CNN anchor Chris Cuomo lost his temper in footage posted online Monday after a man called him “Fredo” — a term he said was a vicious slur against Italian-Americans.
“Punk-ass bitches from the right call me Fredo,” Cuomo said in the video. “My name is Chris Cuomo. I’m an anchor on CNN. Fredo is from ‘The Godfather.’ He was a weak brother. And they’re using it as an Italian aspersion.”
The TV host proceeded to draw a parallel between “Fredo,” a reference to the immature, incompetent Corleone brother in “The Godfather,” and the n-word. He also threatened to throw the man down some stairs.
‘Appreciate all the support but — truth is I should be better than the guys baiting me. This happens all the time these days. Often in front of my family. But there is a lesson: No need to add to the ugliness; I should be better than what I oppose.’
CNN spokesman Matt Dornic stood by Cuomo in a tweet. “Chris Cuomo defended himself when he was verbally attacked with the use of an ethnic slur in an orchestrated setup,” he wrote. “We completely support him.”
Some public figures, including Fox News host Sean Hannity and former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, also came to Cuomo’s defense. “Very proud of @ChrisCuomo,” Scaramucci tweeted. “This happens all the time. It’s quite racist.”
But many took issue with Cuomo having equated “Fredo” with the long, ugly history of the n-word. Meanwhile, video surfaced of CNN T, +1.25% commentator Ana Navarro calling Donald Trump Jr. “Fredo” on Cuomo’s own show.
“Does CNN’s head of PR still think ‘Fredo’ is an ethnic slur after watching this? Because if it’s the N word for Italians like @ChrisCuomo says, I don’t understand why Chris seems so at ease with someone saying it here,” Trump Jr. tweeted. “Hey @ChrisCuomo, take it from me, ‘Fredo’ isn’t the N word for Italians, it just means you’re the dumb brother.”
President Trump chimed in on Twitter TWTR, +2.17%, too. “I thought Chris was Fredo also. The truth hurts. Totally lost it! Low ratings @CNN,” he wrote.
A CNN spokesperson did not immediately return MarketWatch’s request for comment, but Cuomo weighed in late Tuesday morning.
“Appreciate all the support but — truth is I should be better than the guys baiting me,” he tweeted. “This happens all the time these days. Often in front of my family. But there is a lesson: No need to add to the ugliness; I should be better than what I oppose.”
Despite debate over the term and its offensiveness, Cuomo isn’t alone in fielding questionable comments that strike a nerve. Take Derald Wing Sue, who was born in Portland, Ore., but still receives compliments on his grasp of English.
“I usually will reply with, ‘Thank you; I hope so. I was born here,’” Sue, who is Asian-American, told MarketWatch.
Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who studies microaggressions, understands that such remarks are often well-intentioned. “They see it as a compliment,” he said. “They are unaware that they’re sending me what we call a metacommunication, a hidden communication, which is that you are a perpetual alien in your own country.”
Microaggressions ’a workplace reality’ for 64% of women, and around half of men have endured microaggressions, with gay men and men of color reporting similar slights about the seniority of their positions.
Microaggressions, according to Sue’s definition, are “the everyday slights and indignities, insults and putdowns” that often well-intentioned people deliver toward certain marginalized group members, including people of color, women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. They can take the form of an ill-judged comment or a nonverbal cue, a stereotypical Native American college mascot, or even a lack of minority representation in a TV show or movie, according to his research.
Their prevalence bears out in both anecdotes and data: LeanIn.Org and McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2018 report calls microaggressions “a workplace reality” for 64% of women, citing examples like women being more likely than men to be mistaken for someone in a junior role, or needing to furnish more proof of their competence. Black women and lesbian women face additional hurdles, the study found. Meanwhile, around half of men have endured microaggressions, with gay men and men of color reporting similar slights about the seniority of their positions.
If you are the owner of a small business or even occupy a C-suite in a big corporation, it pays to pay attention to such issues. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed 199 lawsuits against employers in 2018, more than double the 86 actions filed in 2016. The value of the top 10 settlements resulting from EEOC and Department of Labor enforcement actions , down from $485.25 million in 2017.
Like many aspects of people’s lived experience of race and gender in America, microaggressions aren’t always tangible. “I know what it is, it happens all the time, but I can’t really explain it or describe it,” said Robin Boylorn, a 40-year-old associate professor of interpersonal and intercultural communication at the University of Alabama. “Sometimes when we explain it or describe it, it’s not tangible; it doesn’t feel like a real thing.”
These kinds of microaggressive interactions can extend beyond race: For example, someone may confuse a female physician who’s wearing a stethoscope for a nurse.
Boylorn, who is black, says one such instance from her first year of teaching has stuck with her to this day: “There were two students who shared with a colleague about me that they were sure I was smart, but it didn’t really come across in the classroom,” she said. “I realized in that moment, it doesn’t matter what I do — they’re not going to see past my race and sex. It doesn’t matter how qualified I am; it doesn’t matter how many degrees I have. All they see is a black woman, and whatever a black woman represents to them.”
These interactions can extend beyond race: For example, someone may confuse a female physician who’s wearing a stethoscope for a nurse, Sue has suggested. Others may avoid a worker who uses wheelchair, or assume that someone who takes the elevator one floor is lazy rather than assuming that they may have an “invisible” illness like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or joint pain.
Microaggressions or instances of workplace bias against LGBTQ people, meanwhile, could take the form of asking transgender employees about their medical history or treating LGBTQ folks differently when they talk about their families at work, said Deena Fidas, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign’s Workplace Equality Program. Nearly half (46%) of LGBT Americans remain closeted in the workplace, according to — and many of those who aren’t out at work report depression, exhaustion and isolation.
Bryan Thao Worra, an award-winning Laotian-American poet and author who lives in Minneapolis, has been mistaken for service staff or “the help” — even once by the groom’s family at his niece’s wedding. “Among my friends, it’s gotten to be a bit of a running joke that I’ve been mistaken for the employees predominantly by white people, especially white women for some reason, in almost every major store at least once,” Worra, 46, told MarketWatch.
And Lori Lakin Hutcherson, a Los Angeles-based writer and producer for TV and film and editor-in-chief of the website Good Black News, recalled initially being asked for her input on the movies with African-American themes at a development executive job in the 1990s. “You’re considered that person,” said Hutcherson, 49. ”I mean, you’re expected to give your black opinion about anything that has to do with anything black.”
Not everyone buys into the research on microaggressions: Emory University psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld, for example, has argued that while microaggression research has helped draw attention to the prevalence of subtle bigotry, it “raises far more questions than answers” and is “far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application.”
But research suggests slights like these can have a far-reaching impact: Racial microaggressions are “significantly correlated with depressive symptoms and negative affect,” one 2014 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Counseling and Development found. The American Psychological Association has linked experiencing discrimination with poorer health and higher stress, while research shows that experiencing racial microaggressions can negatively impact job satisfaction and interfere with employee performance.
So how do you handle it?
Make the invisible visible. Sue, in a paper he co-authored in January for the peer-reviewed journal American Psychologist, suggests strategies like undermining the metacommunication (or hidden message) challenging the stereotype or asking for clarification. For example, possible responses to a white woman clutching her purse after a black man enters an elevator might include, “Relax, I’m not dangerous” or “Do you realize what you just did when I walked in?,” the researchers wrote.
Disarm the microaggression by voicing disagreement, using nonverbal communication like shaking your head or looking away, describing what’s happening, or interrupting and redirecting (“Let’s not go there”), Sue and his co-authors wrote. “The power of something like that is that there are usually onlookers around,” he said. It communicates to them that this is not all right, he added.
Educate the microaggressor on how and why their actions were offensive. Try appealing to the person’s own values around inclusivity, Sue and his co-authors wrote, or offer how they might benefit from learning about harmful stereotypes. And separate intent from impact, Sue added. If a person tells a racist or sexist joke, for example, try a response like, “I know you meant that to be funny, but here’s why that hurts people’s feelings…”
Keep a record. Immediately document what was said, the date and time, and any witnesses before the details slip away, Hutcherson suggested — then email it to yourself or a friend. “Even if you don’t want to act on it in the moment, have a record of it,” she said. “So if it does get to the point where you need to go to HR, you have it there.”
Give HR a chance. “We recognize that people think of us as the enemy, but hopefully individuals feel like they can come to us even if they have that perception,” employment attorney and human resources consultant Kate Bischoff told MarketWatch. “Tell the whole story, and give us an opportunity to figure out what happened and whether we can do anything to make it better.” No infraction is too minor, she added, even if HR winds up just sorting out a misunderstanding: “I’d rather err on the side of getting too many reports than getting not enough.”
Take it further if the offense if egregious. Did someone tell a racist joke? That’s not OK in the workplace, and “I’m only joking” or “You’re being politically correct” are not ways to cover up racist, misogynistic or similarly ill-judged comments (“Nice legs” or “Your skirt is very short”). And while you can certainly file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Bischoff said, “it can be hard to get what you want from the EEOC because the legal standard is so high.” Talk to a lawyer beforehand to explore your options.
Get outside help from a manager, counselor, friend or community leader, Sue and his colleagues suggested. Earlier in her career, Boylorn said, she coped with microaggressions by unpacking them with other black women colleagues who worked elsewhere.
Organize. New York City-based BRAVA Investments chief executive, Nathalie Molina Niño, 43, used to take a “suck it up or move on” approach to microaggressions while working in the 1990s tech industry. But she says she’d do things differently now. “Organize yourself with other people who have shared experiences,” she said. “Don’t rely on HR to move the dial.”
Take small actions to help change the workplace culture and make it clear to others what constitutes acceptable behavior — for example, initiating a speaker series on relevant issues, or proposing a small office-wide campaign on what language is and isn’t condoned. If you do initiate a speaker series on diversity and inclusion, make sure women and people of color and different sexual orientations are included on the panel.
“What I hate about all of these things is that they require extra work on the part of people being marginalized,” Molina Niño said. “My concern is that the alternative is to ask management or HR to speak for you or to do things on your behalf.”
Leave the job if you aren’t being treated fairly — “particularly when you go through the proper channels to address mistreatment and things get worse,” said Vilissa Thompson, 33, a disability-rights consultant and social worker in Winnsboro, S.C.
As a young black woman, Thompson says she has experienced microaggressions and racism at a previous job. “Once I found employment elsewhere, which luckily did not take long, the burden and harm I endured were gone and I could breathe again,” she said.
Know that you’re not alone. “By interrupting these problematic behaviors,” Fidas said, “you’re actually helping to make a better environment for everybody.”
What if you’re the person who caused offense?
Diversify your friend group. “Look at who you’re surrounding yourself with,” Molina Niño said. “If you start to surround yourself with people who look a little bit different from you, at some point, somebody’s going to call you on your blind spots and you’ll learn something.” Also, nothing educates people like personal experience and listening to the world from another person’s perspective.
Listen and consider that the member of a marginalized group may have a more accurate read of the situation. “The groups that are most disempowered are the individuals most likely to have the most accurate perception of reality,” Sue said.
“If you want to understand sexism, do you ask men or women? If you really want to understand racism, do you ask whites or people of color?” he added. “To me, the answer is quite obvious.” If a gay person says he or she is offended by a joke or comment about a stereotype, maybe they’re the best person to know what constitutes egregious behavior.
Don’t get defensive. People are learning how to navigate workplaces, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, experts say. It’s important that employees feel safe and respected, and that they have a right to their own personal space. Nothing can turn a bad situation around like simply saying you’re sorry.
“Know that everyone harbors biases,” Sue said. “It doesn’t make you a bad person, that you harbor biases.”