I hear black people using the N. word when referring to other people quite often on the internet and on YouTube and it seems to be legal or at least there are no complaints. Would it be legal if a caucasion used this term? If not there would appear to be some injustice and surely the white person would be entitled to claim reverse discrimination. Can you shed some clarity on this issue?

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    I assume that this is a United States question and am tagging it as such as the "N. word" is something that is primarily meaningful in a serious way that could conceivably have legal implications in the U.S. – ohwilleke Nov 30 '16 at 17:16
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    The issue is not reverse discrimination; it is whether the meaning in context reveals discriminatory motives. An African-American using the word "Nigger" is unlikely to be using it in a denigrating sense and more likely to be self-deprecating or ironic. A Caucasian using the word "Nigger" is more likely to be using it in a pejorative, denigrating sense as a put down or slur, though there are contexts (e.g. quoting rap lyrics) where this is unlikely likely and it would be O.K. Still, in some contexts, e.g. a black cop arresting a black man, it could as a slur and reveal discriminatory intent. – ohwilleke Nov 30 '16 at 17:31
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    There's no such thing as "reverse" discrimination. Either an action is discriminatory or it is not; a mindset that exists a defined direction of "true" discrimination, that it can only be done by the normative group, is the main issue with the premise of the question. – Nij Nov 30 '16 at 17:47
  • As a general rule, injustice, hate and discrimination are all legal in the US. But there are specific contexts where they are illegal. If it involves business, it can be illegal since business is a regulated activity. If it involves violation of a person's rights, it can be illegal since rights-violation is a regulated activity. – user6726 Nov 30 '16 at 17:47

U.S. answer.

It's perfectly legal for anyone at all to say and write the word, "nigger". Its use by a white person related to an action against a black person may be interpreted as evidence of a hate crime or unlawful discrimination. Using it publicly to describe a black person might have a number of negative consequences, but none of them from the law.

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  • I would add that using the word "Nigger" in a pejorative way or simply a thoughtless way, would probably be valid grounds to fire someone from a job since it could put a company at risk of a discrimination suit, reflects poor judgment, or is inconsistent with the company's image. – ohwilleke Nov 30 '16 at 17:18
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    the concept of "fighting words" might also be relevant – user4460 Nov 30 '16 at 18:21
  • My understanding is that using "fighting words" means someone might punch you legally. Whether that's the case or not, it's a word that may get you punched, and whether legal or illegal, it hurts just the same. – gnasher729 Dec 2 '16 at 9:01
  • @notstoreboughtdirt TIL that US law has provision for deciding that them's fightin' words. – SGR Dec 2 '16 at 9:14
  • @gnasher729 No, that's not what "fighting words" means at all! It's not lawful to punch someone just because they really, really insulted you. (If "fighting words" still exists as a valid concept in US law, which is doubtful, it just means that your speech wouldn't be protected by the First Amendment. But I think the common view is that Brandenberg's "imminent lawless action" standard now controls, not Chaplinsky's "by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace". In other words, the "fighting words" exception no longer exists.) – David Schwartz Oct 5 '17 at 9:38

Use of the word "nigger" is not itself a criminal matter in the US. However, the Civil Rights Act, as it has been interpreted, prohibits a "hostile environment" in education, employment, housing and some other contexts. This is a civil matter--that is, cause for a lawsuit, usually against the institution at which the hostile environment occurred.

Your question seems to be about whether the law regards use of "nigger" by black people differently than its use by white people. The short answer is no. Nothing in the Civil Rights Act or other anti-discrimination legislation says that different conduct is permissible depending on your race. In fact, any such distinction would probably violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment.

HOWEVER, let's say a black person claims they endured a hostile environment because someone used the word "nigger." The court or equal opportunity employment commission would probably consider the how the word was used. So they would probably regard, for example, affectionate use of "nigga," as is common among black people, differently than derisive or hostile use of the word. Intent, frequency, context, and personal relationships would all figure in to that. But there can be no clear lines based solely on the race of the speaker.

For example check out this case, in which a black manager was harshly penalized for calling one of his employees "nigger." He defended himself by pointing out the more benign use of the term in black English, but the court wasn't convinced. What mattered here was that he was using the word in a way that was critical and drew on racial prejudice. His being black was no defense.

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