Sometimes, people don’t realize the language they are using may be offensive to members of a protected class. That can happen when a term has been in use for decades or even centuries and has become separated from its original meaning or context.
Consider a recent case involving usage of the term “tar baby.” It has literary origins but also is highly offensive in the black community because it has become a derogatory term used to describe black children.
Recent case: Pamela Robinson, who is black, worked for the Department of the Army and claimed she had to endure a hostile environment and was retaliated against for filing an EEOC complaint.
Her chief example of the racially hostile environment she claimed she had to endure involved a staff meeting. During the meeting, her supervisor discussed a proposed program and said, “Once you get your hands on that tar baby, you can’t let it go.”
Robinson complained to the supervisor, who told her he didn’t realize the term was offensive, and that he wouldn’t use it again.
The court considering Robinson’s hostile environment case said the single incident wasn’t enough to support her claim. The court did acknowledge that the term shouldn’t be used in the workplace today, but said that since it was clearly a reference to a famous story and not intended to offend, the lawsuit should be dismissed. (Robinson v. Geren, No. 1:07-CV-336, MD NC, 2009)
Advice: Obviously, you don’t want your organization to have to defend itself from a lawsuit just because a manager used a derogatory term he or she didn’t realize was offensive to some employees. Include such examples in your next harassment training session.
Another common example is the use of any graphic involving a noose—a symbol in the black community of the Jim Crow days of lynching. Many people outside the black community don’t appreciate how terrifying the symbol can be for people whose relatives may have died by hanging.
If you are unsure what to cover, you may want to call in expert help.
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