Brooks v. Total Credit Recovery Limited, a decision from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario examined words, their etymology, and their impact in the workplace.
On September 7, 2010, the applicant filed an Application with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario alleging discrimination based on race, colour, ancestry, and ethnic origin.
The applicant alleged that a co-worker used the word or term “ghetto” to describe the manner in which the applicant was dressed.
On the morning of April 30, 2010, the applicant arrived at work on a casual work clothes day wearing black pants and a soccer jersey. Allegedly, a co–worker remarked that the worker looked “ghetto”, to which the applicant took offence. The applicant confronted the co-worker who repeated the same or a similar comment. The applicant indicated that once the word had been used, it was then repeated by his co–workers as they taunted him, and that it resulted in him becoming more and more isolated.
The question before the Tribunal was whether or not the use of the word “ghetto” in this context was discriminatory and giving rise to a poisoned work environment. The personal respondent, who admitted to using the word more than once, explained that in his experience, the word “ghetto” was now openly bandied about. He cited examples such as his teenage children who referred to “ghetto clothing” or “ghetto clothes” and looking “ghetto”. The respondent went so far as to introduce evidence from the Internet where such words described apparel. The respondent, who self-identified as Black, submitted that such comments had nothing to do with the applicant’s race or colour but were confined to his clothing.[i]
An expert witness teaching Multilingual Education testified on behalf of the respondent. The witness explained the etymology of the word “ghetto” and the meaning of the usage of terms such as “ghetto clothing”. During her testimony she addressed the word suggesting that its original meaning had changed and that it was now an acceptable word used in everyday language as evidenced by its present day usage. The expert witness cited such terms such as “ghetto clothing” “ghetto chic” “ghetto fabulous” which seemed to suggest a particular kind of urban style now seen as trendy or positive.[ii]
When these words, their meaning and context, were applied to “the Code” and this situation, the Tribunal came to a different conclusion than that of the expert. The Tribunal found that although the respondent’s initial comment may have been made inadvertently, intent is not needed in regard to discrimination. The matter was compounded by the fact that when the co–worker was confronted in regard to his behaviour, he repeated the same comment, or a comment similar in nature. Clearly the comment, regardless of intent, was unwelcome by the applicant. The Tribunal stated the following:
“In my view and based on the evidence before me, there is a strong association between the usage of the term “ghetto” and the Black community, which has its origins in the usually impoverished inner city areas of major American cities that are populated by African Americans…this usage of the term “ghetto” is negative and derogatory and is used to denote a place that is run-down, undesirable or shabby.”[iii]
The Tribunal also stated that the fact that the personal respondent himself is a member of a racialzed group, does not insulate him from potential liability under the Code.[iv]
The Tribunal found in favour of the applicant, awarding $2,500.00 as compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self–respect.
While some may look at this matter as simply another form of political correctness, one must remember that words, all words, have a meaning and a stigma that some have forgotten about, or to which some have become desensitized. The takeaway in this matter is a simple one, as language and human rights legislation continue to evolve so must human rights training in each and every organization.
[i] Brooks v. Total Credit Recovery Limited 2012 HRTO 1232, para. 22
[ii] Ibid., para. 27
[iii] Ibid., para. 30
[iv] Ibid., para. 32