Court Ruling Revives Discussion On Who Can Use The N-Word

A federal jury has decided that even among members of the Black community, there is no acceptable time to use the word.
By @katierucke |
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    Brandi Johnson, left, and her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, leave federal court in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, after a civil jury awarded $30,000 in punitive damages in addition to the $250,000 in compensatory damages that had been awarded last week. The jury said STRIVE East Harlem, a nonprofit employment organization, must pay $5,000 while one of its founders, Rob Carmona, owes $25,000 in punitive damages after an audio-tape played during a week-long trial showed he launched an N-word laced tirade against Johnson while she worked at STRIVE last year. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)

    Brandi Johnson, left, and her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, leave federal court in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, after a week long trial showing her boss, Rob Carmona, launched racial slurs against Johnson, including the N-word, while she worked at nonprofit organization STRIDE last year. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)

    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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      • Hairee Pothead

        First time a black get charged and sentenced to self racism.

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      • midnightgemini51

        Oh people, just get OVER IT! All words are just that… they are WORDS. If a person lets WORDS hurt them, then heaven forbid that someone smacks them upside of the head. People who get offended by words must have low self esteem. Let’s just ban all words to make those cry babies happy… make every person use sign language. Get a back bone you wimps! And FYI, I’ve been called what some refer to as “bad” words and I just ignore the ignorant person who says them.

      • waltinvt

        To say the “n” word is the most “offensive” in the English language strikes me as a bit subjective. Isn’t it possible the level of “offensiveness” perceived by members of other groups to slurs directed against them might rise to the level of “most” in their mind? To say that context and source of any racial / ethnic slur doesn’t affect it’s offensiveness is absurd.