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.
With Democratic Sen. Barack Obama as the first African-American to head a major-party ticket, political analysts predict race will become a central issue in the presidential election. Negative messages about race used in the campaigns and in the media could spill over into the general public, the analysts said, conjuring old stereotypes and stirring fears that create racial tension.
Terms such as “welfare queens” and “crime-ridden neighborhoods” have long been used to refer to African-Americans, Dawson said. In recent years, other analysts said, discussions about patriotism have increasingly become coded with phrases such as “full-blooded Americans” used to exclude certain ethnic groups, particularly Latino immigrants.
During the Democratic primary season, Sen. Hillary Clinton was accused of using racial code when she said that Obama’s support among “hardworking Americans, white Americans,” was weakening. The inference, critics said, is that only white Americans work hard.
Reading the subtleties
Since the first racial code word lawsuit in 1996, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen an influx of cases involving racially coded messages. In the earlier case, the federal appeals court in Philadelphia overturned a lower court ruling and found in favor of a credit manager who sued Cort Furniture Rental. Carol Aman said she and other black employees were referred to as “you people” and “that one in there.”
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.”
Earlier this month, Maurica Grant, 32, who was fired from her job as a technical inspector with NASCAR, filed a lawsuit claiming that she was repeatedly harassed. Grant, who is black, said co-workers called her “Nappy Headed Mo” and “Queen Sheba.” According to Grant, they also said she worked on “colored people time,” meaning she often was late.
EEOC officials said they also have seen cases of code words used to identify ethnic groups in job applications.
“Racial harassment is alive and well and manifesting itself in so many forms, especially with advances in technology allowing programs that screen out certain addresses and names associated with certain groups,” said Paula Bruner, appellate attorney for the EEOC in Washington. “It is a lot more pervasive than people appreciate.”
Another Web site, the Racial Slur Database, defines 2,649 slurs. According to the site, its mission is “helping to make the world a better place.”