It’s Black History Month! And I’m continuing to share thoughts on race and diversity in the workplace. In this post, I’m diving into the grand-daddy of all racially charged words — the N-word.
The modern version of the word seems to have originated during the 1600s, when American colonists used “negar” to describe the African slaves brought to the Virginia colonies. The word spiraled from there to be the extremely inflammatory word it is today.
And, because of that, there is nothing I hate more than having to deal with the use of the N-word in the workplace. What’s worse is how many Black people I deal with who defend their right to use it.
Which brings me to the tale of Mr. Black and Mr. White …
Mr. White was Black. He’d been an employee for a little less than a year when Mr. Black (who was White) became the manager of his department. Well, Mr. White was friends with Mr. Brown (who was also Black) and they regularly used the N-word as a term of endearment to refer to themselves and other people.
Mr. Black didn’t like it. He thought it was inappropriate for the workplace. And he told Mr. White and Mr. Brown to cut it out. They didn’t listen to him. They defended their right to use the word as Black people and ignored Mr. Black’s instructions.
One day, during one of Mr. White and Brown’s N-word riddled conversations, Mr. Black jumped in and started using the N-word himself. An argument ensued which turned physical. Mr White and Mr Black were terminated.
But what happened next still baffles me to this day.
Both men filed for unemployment benefits, alleging they were terminated wrongfully.
Mr. White was awarded benefits while Mr. Black was denied.
Apparently, Mr. White’s argument that he was using the N-word as a term of endearment and not in an inflammatory way made sense. And Mr. Black’s choice to use the N-word to demonstrate why it’s not OK to use the N-word at work did not fly. And our argument that the N-word is inflammatory enough that it should not ever be used regardless of the intention was only half right.
Et tu, State Commission?!?!
Mr. White and Mr. Black suddenly made use of the N-word at work very … grey!
I don’t want to debate the N-word and it’s use in every day life and/or pop-culture. If you choose to use it as a term of endearment in your life to refer to your friends and loved ones, that is your choice. I disagree with you, but that is your choice.
At work, however, it’s never appropriate. That’s right — NEVER!! The history and pejorative nature of the N-word makes it off-limits. There cannot be words that are OK for some people but not OK for others in a place where everyone is supposed to be held to the same standard. Period. And the same rules apply to the B-word and F-word (not to be confused with the F-bomb, which I confess is one of my favorite words). There is no place for it. So cut it out — or face the consequences!
And by consequences, I mean progressive disciplinary action. I’m not advocating terminating every employee who uses inappropriate or inflammatory language immediately. When it happens, there is an opportunity to teach and coach about appropriateness and inclusion that should be seized. In the case of Mr. White and Mr. Black, the decision to terminate them was based on their altercation turning physical, not solely their use of the N-word. Had they not gotten into a fight, they probably wouldn’t have lost their jobs.
So what happened to Mr. Brown? He stuck around. He was counseled and there were no further issues with him …
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