How to Respond When Students Use Hate Speech

How to Respond When Students Use Hate Speech
Some activities for creating a healthy classroom culture

by Richard Curwin

“Sticks and stones will break my bones—but words will really hurt me.”

I was playing with my 3-year-old granddaughter and called her a silly goose. She freaked out—crying, yelling, and telling me she hated me. It took a long time to cool her down and explain that being a silly goose was not a bad thing. This anecdote raises important questions about the nature of hate speech. Who decides what is hate speech, the speaker or the recipient? What’s the difference between teasing, sarcasm, insulting, and hate speech?

These questions show us why hate speech is so difficult to stop. Hate speech is hard to define, and it’s easy to be confused about the motives of the speaker. But there’s a cultural piece that adds to the challenges. If we’re going to get to the heart of hate speech in America today, we must remember that significant elements of our cultural history were built on inequity—from the founding of the country and displacement of indigenous populations to the Civil War and slavery. This inequity has bred a history of demonization of the “other.” Hate speech is just one manifestation of this dynamic.

It’s important for us to understand the depth of these challenges; hate speech won’t just go away if we don’t examine the underlying causes. I’ve spent many years in the classroom working on these issues with students. Below are some activities I’ve used to reduce or eliminate hate speech in my classroom.

5 Reasons Students Use Hate Speech
Let’s start by examining why students use hate speech. Here are a few of the more common ones:

1. To express bigotry and racism

2. To express their own internal anger and unresolved pain

3. To feel superior

4. To feel powerful when they feel powerless in other areas of their lives

5. To show off for friends

With these reasons in mind, there are specific activities we can use to engage students in deeper reflection and eliminate hate speech in the classroom. These are the steps I recommend for teachers, refining them for students’ age and grade level. [Continue reading.]

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