Recently, during harassment training, I was asked “why is it okay for black employees to use the ‘n word’ between them without consequence, but a white employee gets disciplined for doing so?” My response was that it is never acceptable and the use of any slur against a protected group is always impermissible and should result in corrective action. The recent unpublished opinion of Hecht v National Heritage Academies, Inc. emphasizes the importance of treating all slurs, regardless of the speaker, the same.
Craig Hecht, who is white, was employed by National Heritage Academies as a third grade teacher at the Linden Charter Academy (LCA), where 93% of the students are African American. One day, Lisa Code, a white woman who worked in the library, returned a white table to Hecht’s classroom. Realizing she had actually borrowed a brown table, she asked if it mattered to Hecht whether she returned a white table when she had borrowed a brown one. Hecht, who is white, made the comment that he preferred the white table better than brown and that all the brown needed to go. Code thought he was joking, but asked “what?” In response, Hecht said he was just joking. Floyd Bell, the African American special education paraprofessional assigned to Hecht’s classroom was not amused. Code and Bell both reported the comment (or variations of it) to the dean. It was also further reported that Hecht looked over his shoulder at the students and asked “white is better than brown, right?”
Long and short, while Hecht maintained that he meant no harm and he was just engaged in racial bantering, his employment was terminated for the comment and for his attempt to interfere with the investigation. Hecht filed suit claiming that he was discharged for the racial “bantering” but similarly situated African American employees were not disciplined at all for their racial comments.