John Schnatter, the founder and former CEO of Papa John’s Pizza, faced criticism and resigned from his position in 2018 after reports surfaced that he used the N-word during a conference call. Despite Schnatter’s argument that he used the term while expressing his disapproval of racism, the incident had significant negative consequences for his reputation and professional standing. Other public figures involved in similar controversies include Madonna, Gina Rodriguez, country musician Morgan Wallen, and comediennes Lisa Lampanelli and Roseanne Barr.
Carl Borg-Neal is no celebrity; he is a 59-year-old father-of-two from Andover, Hampshire. In 2021, he was fired for using the N-word during a diversity and race education training session. The bank worker inadvertently dropped the racial slur while seeking advice on how to handle situations where a Black person uses the term. There was no malicious intent, and he wasn’t directing it at anyone. He was simply trying to ask a question and understand the context of the N-word’s usage in rap lyrics or among “individuals playing basketball”.
Even though he immediately apologised for any offence caused, his remark allegedly left the session’s leader so distressed that she took a week off, a factor that contributed to the decision to terminate Borg-Neal for gross misconduct.
In a subsequent legal battle, the employment tribunal ruled in favour of Borg-Neal, acknowledging the validity and lack of malice in his question. He has been granted a substantial £490,000 payout. What makes this case particularly noteworthy is the glaring double standard surrounding the use of the N-word. It’s intriguing that the very term, considered a “reclaimed word” and a term of endearment in one context, metamorphoses into a career-ending offence in another.
It prompts us to question why there are different rules for White individuals when it comes to the usage of such terms. During a live performance in Omaha, Nebraska, the American rapper and singer Doja Cat openly warned White attendees against singing the N-word. TikTok footage captured the award-winning star performing her 2021 track “Ain’t Sh*t,” featuring a hook that includes the controversial term. The explicit instruction given to her Caucasian fans in attendance was, “Watch your mouth if you’re White.”
This inconsistency also extends beyond seemingly offensive words and has even infiltrated everyday interactions. Compliments, often intended to uplift, express admiration, or simply break the ice, suddenly take on a different hue when they come from a White person.
Asking about someone’s background or expressing curiosity about their origin is generally considered normal and acceptable, unless, of course, a White person is the one expressing such curiosity. I often ask people I meet, whether for the first time or as I become more familiar with them, about their origins, and I usually receive similar questions from non-White individuals without any issues. This practice is viewed as a way to connect with a person, learn more about them, and build relationships and rapport.
Yet, this natural and common aspect of human interaction transforms into a hunt for racism when a White person is involved; basic curiosity is not so basic anymore with White individuals in the picture.
In such cases, these questions have been labelled and framed as racist, occasionally escalating into full-blown controversies. No wonder there is a climate of uncertainty surrounding the rules and boundaries of what is deemed acceptable.
While some argue for its reclamation within the African-American community in the US, I find myself questioning the wisdom of embracing a term supposedly entrenched in historical suffering. Is reclaiming the “N-word” truly empowering, or does it inadvertently and subconsciously keep alive the negative ideas it used to represent? If the term once symbolised the abuse and dehumanisation that Black people endured in centuries past, why wouldn’t someone choose to distance themselves from anything associated with such a painful period?
Imagine a woman who has been a victim of prolonged and systematic domestic abuse and was given a derogatory nickname by her abuser. Does it make sense for her to hold on to that name after the abuse has ended? Or does it make more sense for her to reject being known or referred to by that name? I would have thought that the real essence of “taking back power” from a situation lies in the latter.
But perhaps many don’t really want to reclaim the power of a word; it may just be a way to actually exercise power over people or groups.
The consequences of using certain words should not be based on the racial makeup of the person uttering them. If using such a word in one context is considered so egregious that it constitutes a fireable offence, then no one should use it, and no one should receive special passes. If it’s a problem when White people say it, then it should be a problem when anyone says it.
In the case of Carl Borg-Neal, his use of the N-word during a genuine inquiry should have sparked a constructive conversation rather than a punitive response. Hence, this judgement is crucial as it sends a message that casual or careless misunderstandings, or pretending not to grasp the context of someone’s query or statement just because they are White, will no longer be easily tolerated.
Ada Akpala is the senior content officer of The Equiano Project.