Hate speech is more than harsh words. It is any form of expression meant to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or class of people. It can be communicated by words, symbols, images, memes, emojis, or videos. Connect Safely has created a guide for parents and educators on how they can help children avoid experiencing or engaging in hate speech as well as how to deal with it in healthy ways when they encounter it. The guide is available in PDF as a detailed report and as a quick guide.

Hate speech overlaps with bullying. Bullying is repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. When bullying involves demeaning a person based on characteristics such as race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or body image, it may also be defined as hate speech depending on the motivation and content of the aggression.

Hate speech harms individuals, our communities, and our society as a whole. Individual victims of hate speech can develop anxiety, fear for their lives, and even self-harm or suicide. By often relying on stereotypes and scapegoating, hate speech can our ability to communicate and empathize with others. Over time, hate speech can be used to normalize discrimination, outbreaks of hate crimes, and targeted violence. Data one year into the pandemic has shown an increase in harassment and violence against Asian-Americans. Those charged in recent mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso have reportedly cited online hate speech as part of the inspiration for their actions.

Not all negative speech is hate speech, though. One can be critical of policies, customs, or practices without being hateful or demeaning to individuals in a group or threatening their well-being. Note that in using negative speech, one can avoid crossing into hate speech by focusing on what a leader of a group says or does, rather than criticizing them based on a part of their identity. This can be a nuanced and difficult to master distinction, but it is an important one.

What Parents Can Do

Parents play an especially important role in helping their children learn to avoid hate speech and how to handle it when they do come across it. Here are some actions that parents can take:

  • When you or your child come across hate speech online, report it.
  • Encourage empathy, especially online where it is easy to forget that there is a person on the other side of the screen.
  • Encourage your child to have an open attitude and honest curiosity about other people, as some instances of hate speech are due to ignorance or false information ore are designed to recruit young people into a hate group or radical ideology.
  • Look for terms that might creep into your child’s normal conversation that can be harmful (e.g., “That’s so gay” or “Don’t be so autistic”). While your child may not mean to harm others, those overhearing such phrases may find them harmful and hateful.
  • Keep an eye out for group behavior, as your child may behave well in most situations, but slip into using hateful terms with certain groups of friends or acquaintances.
  • Let your child know that online aggression does not need to be answered with more aggression. Simply saying things like “I don’t think that’s right” or “That kind of talk doesn’t belong here” can do a lot to counter hate speech.
  • Teach your child to show support for the targets of hate speech. Often, and especially online, the majority of onlookers may disagree with hate speech but remain silent because they are afraid of standing out by themselves. Let your child know that when they speak up against hate speech, it is likely that many others feel the same way but are afraid to speak out.

What Educators Can Do

For educators, the similarities between hate speech and bullying may provide an easy way to address hate speech as part of anti-bullying efforts. Suggestions from Connect Safely include:

  • Including how to deal with hate speech as part of a digital citizenship or civics curriculum.
  • Posing realistic scenarios that children are likely to encounter online and help them work together to come up with the words and actions that they can use to support those targeted by hate speech.
  • When a student is involved in hate speech, don’t be quick to condemn the student and instead ask what was behind their actions.
  • Work to foster a school climate of tolerance, kindness, and inclusion.

Be sure to share the Connect Safely guide and quick guide with your families and educators. Combatting hate speech requires a community effort, and PTAs can play an important role in doing that.

Photo © Tim Pierce under Creative Commons license.