The childhood playground adage that sticks and stones may break bones but words can do no harm is quite simply false. When words are strong enough and said in a certain context, they can do great harm. Thankfully, a recent ruling by the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit holds that when even a single statement is egregious enough, an employee may bring suit against his or her employer for race discrimination or other forms of harassment.
The case that inspired the holding was brought on behalf of a black, male Fannie Mae employee born in Cameroon. After being subjected to an inequitable pay situation allegedly rooted in racial discrimination, he filed a complaint internally. A few days after lodging this complaint, a supervisor ordered him from his office and hurled a deeply offensive slur at him historically used to denigrate black people.