Words are like bullets.

There’s a great episode of 30 Rock where Twofer (the black character who went to Harvard) gets offended when Tracy Morgan (the black character who did not go to Harvard) says “the n-word” to him, colloquially, as black people allegedly say to each other based on movies and music. Twofer threatens to sue Tracy Morgan for workplace harassment, while Tracy argues that it’s okay for black people to use the word. Then there’s a great, great scene where Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Tracy Morgan try to get Twofer to say the word too.

It doesn’t go well. He says it, Morgan threatens to punch him, and Fey says, “It just sounds so hateful coming from you.” The scene pretty much explains why I personally don’t use the word. I don’t say it around white people, I don’t say it to other black people, I don’t use it when I’m getting a haircut, and I don’t use it around the dinner table with my family at Thanksgiving. It’s not a word that I can “pull off” (I can pull it off in writing when I use it ironically, I think), and I’m totally okay with that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who sees intense hypocrisy in the fact that some black people can and do pull it off while no white person (outside of Louie C.K. and maybe Bill Maher) is allowed to try. White people got a 400-year head start in the New World, and black people can deploy an extra noun when listening to Jay-Z. There are greater tragedies.

But the N-word is not a “professional” word, and I don’t think it should be used in that context. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white or from whatever racist planet Rush Limbaugh is from. At the point where you are using the n-word to talk to your employees, you need to help yourself to a thesaurus.

Apparently, there’s a jury of my peers who agrees with me…

The New York Daily News reports that a federal jury awarded damages to an African-American woman whose boss, a black man, repeatedly used the n-word at work. The jury awarded $280,000 to Brandi Johnson, who produced a tape of her boss, Rob Carmona, repeatedly using the n-word:

In the tape, Carmona repeatedly uses the racial slur against the 38-year-old single mother of two and a co-worker.

“I’m not saying, using the term ‘n—–’ derogatory, ’cause sometimes it’s good to know when to act like a n—–. But y’all act like n—–s all the time,” Carmona said.

When Johnson told her boss she was offended by his language, he said, “You can be offended, but it’s true.”

“You and her act like n—–s. And n—–s let their feelings rule them,” he said.

Carmona claimed that the use of the n-word was “endearing.”

I suppose it can be. In college, I had a white friend who occasionally said “my n**ga” to me, in private. I didn’t call him on it or protest. Then one time he said it to me in public and we had to fight. Later, he was all mad that I punched him, and I had to explain that context matters, and when in doubt he should STFU. Yay diversity in college admissions!

The issue isn’t just about about color (white people should stick to walking across the Grand Canyon instead of trying to pull off the high wire act of using the n-word “endearingly” to a black friend), and it’s not just about context (F-U, Reilly Cooper), it’s also about familiarity. Carmona was not Johnson’s “buddy.” They weren’t having a beer after a long day of mutual toil. He wasn’t doing a stand-up routine about “the way n**gas be acting” like some Chris Rock wannabe. He was at work. And at work, it’s best not to get so familiar with your employees that you think you can talk to them like other people.

Carmona would have known that he couldn’t sit there and say, “But y’all act like c***s all the time.” He’d have known that even if he were from Europe and thought the c-word was some kind of colloquial synonym for “lady.” Not every word that you can get away with at home is appropriate at work.

It’s not about being politically correct, it’s about not being a dick to your employees. Hopefully, it doesn’t take a six-figure lawsuit for all bosses to figure that out, regardless of color.

Federal jury rejects ‘N-word’ among blacks in workplace [New York Daily News]


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