Racially hostile work environment? Depends on which "n"-word.

November 19, 2012
By Eric B. Meyer on November 19, 2012 8:00 AM | | Comments

Helene Tyrrell worked as a line chef at a jockey club in Arkansas during the Winter of 2010. She claimed that immediately after she started working, and pretty much throughout her employment, the word "nigger" was bandied about like you and I would say "hello" and "goodbye." However, only once was the "n"-word hurled in her direction.

But it wasn't nigger. No, that's discriminatory.

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Rather, according to the court in Tyrell v. Oaklawn Jockey Club, the "comment directed at Plaintiff and one other co-worker happened after the kitchen crew nearly mused getting breakfast out one Sunday. The comment, was according to Plaintiff, 'I told you niggas we could get this done. I told you we could do this. Y'all my niggas.'" 

And nigga, according to the State of Arkansas, is not a racist term.

So, although Ms. Tyrell claimed that the repeated use of "n"-words, whether in her presence or directed specifically at her, created a hostile work environment, the court was left scratching its proverbial head.

[T]he Court has trouble seeing how an objective person in the Plaintiff's position would have found her co-workers' jesting "extreme in nature." By all appearances, the terms was not used derogatorily at all. It might have offended Plaintiff, but viewed objectively, the language was at most course [sic] jesting.

At least one other court has noted that a plaintiff may, in certain instances, regard "nigga," as no different than "nigger." Wikipedia further notes (here) that "its use and meaning are heavily dependent on context." So, I can't help but feel that the Tyrell Court's overwhelming confidence that a jury would condone the use of the word "nigga" is misplaced, and creates a very dangerous precedent, especially when the Court conceded that the Plaintiff, herself, was offended.

If you are a supervisor, manager, in Human Resources, or otherwise in a position to address complaints of discrimination in the workplace, please do not condone the use of either "n"-word. Maybe the "victim" is not offended by its use; but, maybe he/she is. Don't second-guess it. Just make sure it doesn't happen again.

(h/t Employment Discrimination Report)