Racist Slurs in a Foreign Language Is Still Harassment


The use of racial slurs in a foreign language, particularly in connection with other problematic conduct, can create a hostile work environment, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently held.

In Johnson v. PRIDE Indus., Inc., a Hispanic supervisor used “mayate,” which is the Spanish equivalent of the N-word, to refer to a Black employee in that employee’s presence, as well as on a regular basis with fellow Hispanic employees to refer to other Black employees. The Black employee also claimed that the Hispanic supervisor only called him “mijo” (son) or “manos” (hands) rather than by name. Additionally, the supervisor gave the Black employee less preferable assignments and hid his applications for promotion on several occasions, as well as hiding materials the Black employee needed to do his job. Although the employee repeatedly complained to his manager and HR, the company concluded no harassment had occurred (although it summarily stated that it “addressed as appropriate” each of the complaints), and the conduct continued. Eventually, the employee resigned.

The Fifth Circuit found that the employee had sufficiently alleged the existence of a hostile work environment. In order to establish a hostile work environment, there must be conduct targeted at an individual because of their protected characteristic that is sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to alter the conditions of employment. In this case, the Fifth Circuit characterized the N-word as “the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon.” It recognized that some sister Circuits have found the limited or isolated use of the word is sufficiently severe to create a hostile environment. The Fifth Circuit did not need to decide whether it would follow those courts, however, because there was additional conduct that could support the severe or pervasive nature of the harassment. Thus, the use of the superficially inoffensive terms “mijo” and “manos” could have been offensive in the context of the situation. Moreover, the supervisor interfered with the Black employee’s attempts to secure a promotion and assigned him less favorable work. The Fifth Circuit found that all of this conduct could reasonably be found by a jury to create a hostile work environment.

Of particular interest in this case is the fact that the racial slurs were made in a foreign language. The Black employee, although he only had limited knowledge of Spanish, was aware of how derogatory the term “mayate” was. But even if he had not been, the other Spanish-speaking employees in the workplace clearly were. To the extent that an employer is aware that inappropriate language is being used in the workplace – even in another language – it is important to take prompt action to stop it.