How to Speak Up Against Casual Hate

Guidance from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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By Karen Yin • November 29, 2016

We’ve all been there: A child jokes about having “chinky eyes” in a selfie. Your boss makes a transphobic remark, and everybody laughs. You hear a stranger mock someone’s appearance.

What can we do? Do we say something?

When casual ignorance and intolerance surface as we go about our daily lives, it’s important to remember one thing: We are not helpless. We all can do something about it and make an impact.

“Think of yourself as the one who will speak up.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center‘s award-winning publication Speak Up! Responding to Everyday Bigotry has offered guidance for over a decade on what to say and do to fight hate and mistreatment. (Tip: The PDF version contains more resources than the online version.) SPLC is the organization behind the Teaching Tolerance project, itself a highly acclaimed resource for “educators who care about diversity, equality, and justice.”

The examples of conscious speech and conscious action in this free booklet are presented as possible responses to specific types of bias, but they can be adapted for any situation where we must speak up for ourselves or in defense of others.

The first step in the “Six Steps to Speaking Up Against Everyday Bigotry” section (toward the end of the publication) is “Be ready,” and this advice is crucial: “You know another moment like this will happen, so prepare yourself for it. Think of yourself as the one who will speak up. Promise yourself not to remain silent.”

Model kindness, open-mindedness, and boundaries through language.

So, fighting bigotry means we can’t half-ass it. These issues affect all of us. Fortunately, there are many ways for us to model kindness, open-mindedness, and boundaries through language. Here are a few examples from Speak Up!

At Work

  • (To a coworker) “You know, you’re giving Democrats a bad name when you make sweeping generalizations about Republicans.”
  • (To your boss) “A lot of different kinds of people work for you, and for this company. We come to work every day and give you our best. What you just said, does it really honor me and the other people here?”

At a Social Event

  • (About a mean joke) “I’m sorry; what’s so funny?”

At a Store

  • (About rude service) “I deserve to be treated with respect in an establishment where I spend money.”

With Family

  • (About impact) “Your ‘jokes’ are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they’ll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those ‘jokes’ don’t damage our relationship.”

With Ourselves

We can work on our own biases by:

  • exercising self-criticism to “save someone else the trouble of confronting you”;
  • apologizing immediately for voicing harmful assumptions about a group of people; and
  • understanding the prejudices present in our choice of words.

Fighting bias, including our own, requires intention and commitment.

This is a lot to think about, because fighting bias, including our own, requires intention and commitment. I’ll leave you with this quote (also from the booklet):


“If you don’t speak up, you’re surrendering part of yourself. You’re letting bigotry win.”

—Bob Carolla, spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Note: Always assess your comfort level and physical safety before you choose to take a risk. Speak Up! has multiple examples of expressing disapproval with your eyes and body language when that may be more effective than being confrontational.


Karen has long wavy hair and is smiling into the camera. She's wearing a gray T-shirt and an aquamarine pendant.Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.

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