ABOVE PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, right, with Rev. Jesse Jackson, second from right, applauds comedian Paul Mooney, second from left, who agreed to stop using the N-word in his act during a news conference in Los Angeles in 2006. His announcement was in response to comedian Michael Richards’ tirade at a Los Angeles comedy club. The N-word is no ordinary one. It is the essence of black pain, yet many African-Americans use it with pride, like a hard-won privilege. The epithet is undeniably racist and there have been widespread efforts to eliminate it from the black vernacular, yet it refuses to die.
(AP Photo/Ric Francis)
By: Michael A. Hardy, Esq.
A New York City federal jury last week found an employer liable for maintaining a hostile work environment when one of its supervisors continuously used the N-word in the work place. What was different and significant about this case was that both the employee and the supervisor who chastised the employee in an N-word filled tirade were Black. The majority of the employees of the company were likewise people of color. The jury made it clear in its ruling that even if you’re Black, you may be liable for creating a hostile work environment when you use the N-word.
This is no small matter. For many years now, there have been on-going controversies over the question of whether the N-word can be used in friendly or endearing fashion; or whether there are different standards for use of the N-word by Blacks and all others. The controversy has rage particularly in the music industry with lyrics and other expressions of misogynist language like the “H-word” and “B-word.” In the matter decided by the federal jury last week, the employer’s supervisor attempted to defend the use of the N-word by suggesting that it mattered who was using it and in what context it was being used.
Many will remember the Don Imus controversy. In April 2007, during one of Imus’ broadcast he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” He then attempted to explain and defend himself in an interview on Reverend Al Sharpton’s nationally syndicated Radio Show and dug a deeper hole and was eventually fired by CBS radio.
Imus’ situation sparked a flurry of activity aimed at riding the common parlance of the N-word, H-word and B-word, that continues to be misrepresentative of where Blacks and other minorities are as a people. The NAACP in July 2007, for instance, held a mock funeral for the N-word in Detroit, MI; the New York City Council in February 2007 passed a formal resolution banning the N-word and requesting that musical groups which continued to use the N-word in its lyrics be denied Grammy Award consideration.
Other groups, like National Action Network, began “Decency Initiatives” aimed at forcing the reduction of degrading, racially insensitive and misogynist language and culture “that has become pervasive” and created structures to hold “corporate America and the private sector equally accountable” for racial sensitivity. The initiatives’ impact was demonstrated recently when Lil Wayne felt the sting of outrage and many objected to his use of the lyric in the song “Karate Chop” that he was going to “beat” a female’s body part like “Emmett Till.” Wayne loss his corporate sponsorship from PepsiCo and apologized to the Till family.
Just the other night on the heels of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, MSNBC broadcast a two-hour special program entitled “Advancing the Dream.” Hosted by Rev. Sharpton, he interviewed Tyler Perry, Stevie Wonder, Ervin “Magic” Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, among others about what propelled them to become who they are and how do they contribute to the movement for a better tomorrow. All of them acknowledged that they had help along the way to their success and have always felt responsible for giving back.
Tyler Perry, in particularly, noted that we stand on the shoulders of our Ancestors, parents and grandparents who had to endured every shame and challenge just “for us to be at the table.” He went on to say that he would be a “fool” to be walking around with his pants around his ankles and using language inappropriate to who we are and from where we came. Sometimes we forget that there are two young ladies, daughters of the president of the United States, who are Black and neither “B’s,” nor “H’s,” nor N-words. Young people around the world look at that and know that they cannot be contained to some small minded existence.
Many in the music world and surprising in minority owned businesses forget that they too are held to the same business standards as all other businesses. Water cooler conversations and what some may believe to be causal references using the N-word are dangerous to the health of the business. One should not assume just because you are Black, you are “ok” with existing in a racially charged or misogynist environment.
The federal jury that rendered its verdict last week has sent a loud message that all must hear –there are no good uses for the N-word.
Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation’s highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network’s crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City’s House of Justice.