“…hate speech is understood as any kind of communication in speech, writing, or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative language with reference to a person or group…”

United Nations Strategy and Action Plan on Hate Speech*

While traveling some years ago through an unfamiliar city, I made a wrong turn on my way to a major highway.  I found myself driving around a tree-lined neighborhood with many run- down and abandoned homes until I spotted some police officers standing on a street corner. As I pulled over to ask them for directions, they approached my car in alarm. One of them said, “Miss, do you realize that you are in a really dangerous neighborhood?” I explained that I was lost, and the officers quickly directed me to the highway entrance nearby. As I closed my car window, I was told, “You are probably OK getting out of here, because the animals in this neighborhood only come out at night.”

Those words chilled me then and they chill me now. I remembered them as I watched the horrible murder of George Floyd on the nightly news. Hateful words that demean others are never benign; they can lead to many forms of vicious human harm. Reflecting on the words of the officer as I drove home that day, I recalled a letter that I had received long ago from a former student who had accepted a teaching position in a major U.S. city after graduating. She had specifically chosen that position because she wanted to dedicate her career to children in urban schools located in impoverished communities. Unfortunately, my former student had written to tell me she had resigned from the new teaching position after just a few weeks.  The negative professional climate of the school had upset her a great deal; she felt that the children were being treated very badly. She wrote, “…I feel terrible leaving the children. They are not ‘little animals’ as they were described by some of the teachers and administrators in the school.”

These were two isolated incidents, of course. Generalizations about police, or teachers, or people who devote their lives in any way to service of others are never appropriate.  The outstanding and generous contributions of so many people can be made invisible by indisputably unacceptable behaviors of some. Nonetheless, these memories of people referred to as “animals” make it important for me to ask – is hate speech tolerated where you work? It may be behind the scenes, it may exist because of the tremendous challenges inherent in the job, it may exist because people have become frustrated and discouraged – but it still damages the very people you are responsible for helping. You can and should interrupt it and make it known that you find it unacceptable. I know that there is much disagreement about what actually constitutes hate speech, so for this blog I selected the above definition from the United Nations Strategy and Action Plan on Hate Speech. * That plan (see reference below) acknowledges that violence and genocide can begin with demeaning, disparaging talk.

There are many avenues that can lead to reform of public service-based institutions that appear to be harming those they are created to support and protect. We are nationally focused at this time on police brutality for urgent reasons, but our concern must extend to every public institution (including schools) in which discriminatory and disparaging in-house talk can lead to unacceptable outcomes. We currently hear calls for more diversity training for public servants, and I agree that this is an important need. But I would further argue that institutional language environments characterized by hate speech – disparaging, denigrating talk about those who are served—must become a central part of that focus.

While outside professionals can be very helpful in leading an internal examination of the language environment of public-service institutions, the hard work must be done by those for whom workplace hate speech has become normalized and acceptable. It is important to make connections between disparaging words used in their daily conversations and how they actually treat the people about whom they are speaking.  This work must go well beyond the idea of “speaking kindly” or “avoiding negative terms.” It must honestly recognize the ways in which racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination are being daily enacted through routine in-house talk. It must also seek to understand the documented historical oppressions that have done (and still do) great harm to the lives of many people in the United States. When these oppressions are acknowledged we can all “work with” others to create necessary change rather than “do to” others we see as inferior and undeserving.

Talk is a behavior – an action that leads to further actions and outcomes. If you would be hurt and insulted to be described as the people you serve are talked about where you work – it’s time to address the problem. Deciding to eliminate denigrating, disrespectful talk is the first step toward improving the way we treat those we should be serving. Compassion and understanding should be clearly represented in the words we speak, particularly if we are called to serve those who need help the most.

The first step is honest conversation about the language environment that exists in your workplace. List pejorative terms that are used regularly, and that disrespect and demean others. Decide on words that better describe problems and people without offense or insult – and which reflect care and concern. Draw up a basic code of language ethics as a start.  Start by eliminating negative generalizations about communities and groups of people. Keep working on this – and see how your work environment starts to grow stronger and more positive. This will carry over into more compassionate and equitable treatment of all the people you serve. Language is where democratic actions begin – and where love for others grows persistently stronger than hate.

This blog is written by Beatrice Fennimore (Bz Fennimore) an educator and activist whose career has focused on child advocacy, public school equity, social justice, and the practice of anti-bias education.     https://www.bzfennimore.




Calling For a Code of Ethical Talk About Children in Educational Settings

There is a universally available way to accomplish a significant educational reform with positive outcomes. This reform requires serious work, but needs very few additional resources! It can be accomplished right now by people of common purpose who wish to make a significant change in their school or workplace. It can be individualized to any university teacher preparation program, K-12 school, or agency serving children in any capacity. This reform has the power to stand against the forces of bias and discrimination that are couched in the ways in which children and families are discussed every day. It is a practicable and doable way to improve educational opportunities for every child.

This reform would be the creation and adoption of a code of ethical talk about children in educational or child-service settings. Language is the cultural tool with which constructions of deficiency and superiority are made, and the “language environment” of an institution is how these constructions are put into practice.

My work focuses on the language environments created by “talk” in educational institutions. These environments frequently embody labels, stratifications, and classifications about children that can encourage or stifle their progress. In my experience, many dedicated and hard-working educational professionals have not had the opportunity to think about how their words should be guided by ethics whenever they are creating cultural representations of their students – in school and in society. Language embodying negative or discriminatory assumptions about some children and families can be the unexamined “norm” in many institutions. I enjoy working with professionals in a variety of settings who have the desire to reflect on their language environment and develop an ethical code for language about children. This new environment can be realistic and honest while also reflecting the most important educational ethic — no child should be harmed in the process of education!

Why are children harmed by adult conversations out of their hearing that demean their abilities, their characteristics or their families? They are harmed because talk is an action and a behavior that makes things happen and continue to happen. For example, although kindergarten entry readiness tests should not be used for placement purposes, a school might possibly group the children who score the lowest in a “transitional kindergarten class.” Ideally, that class should help the children catch up where needed. However, if the educators and administrators routinely refer to the class as “the kids who aren’t ready” – that becomes an unfair label of deficiency that can follow the children from grade to grade. This can continue to lower expectations in a way that negatively affects school outcomes. Unfortunately, the generalized use of a term implying deficits has an even more damaging impact when the children deemed to be “not ready” are experiencing poverty and/or have racial or ethnic characteristics that create further unjust marginalization.

Talk matters! The above scenario does not have to take place! A code of ethics implemented in a school or educational institution can focus on misuse of language about ability, classifications, tracking, test scores, family and community characteristics, and racial or cultural assumptions. Language can promote the kind of open-mindedness that helps educators to notice and capitalize on changes in children that labels of deficiency can hide.

Thank you for entering my blog! I will continue to write about ways in which “talk” has the power to create positive and negative outcomes for students – and how we call all be a part of a change for the better in the ways children are discussed in educational environments. 

Announcing Beatrice Fennimore’s new Workshops and Professional Development program, “Talk Matters.”