I'm going to discuss the recent news about the Miami Dolphins, and the words major league football player Richie Incognito said to fellow player Jonathan Martin. I'm using this incident to point out an important principle about simple human decency.
We'll call it The First Principle: It is never okay to insult someone with racial slurs. There are no circumstances and no context in which this is okay. It is always unacceptable.
That's so important, I'm going to say it again: IT IS ALWAYS UNACCEPTABLE TO INSULT SOMEONE WITH RACIAL SLURS.
With that out of the way, we should all feel some horror that Mr. Incognito and his enablers in the Miami Dolphins organization have tried to paint Mr. Martin as blameworthy somehow. Somehow, they've managed to convince a certain segment of the country to interpret Mr. Martin's decision not to comment as meaning that he brought on himself getting called a "half-n-gger" and having his "real mother" slapped across the face.
Now Mr. Incognito is working the talk shows, telling people he didn't mean to hurt Mr. Martin, and that he's not a racist, and sometimes Mr. Martin has used the term "n-gger" himself.
If you're disgusted by what Mr. Incognito is saying, I'm with you. If what he's saying sounds persuasive to you in any way, go back to The First Principle.
This incident has tapped into an ongoing debate about whether African-Americans can use the n-word when talking to each other (because Mr. Incognito brought that up as a justification for his own words). Unless you're African-American, you don't get to decide that. You get to have an opinion, but make sure that you understand that your opinion about it isn't really all that important. And whether it's okay or not for African-Americans to say it, it never, ever justifies the use of that racial slur by someone who is not an African-American.
I felt moved to write this entry because Mr. Incognito and Mr. Martin are co-workers. They're highly paid, high profile co-workers, but they're still co-workers. Mr. Incognito is paid a lot of money to play a game that children like to play in sandlots and on grass fields, but he attaches such importance to what he does for a living that he tries to justify his use of racist language in the spirit of building camaraderie and ultimate success on the football field. I think Mr. Incognito needs a little perspective.
Federal law prohibits harassing a co-worker on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected characteristics. To violate the law, the harassment has to be so severe or pervasive that it fundamentally alters the nature of the workplace.
Nothing in the law requires that Mr. Incognito have "intended" to hurt anyone. Harassment (unlike discrimination) is viewed from the reasonable perspective of the harassed person.
Yet the statements Mr. Incognito and his Dolphin cohorts have been making are typical of the harasser's profile. Mr. Incognito says he's not a racist, which is irrelevant, because whether he's a racist or not, his words were unacceptably racist. He says we should examine his words in context, that Mr. Martin didn't mind in the past, and no one ever complained before.
In other words, he's saying that Mr. Martin didn't mind before; what's the big deal now?
In the real world, it sometimes takes a while for the abuse to build to the point that the victim finally objects. Pretending that the victim should always say something the first time he hears an ignorant slur is just nonsense. Worse, it's dangerous nonsense, because it allows the perpetrator to blame the victim for not getting offended fast enough.
Everyone has the right to work in a place that's free of illegal harassment, where you can do your job without abuse that's based on a protected characteristic. It's not just the law; it's simple human decency.