Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discriminatory actions or harassment based on their race in the workplace. Generally, the use of the racial slurs would be automatically considered harassing behavior. However, some people may argue that there could be a gray area when words or terms that would normally be racial slurs are used between members of the same race because, in that context, the words are culturally acceptable.
Employee Harassment & Wrongful Termination Suit
A federal jury in New York did not buy that argument in a recent case in which a black employee sued her employer for harassment by a black supervisor. Brandi Johnson was a black employee at STRIVE, an employment agency in Harlem, under supervisor Rob Carmona, who is also black. In March 2012, Carmona went on a rant against Johnson that included the ‘n’ word eight times. Johnson secretly recorded the rant on her iPhone, and the jury heard the recording as evidence in the case. The transcript of the rant as reported by cnn.com is as follows:
"You and (a previous employee) are just alike. Both of you are smart as s---, but dumb as s---. You know what it is ... both of you are n------, y'all act like n------ all the time. And I'm not saying the term n------ as derogatory; sometimes it's good to know when to act like a n-----, but y'all act like n------ all the time ... both of you very bright, but both y'all act like n------ at inappropriate times.”
Johnson stated that she felt offended and harassed and cried in the bathroom for 45 minutes following the rant. Furthermore, Johnson sent a formal complaint alleging discriminatory, harassing, and retaliatory acts by Carmona to STRIVE’s CEO Phil Weinberg. Weinberg accused Johnson of being emotional and out of line, and fired her shortly thereafter. Johnson therefore also claimed she was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for her complaints.
Is the ‘n’ word ever culturally acceptable?
While Johnson claimed she felt disrespected by the racial slurs, Carmona argued that his use of the term was culturally acceptable because it was in conversation between two black people. Carmona, who is 61, stated he comes from a different time and believes the ‘n’ word is a term of affection between black people. He claimed he was only trying to help Johnson and never meant the term in a derogatory manner.
The jury, however, did not agree with Carmona and awarded Johnson $280,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The jury decided that the ‘n’ word is never appropriate in an employment context, regardless of the context or of perceived cultural norms. However, this jury’s decision was based solely on the facts and evidence of this particular case and another jury may easily disagree. Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta currently faces a similar lawsuit in which he claims he used the ‘n’ word in an affectionate manner. The outcome of that case has not yet been determined.
If you believe you have experienced any harassment or discrimination at work, you may be entitled to recovery. Call Pershing Square Law Firm today for help with your case.