Thomas Chatterton Williams, CNN's Kirsten Powers clash over use of n-word after Slate suspends Mike Pesca

Williams, who is Black, knocked Powers, who is White, for telling him 'when it’s okay to use that term!'

Author and columnist Thomas Chatterton Williams butted heads with CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers Tuesday over the use of the n-word following the suspension of Slate podcast host Mike Pesca

The subject of how the word should be used has caused headaches in multiple newsrooms in recent weeks. Donald McNeil Jr., a veteran New York Times reporter, was forced to resign after it was reported that he had used the n-word during a discussion of the slur while he was leading a 2019 educational trip.

On Monday, Defector reported that Pesca was suspended amid a pending investigation that stemmed from a fiery Slack conversation with his Slate colleagues during which Pesca suggested McNeil's ousting from the Times was unjust. 

Powers jumped on Twitter Tuesday to opine on Pesca's suspension. 

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"Another day, another news story quoting [W]hite men saying they can say the N-word bc [because] 'context' + that 'nothing should be beyond debate.' WHAT IS SO HARD ABOUT THIS? What is so hard about listening to Black people and respecting their view?" Powers exclaimed. 

The pundit then got into a spat with a Twitter user who claimed, "Most of those offended are over educated and relatively young white [sic] liberals rather than AAs."

"Wrong," Powers replied. "From article: Joel Anderson, a Black staff member at Slate...disagreed. 'For Black employees, it’s an extremely small ask to not hear that particular slur and not have debate about whether it’s OK for [W]hite employees to use that particular slur,' he said."

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Williams then chimed in, writing, "I mean, Joel Anderson has used that term in reference to me on this website."

"What's your point? Does that mean [W]hite people should be saying it?" Powers asked Williams. 

"I think a white [sic] person mentioning it not derogatorily is not as bad as a [B]lack person using it derogatorily," Williams responded. 

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"ok not sure why you are trying to change the subject," Powers shot back. "Feels like whataboutism which [I] don't entertain. [M]y tweet was about white ppl who argue with Black ppl about when it's ok to use the N-word." 

"I hate to break this to you," Williams answered, "but right this very moment a '[W]hite' person (YOU) is arguing with a '[B]lack' person (ME) about when it’s okay to use that term!"

Powers replied, "[I] didn't realize we were 'arguing'--I thought we were having a discussion. Also what is it that you think [I] should be deferring to? that [W]hite people should say the N word even when their colleagues ask them not to?" 

During a debate on the workplace chatroom platform Slack, Pesca suggested that McNeil, the star Times science reporter covering the coronavirus outbreak, should not have been fired, writing: "McNeil’s journalism made the Times more valuable to more Americans than having ousted him in 2019 would have."

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"My points are his internal conduct was in a grey area, you guys don’t think it was," Pesca told colleagues who pushed back at his defense of McNeil. "Here’s my position. Expressing the views, not the word, the views he did on that trip are not fire-able. Worthy of a talking to or a ‘What are you doing as a representative of the Times, Don?’ But nothing requirement [sic] much angst among management or staff? Or no? – should the Times discipline staffers who question the idea of White Supremacy or who express retrograde ideas on mass incarceration?"

He continued, "The question is: Is an out loud utterance of that word, in a work environment, fire-able, censurable, etc ... Even as a point of clarification to a question exactly about the use of that word. I thought not necessarily ... McNeil was originally disciplined in 2019. Just a little while later society seems to have rendered a different verdict."

(Kirsten Powers, Thomas Chatterton Williams (Getty))

Slate staff writer Rachelle Hampton, who is Black, slammed Pesca's comments, writing, "Feel like it’s weird that everyone’s dancing around the point that working in an environment where [W]hite people feel empowered to say the n-word in service of whatever argument they want to make is incredibly hostile for [B]lack people." 

Pesca later clarified, "I don’t think it’s proper to use it in casual conversation and I’m in no position to tell Black NY Times workers that they shouldn’t be worried it’s going to pop out of a colleague’s mouth at some point. If you want my opinion it’s that there are some limited reasons why a non African American journalist or professor to use the word when conveying a quote in the name of clarity or factualness […] But it’s not a comfortable point to even pursue right now. If I had the opposite opinion I know a hundred ways I could make the opinion I actually have seem horrible and racist, and you know what, maybe it is."

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Slate employees told Defector they felt "outraged" toward Pesca's comments, with one of them saying, "I cannot believe I had to watch him enthusiastically provoke people on whether or not it is appropriate to use a racist slur." 

Another told Defector, "I don’t want to be in a workplace where people feel emboldened to have this argument. People’s humanity is not an intellectual debate."

Mike Pesca pictured in 2019. (Photo by Ed Rode/Getty Images for Politicon)

Mike Pesca pictured in 2019. (Photo by Ed Rode/Getty Images for Politicon)

The next day, Slate editor-in-chief Jared Hohlt wrote in Slack that he did not want such an argument to be made again, writing, "While we are a workplace where people argue about things all the time, it’s also a workplace where we must think very hard about the lived experience of colleagues whose experience is different than ours."

On Friday, Hohlt announced that Pesca had been placed on a one-week suspension, which was later upgraded to an indefinite suspension.  

A spokesperson for Slate told Fox News, "While I can't get into specific allegations that are under investigation, I can confirm this was not a decision based around making an isolated abstract argument in a Slack channel. After additional issues were raised by staff, we felt it was appropriate to take further action to indefinitely suspend the show pending an investigation."

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According to Defector's report, Slate employees alleged that Pesca has a history of using the n-word, including on two occasions in 2019. 

"The first incident happened during the reporting of a story. The company was working on a package titled 'The Wokeness Divide,' which was ultimately abandoned. Christina Cauterucci was working on a story about the divide in newsrooms, and as part of her reporting interviewed many members of her own company. Sometime in the early spring, she interviewed Pesca," Defector reported. "In that interview, presumably as an example of how he differed in viewpoint from his more liberal colleagues, Pesca brought up the same argument about whether or not [W]hite people, in some contexts for clarity, should be allowed to use the n-word. Pesca used the actual word during this conversation, and Cauterucci, according to multiple sources, pushed back, asking him if he would have used that word in front of a [B]lack colleague. 'Maybe,' he said back to her." 

The other apparent instance of Pesca's use of the n-word was during a podcast recording while tackling the subject of whether it's okay to use the slur in certain contexts. 

"The employee who was producing that episode of The Gist was [B]lack, and elevated her concern about the segment to Slate editors. According to multiple sources, the segment never ran, and Pesca re-recorded it," the report continued. "The incident, multiple sources have confirmed, was raised as an HR complaint, and was apparently investigated. Some staffers believe that the HR complaint was raised all the way up to Slate’s parent company, The Graham Holdings Company."

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Pesca told Defector, "I have been told by Slate not to discuss this publicly. I’m in a bind because these allegations could cause great reputational damage and they are very misleading and often inaccurate. All I can do is call on Slate to release the full Slack conversation so people can read my words and not hear second hand descriptions of motivations others have assigned to me."

Pesca declined to comment when approached by Fox News.