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Lawsuit airs double-standard myths of the n-word

Editor’s note: This article includes offensive language Earlier this week, a jury awarded Brandi Johnson almost $300,000 dollars in damages after she alleged t
Racial Slurs Trial - Adam Serwer - 09/06/2013
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...

Editor’s note: This article includes offensive language

Earlier this week, a jury awarded Brandi Johnson almost $300,000 dollars in damages after she alleged that her manager discriminated against her on the basis of race and gender. As proof, she provided an iPhone recording of her manager, Rob Carmona, laying into her with a rant about how she was acting like a "nigger."

"Both of you are niggers," Carmona said to Johnson according to the complaint, referencing her and another woman who said she had been sexually harassed by a former employee. "Y'all are both very bright. but both of y'all act like niggers at inappropriate times."

The twist? Carmona, like Johnson, is black.

Johnson and Carmona both worked at STRIVE, a New York non-profit agency that aims to help economically struggling city residents find employment. While much coverage of the case has focused on the alleged "double standard" about who can say one of the most controversial words in the English language and when, the case doesn't lend itself to the typical griping about its use. Carmona's defense was that he was using the word to deliver "tough love" to Johnson in an attempt to prevent her from conforming to stereotype. That type of usage is typically associated with "respectability politics," the view that black people's must consciously avoid fulfilling stereotypes in order to overcome social barriers.

"I would say to anybody, especially in a work situation, we ain't using the n-word here, for prudential reasons," says Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law professor and author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. "If you want to make that point, make that point, but make it in a different way."

The irony is that sort of respectability politics is typically used to shame people who use the word in casual conversation.

"So, while you may think it's cool or hip or profound to try to take the word back by bastardizing it, it's not," CNN host Don Lemon told his audience in July concluding his network special on "the n-word." Lemon continued, "By promoting the use of that word when it's not germane to the conversation, have you ever considered that you may just be perpetuating the stereotype the master intended, acting like a nigger?"

Carmona's defense suggests that the lawsuit, illustrates the perils of engaging in this sort of respectability politics in a professional setting. The case wasn't about the supposed double-standard as much as whether it was possible for black person to use the word in a racist way, toward another black person, a question the jury answered with "yes."

Respectability politics aren't necessarily bad of course—during the civil rights movement, marchers often dressed in suits in order to counter white racist perceptions of black behavior. Stereotypes about black people being violent were poetically countered by non-violent protest, and the brutal reaction from Southern authorities galvanized support for black rights. But the Johnson case illustrates how more abrasive expressions of respectability politics can backfire when it seems to be reinforcing racist assumptions rather than dispelling them.

"I understand and I honor the tradition of our elders and our guardians of virtue to attempt to assess and establish standards of acceptable behavior," says Jabari Asim, a professor at Emerson College and author of The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why. "We are fundamentally flawed in that assessment if we rely on language essentially that was created to dehumanize us."

The alleged double-standard over the use of the word "nigger" rests on three interrelated myths. The first is that black people aren't offended when other black people use it. The second is that black people—as opposed to entertainers most accessible to mass audiences—use it all the time. The third is that white people aren't allowed to. Spend ten minutes in New York City and you're likely to hear black, Latino and white kids using it to refer to themselves and their friends. Anyone can use it, they simply have to bear the social consequences of doing so—and simply being black, as Carmona recently learned, won't necessarily keep you out of trouble.

"There are people who say it's okay within the community to use that word," says Asim, who says he ultimately decided that its use is almost never justified, no matter who uses it. "I don't believe there is a consensus regarding that. There are quite a few people who are pretty hostile to the idea that it's acceptable as a term of endearment even among African-Americans." Whether using it is acceptable is a matter of complex individual and social factors that no one can take for granted.

But if other black people are less offended when other black people use it, that's not a "double standard," its a consequence of the reality that the word affects black people in a way it affects no one else. It's no more a double standard than it is for a wife to call her husband "honey"—the collective experience of racism has created a kind of familial intimacy, within which certain behaviors can be tolerated that wouldn't be acceptable from outsiders. Even some of the most expert practitioners of respectability politics have used the word behind closed doors. Civil rights legend and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall used to ironically refer to himself among colleagues as "Head Nigger" when he ran the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1950s, to the horror of some of his subordinates.

That doesn't mean that it's always acceptable. Johnson felt like Carmona was discriminating against her and the jury agreed. Carmona claimed he was just giving Johnson "tough love." It's impossible to imagine that Carmona would have spoken that way to Johnson if she were white. But it is possible to imagine a scenario where that kind of "tough love" is a sincere attempt to warn someone of an outside world that will be less forgiving of their flaws than someone who isn't black.

About the only thing the Johnson case demonstrates for certain is that when you're at work, you should probably avoid using it, unless you want a jury deciding whether it's appropriate.