Because Blatant Slurs Aren’t Good Enough

by Latoya Peterson

An interesting article made its way to me last week. “Coded Prejudice is a Cloaked Dagger,” from the Chicago Tribune:

Tomeika Broussard thought it was so absurd when she overheard her supervisor refer to her as a “reggin” that she just laughed. Then she realized it was the n-word spelled backward.

The only African-American in the small medical clinic in Los Gatos, Calif., Broussard said she was subjected to racial slurs almost daily. They were not the overt ones that most people would immediately recognize, but rather subtle, surreptitious code words that sometimes take a while to figure out.

“When ‘reggin’ came up, I’d never heard that word but I knew it was negative. So I had this kind of nervous, shocked laugh,” said Broussard, 31, who was awarded $44,000 in damages last year in a racial harassment lawsuit filed after she was fired from her job as a file clerk. “I didn’t know whether it was illegal, but I knew it was not OK. It was humiliating.”

Federal officials say they have seen an increase in harassment complaints involving coded words and images in the workplace. Whether it is geared toward racial groups, religious affiliations, sex or sexual orientation, code words have proliferated in recent years through the Internet, where Web sites provide forums for creating, discussing and spreading new words promoting intolerance.

I find it fascinating that most of the racism that the majority of people can identify as racist must be (1) blatantly obvious like carving “KKK” into someone’s yard and (2) must have a widely held history of being offensive, like the word nigger. However, even those appear to be up for debate these days.

In the meantime, racism has migrated into this weird “gotcha!” strategy where people use slurs and epithets either (1) openly, by claiming they are ironic, or (2) covertly, subbing an innocuous word for what they really want to say. Like Canadian.

And, unlike the last few code word stories that have been reported, it isn’t just white people in on this one:

As the country becomes more diverse, cases also have resulted from culture clashes between African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, according to the EEOC.

For example, an assembly technician in San Jose, Calif., sued the company he worked for last year, claiming he was harassed by a Vietnamese co-worker who repeatedly played loud rap music with anti-black racial epithets. The lawsuit charged the co-worker also sang the lyrics within earshot of him.

In another case, a black employee was repeatedly called “Cornelius” in a reference to the ape character from the movie “Planet of the Apes.” Another case involved a man of Chinese and Italian ancestry who was taunted daily by his foreman, who referred to him as ” Bruce Lee.”

The article also gives an interesting overview of court cases based on code words:

Boss’ comments: In May 2006, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settled a hostile work environment case against a Florida furniture store chain where a manager allegedly made racially and sexually offensive remarks to a black employee, referred to the African-Americans as “you people” and interracial couples as “Oreos” or “Zebras,” and disparaged the worker for marrying a Caucasian man.

American Indians targeted: In November 2004, the EEOC settled a case against an upstate New York computer parts manufacturer where American Indians employees were subjected to frequent name-calling, war whoops and other derogatory statements referring to being “on the warpath” and to scalping, alcohol abuse and living in tepees.

Insults, denied opportunities: In March 2007, MBNA America agreed to pay $147,000 to settle a Title VII lawsuit alleging discrimination and harassment based on race and national origin. According to the lawsuit, an Asian Indian employee was subjected to ethnic taunts, such as being called “dot-head” and “Osama bin Laden,” was assaulted by a co-worker with a learning disability who believed he was bin Laden’s brother, and was denied training and promotional opportunities afforded his white co-workers.

Marriage attacked: On April 1, 2008, the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled in favor of a white basketball coach at Iona College who said he was criticized by a college vice president for marrying a black woman whom he called an “Aunt Jemima.”

Application labeled: On June 10, 2008, a Steeleville, Ill., home health-care agency settled an EEOC lawsuit charging that the agency denied an African-American woman a job and wrote “Black” across the top of her application.

(Thanks Aaminah!)

(Image Credit: CNN)