Surprise! The N-Word Is Not Appropriate For the Office
On March 14, 2012, Brandi Johnson had a meeting with her boss, Rob Carmona. Having been subjected to nearly two years of verbal abuse, she decided to record it. During the meeting Carmona admonished her for her workplace attire and her inappropriate behavior – all while calling her the n-word. He also called her smart, but dumb as…well, let’s just say it was NSFW.
For nearly four minutes Carmona continued his expletive laden tirade, in which he called her a n****r eight times. This left Johnson demoralized and in tears. A month later, when she sent a detailed account of the abuse she had endured to the company’s CEO, he told her she was “out of line” and to stop being “emotional.”
One month later, she was fired.
She worked for a non-profit agency dedicated to “helping individuals with significant barriers to employment receive the training and support they need to obtain meaningful work and achieve economic self-sufficiency.” These significant barriers include things like incarceration or drugs. STRIVE focuses largely on helping minorities and prides itself on having many women on their staff. It has been heralded for doing great work in the communities they serve.
Brandi Johnson was not a participant in the program but had also overcome adversity, having been previously convicted of grand larceny. She had high expectations when she started working for them as an Affiliates Services Coordinator. Shortly after she arrived at STRIVE East Harlem, Caromona, her boss and co-founder of the organization, began verbally abusing her. Over the next two years, she would file several complaints, only to have her complaints fall on deaf ears. When she came to the defense of a colleague who had been sexually harassed by a fellow employee, she was retaliated against and subjected to further verbal abuse.
Apparently this was the inappropriate behavior for which she was being admonished.
This might be a good time to mention that while most of STRIVE’s employees are women, all of their executives are men. There are only two women on their fourteen member board. Women may be doing much of the work, but they aren’t making the decisions. Important decisions like how to handle gender-based harassment.
Maybe they think women are too emotional for things like that.
After being fired, Johnson filed a hostile workplace claim in federal court in New York, due to gender and racially based harassment. On the stand she told how she was offended by the use of the N-word and she felt humiliated. The defense argued that she couldn’t possibly have been offended due to one very important factor: both she and Carmona are black.
The 61-year-old Carmona testified that the N-word has multiple contexts in the African-American and Latin communities (he included the latter because he is half Puerto-Rican). It can be used in love, anger, friendship or as a way to express a state of being. In the case of his use of the word – eight times in four minutes – with Johnson, it was out of love. He was just letting her know that she was being a n****r in the “too emotional, wrapped up in the negative aspects of human nature” sense.
Because apparently that’s what you call a woman who complains about harassment.
The crux of the defense’s argument was that because the word was used between two black people, it was not racially motivated and, in fact, culturally acceptable. This didn’t make it any less hurtful to the 38-year-old Brandi Johnson who admitted that after that meeting in March 2012, she went into the bathroom and cried for 45 minutes. It left her feeling degraded and disrespected.
While there would be little doubt the word would be racially motivated if Carmona was white, the jury was tasked with deciding if this was indeed a case of cultural norms if the target was offended. Even if they did believe the argument, was it appropriate for a workplace environment?
The answer is no.
In September, a federal jury issued a verdict agreeing that the use of the word was hostile and discriminatory. Ms. Johnson was awarded $250,000 dollars in compensatory damages, and an additional $30,000 in punitive damages, the latter to be split between STRIVE and Carmona, who is to pay $25,000 dollars of the punitive award.
In a statement issued after the verdict, STRIVE agreed that the language used was inappropriate and against policy, but there was no “evidence of harassment or discrimination based on gender and race” after a thorough investigation. They also denied she was fired because of her complaints, saying her position was funded by grant money and that the funds had been exhausted and, therefore, she was let go.
Apparently it was just a coincidence it happened right after she complained to the CEO.
STRIVE plans to appeal.