As bad first weeks at work go, it’s hard to get worse than this.
Ollie de Planta de Wildenberg was fired after just four days of working full time as a people services administrator for the University, when he called a colleague “hash brown” in an email. Wildenberg insists it was an innocent mistake, putting the error down to autocorrect; however, his superiors were unable to ‘replicate’ the slip-up, and believe the phrase carried racial overtones.
In a statement sent to the Wildenberg, the University said “I believe that in the balance of probability that you did type the words in question and that the words were perceived as offensive and involving racial language”.
Wildenberg maintains that “It is a bit weird thing to call someone that intentionally. Why would I do it? To class it as gross misconduct is just unbelievable. I didn’t realise initially just how serious they were taking it. The sanction bears no resemblance to what happened. I strenuously deny that this message had been sent deliberately. It was a typing error. There is nothing to suggest this is racist”.
I’ve never heard “hash brown” used as a racial slur before
Unpacking this is tricky, for more than one reason. Personally, I don’t think this was autocorrect if the email was sent from a laptop, seeing as laptops usually don’t have that faculty. Giving the brevity of the email (which only has one line past the fateful greeting), it’s possible it was something sent off from a phone, in which case Wildenberg’s defence is more feasible.
Second, I’ve never heard “hash brown” used as a slur before. It’s true that as someone who is violently Caucasian, I’ve heard sparingly few phrases used as a slur before, but this isn’t just coming from me. Wikipedia has a list, which is hundreds of entries long and includes over four hundred citations, and fails to make any mention of hash browns.
It’s possible that the use of “hash brown” – if not the result of autocorrect – was a reference to race, and is a phrase of Wilenderg’s own invention. The issue here is there are so many questions unanswered: we still don’t know the context of the email or what “hash brown” is meant to actually mean if typed deliberately. If this was a racial jibe, suspension seems like the right course of action. Until we at least get a sense of whether or not there was a genuine racial dimension to the message, it seems like a bridge too far.
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons
Last modified: 9th December 2019