“…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.




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