The use of the N-word by the African American community has been a contentious issue for years after the word became commonly used in music and throughout African American communities. But last week a federal jury decided that even among African American community members, there is no acceptable time to use the word.
The jury awarded $30,000 in punitive damages to 38-year-old Brandi Johnson, who filed a lawsuit against her manager Rob Carmona, 61, and STRIVE East Harlem, the employment agency he founded, after he used the N-word eight times while talking to her in March 2012.
Derived from the word “negro,” the N-word was first used as a way to describe a Black person. But by the early 17th century, negro had become n****r and was intentionally derogatory.
Due to the N-word’s historic link to violence and brutality, the word has never been able to fully shake its negative context, which is why not all Black people think use of the word is appropriate. However, some Black people have tried to reclaim the N-word and now sometimes use it among friends so that the meaning of the word eventually changes.
In this case, Johnson said Carmona repeatedly used the slur during a four-minute rant regarding Johnson’s inappropriate workplace attire and unprofessional behavior. Though both Johnson and Carmona are Black, Johnson says that didn’t make the use of the word any less hurtful.
She says she recorded the conversation with Carmona after previous complaints she had made regarding Carmona’s verbal abuse had been disregarded. After the March 2012 incident, Johnson says she cried for 45 minutes in the restroom.
“I was offended. I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected. I was embarrassed,” Johnson testified.
After the verdict, Carmona apologized, saying he came from a different time and that this experience made him realize that he needs to “take stock” of how he communicates with people.
During his testimony, Carmona said that the word has “multiple contexts” in the Black and Latino communities, and while sometimes it’s used in a degrading fashion, it can also be used to express love and affection.
In the company of another person and a longtime friend for example, Carmona said he might put his arm around the longtime friend and introduce the person by saying, “This is my nigger for 30 years.”
Johnson’s lawyer Marjorie M. Sharpe said she hoped that this case would send a strong message to those who use the N-word, which she called the most offensive word in the English language.
In 2008, Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, taught the first ever college-level class that examined the N-word. Lester, a Black man, said he found the subject fascinated him because of the layered complexities associated with it.
“When I first started talking about the idea of the course,” Lester recalled, “I had people saying, ‘This is really exciting, but what would you do in the course? How can you have a course about a word?’ It was clear to me that the course, both in its conception and in how it unfolded, was much bigger than a word. It starts with a word, but it becomes about other ideas and realities that go beyond words.”
Sean Price is the managing editor of Teaching Tolerance. He said it’s important to have critical and historical discussions about the word, since pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t going to help:
“We also cannot pretend that there is not a double standard — that blacks can say it without much social consequence but whites cannot. There’s a double standard about a lot of stuff. There are certain things that I would never say. In my relationship with my wife, who is not African American, I would never imagine her using that word, no matter how angry she was with me.”
Price encouraged people to reflect on the language they use, saying, “We should not try to control others by telling them what to say or how to think” but instead should try to “figure out how we think and how the words we use mirror our thinking.”
Due to the popularity of hip-hop music, Price said the use of the N-word has become commonly used in some communities — including among White people. He said hip-hop culture has increased tolerance for the use of the word, but Black people are usually not OK with a White person ever using the word.
“If Blacks and Whites are together and a White person uses the word, many Blacks are ready to fight,” Price said. “So this word comes laden with these complicated and contradictory emotional responses to it. It’s very confusing to folks on the ‘outside,’ particularly when nobody has really talked about the history of the word in terms of American history, language, performance and identity.”
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