There is a false discussion out there surrounding the n-word.
There are those who believe that only whites should be blasted for using it. Then, there are those apologists who claim that only black people can use the term, and going further, that it actually is a term of endearment. Recent events, however, have proved that black people who use the n-word are not off the hook when it comes to paying for using the word one too many times.
Imagine a black person suing another black person for calling them the n-word and then winning the lawsuit. That is what happened when Brandi Johnson, a black employee of STRIVE, a nonprofit employment service located in East Harlem, sued her boss, a black man named Rob Carmona, for repeatedly hurling the n-word at her at work.
After repeatedly hearing Carmona call her and others the n-word in meetings conducted in 2012, Johnson secretly taped Carmona pulling a “Michael Richards” on her and other black employees (Michael Richards played Kramer on “Seinfeld” and essentially ruined his career when he lobbed several n-words at some black hecklers during a stand-up comedy routine in 2006).
Johnson took her complaint up her organization’s leadership ladder and was met with what she later termed condescending responses from STRIVE’S chief executive officer, who fired her in June 2012. Johnson sued Carmona personally and the organization as well for what she claimed was their allowing a hostile and racially charged work environment.
Carmona claimed he meant no harm by using the word, falling back on a “back in the day” defense that blacks from his era used the word without purposely meaning to offend anyone. Late this summer, a federal jury soundly rejected Carmona’s lame excuses and awarded Johnson $25,000 in punitive damages from Carmona and another $5,000 from STRIVE.
What is mind-blowing, though, is that the jury also awarded Johnson $250,000 in compensatory damages. The enormity of the jury’s determination to attach a punitive award to the use of the n-word warrants a worldwide shout-out. This is arguably the first time a black person has been sued for using the n-word where a jury understood the offensiveness of the word, regardless of who was hurling it and who it was being hurled at.
Just this past July, my brother-in-law (who is black), was called the n-word by one of his white co-workers. Understandably, he was offended to no end by being called that, and he complained, as Johnson did, to upper management. The response was similar to that received by Johnson — played off. His employer not only did not address the use of the word with the employee who spit it out; my brother-in-law was threatened with termination for responding “too emotionally” to having been called the word. My brother-in-law now goes out of his way to avoid the other employee and the managers who thought nothing of the incident. He has decided not to sue.
That brings to focus the question of just what is the appropriate response to the use of the word, not only in the workplace, but among those in other social settings. When I hear the word out of the mouths of blacks, I ask that it not be repeated and then diplomatically remove myself from their presence. I have never been directly or knowingly been called the word by anyone white, so I expect that my reaction would be to do the same, as well as to follow my brother-in-law’s example.
My hope is that others in Johnson’s situation follow suit. The word has no endearing or useful connotations. As I have stated in the past, to me there is no difference between Paula Deen using the word 30 years ago and Shaquille O’Neal today producing comedy DVDs that include prolific use of the word. Dean was treated savagely for having said it and lost her cooking empire, while Dave Chappelle, D.L. Hughley, Katt Williams, and other black comedians are making money off it.
I recently appeared on local television’s “Let It Rip” to discuss the disproportionate response to Dean’s use of the word. One of the other guests, an award-winning journalist, argued that Dean could not use the word because, in his own words, “she’s not black!” He also plainly stated that blacks could use the word. Off-screen and sitting outside the taping area were his two children, both of whom appeared to be under 10 years of age. I feel for them.