The N-Word: Lawsuit Exposes Double-Standard Myths


At MSNBC Adam Serwer says that the workplace will likely be the only place impacted by last week's court ruling that use of the n-word is wrong, even among blacks. Like it or not, he says, the word has become a permanent fixture in America's nomenclature, with all of its connotations.

Earlier this week, a jury awarded Brandi Johnson almost $300,000 dollars in damages after she alleged that her manager discriminated against her on the basis of race and gender. As proof, she provided an iPhone recording of her manager, Rob Carmona, laying into her with a rant about how she was acting like a "nigger."

"Both of you are niggers," Carmona said to Johnson according to the complaint, referencing her and another woman who said she had been sexually harassed by a former employee. "Y'all are both very bright. [sic] but both of y'all act like niggers at inappropriate times."

The twist? Carmona, like Johnson, is black.

Johnson and Carmona both worked at STRIVE, a New York non-profit agency that aims to help economically struggling city residents find employment. While much coverage of the case has focused on the alleged "double standard" about who can say one of the most controversial words in the English language and when, the case doesn't lend itself to the typical griping about its use. Carmona's defense was that he was using the word to deliver "tough love" to Johnson in an attempt to prevent her from conforming to stereotype. That type of usage is typically associated with "respectability politics," the view that black people's must consciously avoid fulfilling stereotypes in order to overcome social barriers …

That doesn't mean that it's always acceptable. Johnson felt like Carmona was discriminating against her and the jury agreed. Carmona claimed he was just giving Johnson "tough love." It's impossible to imagine that Carmona would have spoken that way to Johnson if she were white. But it is possible to imagine a scenario where that kind of "tough love" is a sincere attempt to warn someone of an outside world that will be less forgiving of their flaws than someone who isn't black.

About the only thing the Johnson case demonstrates for certain is that when you're at work, you should probably avoid using it, unless you want a jury deciding whether it's appropriate.


Read Adam Serwer's entire piece at MSNBC.

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