How To Challenge Discriminatory Language
Here at The Diana Award, we know how important it is to be an Upstander: someone who speaks out when they see or hear something that isn’t right. But we also know that it can be difficult to challenge negative language when you hear it. Sometimes you might know that something being said is unkind but you don’t feel confident enough to speak up or know what the best thing is to say. Everyone feels this way at some point.
In fact, research shows that the more witnesses there are to a negative behaviour, the less likely it is for one of them to step forward and take action to help (this is called the Bystander Effect). This is why it’s so important to always try your best to be an Upstander and challenge negative language in whichever way you feel comfortable to do so. Reading this article is a great first step to knowing how you can speak out in a kind way, so well done!
What is Discriminatory Language?
Discrimination is “treating [someone] unfairly because of who [they] are.” (Citizens Advice, 2022). This means that a person is being treated differently or is put at a disadvantage because of someone else’s opinions or judgements of them. By law, there are 9 characteristics that are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010:
- Gender Reassignment
- Marriage/Civil Partnership
- Sexual Orientation
If someone is targeted or treated unfairly because of one or more of these characteristics, then they are being unlawfully discriminated against. This also includes someone being treated differently because another person thinks that they belong to a group with a protected characteristic, whether it’s true or not.
Discriminatory language is when a person uses their words to discriminate, for example, if somebody says something unkind to someone else about their religious beliefs. It is important to note that negative words and phrases can easily become normalised or seen as ‘cool’ in school, so sometimes you might hear discriminatory language used in casual conversation - even if they don’t quite know what that language means, or how it could hurt someone. An example of this is ‘casual racism’, where someone might say racist comments or stereotypes in conversation and justify it by calling it a ‘joke’ or ‘banter’.
However, at The Diana Award, we define banter as
“teasing or joking talk that is amusing and friendly.”
This means that a joke or comment can only be described as banter if everyone involved finds it funny – that includes every person that the comment is about; everyone who can hear it; everyone. If someone feels upset, uncomfortable, or unsafe because of a comment that has been made, it simply is not banter.
For example, sometimes the word ‘gay’ is misused in conversation to describe something in a negative way, even though that is not what the word means - i.e. ‘Homework is so gay’. This can be very hurtful for others to hear and is also enforcing harmful stereotypes, but someone might try to excuse their comment by saying, “it’s just banter!”, or “can’t you take a joke?”. However, this is discriminatory language, not banter, and whether they intended to upset someone or not, they should still take responsibility for it and apologise for their actions.
Top Tips for Challenging Discriminatory Language
We have created some top tips to help you challenge discriminatory language in a kind and constructive way:
A great place to start is by responding to the language with a question, such as “what does that mean?”, or “Can you explain that to me?”. These kinds of open-ended questions let the other person think about their intentions and explain what they meant by it. Sometimes this can be enough to help someone realise that their words have an impact on others, and that they should think about what they mean before they say something.
Challenge the language, not the person
Remember – everyone makes mistakes and people can change their behaviour over time! If someone has said something unkind, it doesn’t mean that they are an unkind person. The aim of challenging it is to encourage them to change their behaviour – try not to focus on what they have done already but instead how they can choose to act differently next time. For example, instead of saying, “You’re hurting people’s feelings by saying that.”, try asking, “How do you think that word might make someone feel?”.
Mention how it makes you feel
Sometimes, it might be someone you care about that uses discriminatory language. This can make it even harder to challenge it, because we don’t want to upset them or hurt their feelings. However, remember that they care about you too and wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings either – if they have said something that makes you feel uncomfortable, let them know.
Help them understand
Explain why what they’re saying might hurt someone’s feelings. Try to encourage them to see it from a different perspective than their own – share relevant personal experiences if you feel comfortable to do so. Remember, you might not be able to change everyone’s mind, but taking an educational approach to what has happened and explaining why it’s hurtful might help someone see things differently.
Top Tips for creating an inclusive school environment
As Anti-Bullying Ambassadors, you can also run campaigns that help to promote an inclusive environment for everyone in school. Here are some of our favourite ideas:
Check out our Being the Upstander presentation and session plan and organise your own assembly! Educate others on the terms bystander and Upstander, the bystander effect, and how they can be the Upstander in school.
Banter vs. Bullying Behaviour workshop
Run a workshop for your peers using our Banter vs Bullying lesson plan. This includes some scenarios of banter and bullying behaviour so everyone can work through them and understand the difference.
Plan a day filled with fun, educational activities relating to diversity and get your whole school involved! This is a chance for everyone to have fun, get creative and learn while they do. Check out our helpful guides on educating your peers about diversity and inclusive activities.
Find creative ways to make it easier for students to report discriminatory language when it happens – you could place a ‘Worry Box’ in every classroom or create a reporting app on the school system.
Be the Upstander!
Always try your best to always be the Upstander if you see or hear something unkind. The more you do this, the more others will, too!
Check out our Resource Centre
For more ideas on how to promote inclusivity and diversity in school, head to our Resource Centre here.