debate over who can use the n-word, as if doing so is a privilege worth having, has always been controversial.
Reappropriating the n-word as a term of endearment or casual conversation between two black people may no longer be allowed in a workplace because of this case.
“Cultural arguments didn’t work for Paula Deen for many in public eye and they didn’t work in this case to the jury,” says Jenkins, “The jury ruling made it clear; the use of the n-word is loaded with negative connotations and it’s not appropriate in workplace environment despite its accepted use by some outside of work.”
This case could mean that when commiserating with their coworkers, black people may need to be much more careful with their language, or else they may open themselves up to future employment discrimination lawsuits.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell.