In a federal case in New York under Title VII, a federal jury awarded a black employee $30,000 in punitive damages and $250,000 in compensatory damages for racial discrimination in the workplace perpetrated by a black supervisor. According to plaintiff, the black supervisor referred to plaintiff, also a black woman, as a “n****r” eight times. The plaintiff asserted a hostile work environment or harassment claim against the employer for this use of derogatory, racist language. The defense lobbed a bad argument to defend the employer and the jury deflected it like a bad Romo pass.
The defense asserted a difference in how black people use it to each other and how a white person uses it. When black people use it towards each other, it is culturally acceptable on the basis of that difference. Even if that argument was true–and I am not suggesting it is–it doesn’t fly under Title VII. The jury agreed. Here’s why: under Title VII, the focus of the offense in a hostile work environment or harassment claim is how the plaintiff received it and whether a reasonable person standing in the plaintiff’s shoes would have been offended by the language. The intent of the perpetrator is not a factor. The plaintiff was very clear that she took offense to the word. Would a reasonable person take offense? Yes, according to the jury.
Some courts have broken into the semantics of whether certain racial slurs are racist enough depending on their use. However, it’s a bad argument for defendant-employers to have to make because it’s unlikely to prevail. There is no guarantee that people within the same racial group agree that the term is not always derogatory. There is no widespread agreement by any racial or ethnic group that use of traditionally derogatory terms by other members of the same group is acceptable. Plus, especially when it comes to n-bombs, lots of white people feel it’s unfair for black people to be allowed use it and white people can’t. So those white people are likely to side with the plaintiff.
Like Fatboy Slim says, don’t be a racist.