Hate Speech Overheard

When students see you ignore hateful language, they are learning an important lesson—and not the kind you want them to learn.

Winter break was over, the new year had begun, and there I was heading down the crowded halls again, coffee in hand, prepared to get back to it. Students had been back in the halls for approximately seven minutes when I heard one say, “What’s up, faggot?” He was smiling, and the person he was addressing smiled back.

As educators focused on social justice, we must address this kind of language. That seems obvious, but I am sure we all have moments when we pretend not to hear something. We tell ourselves, “He was just kidding” or “This is not a battle we need to fight.” But it is. 

Here are some ideas that have helped me speak up against the language of hate that can be so pervasive in high school hallways. They might also help you show students that hate words should be removed from everyone’s speech and left behind once and for all. 


Challenge with questions rather than statements.

“Hey! Happy New Year, guys. Welcome back.” That is how I opened with the two boys I had overheard. I used to lead with a strong, sometimes angry, reprimand. I have enough experience now to see the pointlessness in that approach. My antagonism just fuels the anger and frustration that can manifest itself in that language. “Do you mind if I ask you something?” With a bit of apprehension, they both nodded. I went on to explain that I had overheard one of them call the other by that term and wondered why. “Can you tell me what you meant?” 

Long story short: They didn’t really have an answer. One said it was the same as saying, “What’s up, dude?” or “What’s up, man?” I told them it really wasn’t that simple and asked them if they would consider taking it out of their vocabularies. One kid said, “Sure.” The other told me he really didn’t mean anything bad by it. He was sincere. I hope that interaction will stick with them. I hope that, because I did not just jump all over them and they were not immediately in defensive mode, they were actually able to listen.


Share a personal story.

I remember vividly sitting in history class as a student, trying to pretend I was riveted by the notes I was taking, acting like I was so consumed that I could not hear the kid one row over and one seat back. “Faggot,” he whispered. “Hey, faggot.” The fact that I was straight had nothing to do with it. I was in the chorus, the plays and the musicals. I was taking tap-dancing lessons, something that was no longer my private business after someone found my tap shoes in my bag. “You like that, faggot?” my classmate asked as he jabbed a ruler at my butt where it rested on the chair. 

I tell my students this story each year because I want to convey to them how much it hurt my 13-year-old self. For those students who have felt that pain, I want to show them that I made it just as they will; it gets better. I tell my students this story so they can see the context of that word for me. Even though the student I overheard in the hallway said it jokingly, even if his friend was not offended, there are others for whom that word can’t be freed of a much harsher context. 

After sharing my story and ensuring students that things will get better, conversation usually moves to kids who have a much more personal connection to that word. I have students imagine what hearing that word must feel like for a kid who has been called it by his dad, after trying to come out to him. Or by someone who has seen his gay sibling assaulted for her sexual orientation.


Be consistent.

Students are always watching. The girl who hears that word and sees her teacher within earshot is learning something. This is school after all. If we, as teachers, walk by, even in a crowded hallway, and let a comment like that pass, we are teaching a lesson. The girl who hears a word like that and then looks for our response learns that it is OK to ignore it. It is not. Maybe she knows it is not OK to take part, but believes it is not her obligation to step in. Our small failures to act reinforce that misconception.


Focus on the in-between times.

Most anti-bias educators set limits around harmful language in the classroom. I doubt many would even let it slide if it happened near them. But I am not sure we all have our radars up all the time. As teachers who desire to produce good citizens, we must be vigilant in the places where those words flourish. Lunchrooms. Hallways. School buses. Basically anywhere kids are free from the structure of the classroom. 

We don’t want to just teach students that language based on stereotypes, bigotry, prejudice and hate are unacceptable in classrooms or in school. We want to teach them that those words are harmful and degrading wherever they are spoken.

Knoll is a writer and English teacher at public school in New Jersey.

Editor’s note: For more information on addressing offensive speech in the moment, check out our Speak Up at School guide and view our free on-demand webinar.