Racial epithets and reverse discrimination: Who is allowed to say the "N" word?

Who, if anybody, has the right to use the "N" word in the workplace? Should an employer treat African-Americans who use this language differently from non-African-Americans who do?

These are perennial questions that arise during harassment training, and there has been little guidance from the courts or the EEOC. The opinions of individual lawyers no doubt vary. My own advice has been to ban the word in the workplace no matter who says it but to use some discretion (and, yes, a bit of a double standard) in enforcing the ban. In other words, I would usually recommend being more lenient with African-Americans who use the word than with non-African-Americans who use it.

Does this mean I advocate reverse discrimination? No. To me, it is a matter of common sense and common courtesy. If I make a mistake at work and call myself "stupid" or "forgetful," that is nothing. But if my boss or my co-worker says I am stupid and forgetful, I am going to be insulted. If I criticize a member of my family, it's no big deal (to me, anyway) because we all know that I really love him or her. But let an outsider make the same criticism about my loved one, and that will get my dander up. The same principle applies to comments about my sex, my age, my nationality, and my religion, and I daresay for yours as well.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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