The n-word, historically known as a derogatory term for Black people, is offensive for several reasons. The term has been used for centuries to dehumanize Black people and to justify their enslavement, oppression, and.
The word has a deeply painful and traumatic history that is rooted in the transatlantic slave trade. It was used to refer to Black people as property and as a way to deny their humanity. The n-word was also used as a tool of violence and intimidation during the era of slavery and segregation, and it has been associated with lynchings, beatings, and other forms of racist violence.
Even after slavery was abolished and segregation was formally ended, the n-word continued to be used as a way to dehumanize and discriminate against Black people. It was and still is a potent symbol of racism, prejudice, and hate.
Today, the use of the n-word is widely regarded as offensive and inappropriate, as it perpetuates a history of systemic race/color and reinforces the notion that Black people are inferior and unworthy of respect. Many people believe that the term should never be used under any circumstances, as it is deeply hurtful and insensitive.
Unfortunately, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit disagrees and held that it is acceptable to use the n-word in full is legally acceptable in the workplace depending on the circumstances. In White v. Vance County Sheriff, No. 21-2424, 2023 WL 2263018, at *2 (4th Cir. Feb. 28, 2023), Justin White, a Black man, worked as a Sheriff. While he was understandably fired after breaking a woman’s arm during an arrest and while on probation, these facts should not bleed into what constitutes a racially hostile work environment. (Breaking the victim’s arm did end his wrongful termination claim.
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What is a racially hostile work environment?
A racially hostile work environment is a workplace in which an employee is subjected to discriminatory or harassing behavior based on their race or ethnicity. It is created when discriminatory conduct or comments are severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive or intimidating work environment for the affected employee.
Some examples of racially hostile behavior that may create a hostile work environment include:
- Racial slurs or insults;
- Offensive jokes or comments about a person’s race or ethnicity;
- Displaying racist or offensive images or symbols;
- Unequal treatment based on race, such as being denied opportunities for promotion or training; and
- Physical intimidation or threats based on race.
It’s important to note that a racially hostile work environment does not have to be intentionally created by an employer to be unlawful. If an employer knows or should have known about the discriminatory behavior and fails to take appropriate action to stop it, they may be held liable for allowing a hostile work environment to exist.
Employees who are subjected to a racially hostile work environment have legal protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits in employment based on race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion.
Best Racially Hostile Workplace Attorney Blogs on Point:
- What Evidence Do I Need To Prove Hostile Work Environment And Constructive Discharge?
- Not All Hostile Work Environments Are Actionable
- What Is A Legally Hostile Work Environment?
- What Qualifies A Hostile Work Environment Under Title VII?
Can the single use of the n-word in the workplace create a legally hostile work environment?
Maybe. Maybe not. Unfortunately, it may depend on the court or judge deciding the issue.
Our race attorney frequently point to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals’ holding in Ayissi-Etoh v. Fannie Mae, et al., in which provided that an employee can prevail on hostile work environment by presenting evidence of the single use of the “N-word.” Now United States Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh took an even stronger opinion in a concurring opinion:
It may be difficult to fully catalogue the varion verbal insults and epithets that by themselves could create a hostile work environment. And there may be close cases at the margins. But, in my view, being called the n-word by a supervisor – as Ayissi-Etoh alleges happened to him – suffices by itself to establish a racially hostile work environment. That epithet has been labeled, varionly, a term that “sums up . . . all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America,” LANGSTON HUGHES, THE BIG SEA 269 (2d ed. 1993) (1940), “pure anathema to African-Americans,” Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 185 (4th Cir. 2001), and “probably the most offensive word in English,” RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER’S COLLEGE DICTIONARY 894 (2d rev. ed. 2000). See generally ALEX HALEY, ROOTS (1976); HARPER LEE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1960). Other courts have explained that “perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment than the use of . . . ‘n*gg*r’ by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates.” Spriggs, 242 F.3d at 185. No other word in the English language so powerfully or instantly calls to mind our country’s long and brutal struggle to overcome racism and against African-Americans.
Yet, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in White, held that courts must look to how the n-word was intended to be used:
White sued the county, the sheriff’s office, the sheriff, and two members of the sheriff’s office. On top of the allegations recounted above, the amended complaint alleged Black employees at the sheriff’s office were subject to critical and hostile comments. When asked about such remarks during his deposition, White testified about hearing the n-word three times during the summer of 2018. First, White heard an Indian American deputy use the word in a colloquial greeting to a different Black officer. Second, White heard a higher-ranking white co-worker use the same phrase when mocking the Indian American deputy for greeting his coworker in that way. Finally, White overheard a higher-ranking officer (who is white and may have been White’s supervisor at the time) sing along to a song including the word.
* * *
To succeed on his hostile work environment claims, White must show: “(1) unwelcome conduct; (2) that is based on [White’s] protected status; (3) which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter [White’s] conditions of employment and to create an abusive work environment; and (4) which is imputable to the employer.” Strothers v. City of Laurel, 895 F.3d 317, 328 (4th Cir. 2018) (quotation marks omitted).
White’s evidence fails this test as a matter of law. To be clear, this Court has recognized the n-word is such “pure anathema” that even a single use may be sufficient to create a hostile work environment. Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp., 786 F.3d 264, 280 (4th Cir. 2015) (en banc). But White does not show the words here were received as racial epithets, nor does he demonstrate any of the statements were made or blessed by anyone with supervisory authority over him.
I personally believe that as long as someone in management said the n-word or heard the use of the n-word without addressing it, the case should go to the jury to determine whether its use created a hostile working environment. Nonetheless, White emphasizes some of the important recommendations that our racial attorneys have blogged about:
- Concurrent with its use, tell management or HR that the racial language being used is offensive and being received as being offensive.
- Document your report to your supervisor or HR regarding race-based.
- Keep evidence, such as emails or text messages that address the racially hostile conduct in the workplace.
- Hire the best damn employment discrimination attorneys that you can find near you.
Best Race Discrimination at Work Law Firm Blogs on Point:
- One Use Of N-Word By Manger May Or May Not Create Hostile Work Environment
- Employer Liable For Boss’s 6-Year-Old Kid Calling Worker N-Word
- Race Discrimination: Minority Bosses Cannot Use N-Word Either
- Race Discrimination: Using The “N-Word,” Even Once, Can Create A Hostile Work Environment.
- Are You Experiencing A Hostile Work Environment?
Can I sue my employment because my supervisor called me a “n*gg*r”?
Best Employment Lawyer Answer: Yes, you can and you should do so with the help of the race discrimination attorneys at Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm. Spitz is one of the largest dedicated employee’s rights law firms in the United States. Our attorneys are dedicated to representing employees who have been wrongfully fired based on their race, national origin, gender, age, religion or disability. We don’t just dabble in employee’s rights – it is part of our DNA. So, call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical; Employment Law: Avoid Hiring The Wrong Attorney).
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