Speak Up Against Hateful Rhetoric

Use TT’s Speak Up at School as a guide to address prejudice and bias in public discourse.
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Speak Up at School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias and Stereotypes is consistently one of TT’s most popular resources. The guide details four steps educators can take to address biased speech when they hear it: interrupting, questioning, educating and echoing. When used confidently, each can mitigate the damage of harmful speech when it happens in communities, schools and classrooms.

Since the guide was published, its purpose has taken on new urgency. These days, speech that trades in prejudices, biases and stereotypes is more than just commonplace: We’re seeing it in the headlines every day. And our students aren’t just hearing it from peers. More and more, it’s adults who are spreading hate. So what do we do?

The answer’s simple: We speak up—just as we do when we hear this language from kids.


Step 1: Interrupt

When hateful speech comes from outside your school, when the president calls Maxine Waters a “low IQ person” or when politicians casually compare public questioning to lynching, it’s tempting to let it go. After all, it’s not unreasonable to think it would be better to simply avoid bringing such language into your classroom. 

But we can’t pretend our students aren’t hearing this rhetoric. And we know it shapes their idea of what’s acceptable. In Speak Up, we explain what happens when bigoted remarks go unanswered: It “sends the message to anyone within earshot that it’s OK to say bigoted things.” 

As our report The Trump Effect shows—and as other research confirms—there’s a clear correlation between the hateful speech we’re hearing in schools and what we’re hearing in the public sphere. Last year, for example, we recorded 28 anti-immigrant incidents targeting Latinx students in schools. Nearly all of them included students chanting the phrase “Build the wall,” a political slogan they weaponized to intimidate and insult their peers.

To be clear, this rhetoric doesn’t end with the president. When a gubernatorial candidate runs ads claiming he “got a big truck, just in case [he] need[s] to round up criminal illegals,” how surprised can we be when one middle school girl tells another to “go back to where the ---- you came from”?

Obviously, you can’t interrupt a press conference, an interview or a television ad. But you can interrupt your class. You can set aside a few minutes to say to your students, “You may have heard some bigoted remarks recently. We need to talk about them.” Because what you’re really saying is this:

It’s not OK.


Step 2: Question

“Asking simple, exploratory questions in response to bigoted remarks can be a powerful tool: ‘Why did you say that?’ ‘What did you mean?’” In Speak Up, we recommend engaging the speaker in conversation, which can help them see their own biases and help you tailor your response. 

So talk about it. When a bigoted remark makes news, ask students why a person would say such things. To structure these discussions, you could even fall back on classical rhetorical theory, asking students to consider the message itself (What does this mean?), the messenger (Does this mean something different when said by this speaker?), and the listener (Does this mean something different when said to this person?). (For example, students will readily understand that the phrase “Give me your keys” means something radically different between friends than between a carjacker and a victim.)

Complicating the rhetoric in this way allows for opportunities to talk about the difference between intent and impact and helps students consider the critical importance of context. 

The goal of questioning, the guide explains, is “to understand the roots of the speakers’ prejudices, then help add context and information to dispel them.” Discussing with students the “roots of prejudice” that feed bigoted remarks in the public sphere can also help them find their own, unconscious biases—and uncover them so you can address them together.

A note about questioning:

When working with students to untangle the motivation behind prejudiced remarks, be careful not to encourage them to step into the speaker’s shoes, even to “play devil’s advocate.” No student should be defending or promoting attacks on another. If you see the discussion moving in this direction, you can simply explain that, in your classroom, no one’s humanity can ever be up for debate—and that it shouldn’t be elsewhere.

Step 3: Educate

Sometimes the bias in someone’s speech is apparent; at other times students may not immediately see the distinction between rhetoric that is simply unkind and rhetoric that plays off and relies on stereotypes and prejudice.

In the case of President Trump calling Congresswoman Maxine Waters “low-IQ,” for example, students may recognize how it plays into the sexist trope of women as intellectually inferior. 

But they may not have considered how the objective-sounding term “IQ” suggests an inherent, genetic limitation. And they may not be familiar with the history of scientific racism. Or the way in which white nationalists today are turning to racist, junk science to justify their bigotry and racism.

If your students aren’t immediately recognizing the problem with hateful speech, that’s probably a good thing: It means they’re not attuned to the racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic or anti-Semitic tropes these statements rely on. But there’s a downside, as well. 

If students don’t know this history, it’s easy to dismiss objections as overreactions. When you stop to educate students about a hateful remark, you’re not only helping them better consider their own language choices; you’re also helping them to become better allies to peers in different identity groups.


Step 4: Echo

The last step our guide recommends is to amplify the voices of others when they speak up against bigoted speech. As educators, we’re often encouraged to keep our own opinions out of the classroom. But often, those who point out bigoted speech are made to feel as though they’re “too sensitive” or “overreacting.” Sometimes, they’re even accused of bigotry themselves—as though talking about anti-Semitism or racism is somehow itself anti-Semitic or racist. 

Something as simple as telling a student, “I understand what you’re saying” if they find bias in a statement—or, even better, “I agree”—can be enough. As the political rhetoric in this country becomes more and more heated, we all need to get used to speaking up against hateful speech when we hear it. We’re going to need to model ways of speaking up for our students. And we’re going to have to stand with them when they speak up for one another.

Delacroix is the associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.