Chapter 4 – Recognising hateful speech and behaviour

Hateful behaviour and hate speech is understood as being directed at a person, or persons, because of their presumed, or confirmed, group identity: e.g. their religion or belief, ‘race’, skin colour, culture, nationality or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender (transgender and non-binary people), gender expression, sex characteristics (intersex people), different abilities, etc. For hate speech to occur the person who the hate is directed at does not have to be in the room.

Examples of hateful speech and behaviour in a youth setting

As youth workers you are used to hearing and seeing words, attitudes and behaviours from young people, seeing images being circulated, witnessing behaviour and attitudes which are derogatory, demeaning and sometimes violent so how do you know for sure if it is hateful speech and/or behaviour and needs to be named as such?

You don’t have to know everything about the hate speech and/or behaviour to suspect when it is happening in your youth setting. The following is a series of questions you can ask yourself which will help you assess the situation and give you a chance to think about how to best tackle it:

Ask yourself

  • What sort of hate is it? Does it:
    • Make a marginalised group of people look bad?
    • Body shame?
    • Sexualise people?
    • Dehumanise people?
    • Deny people legitimacy around their feelings?
    • Does it further stereotype?
    • Is there violence evident?
    • Does it involve silent collusion from others?
    • Is it more damaging to people with dual or multiple identities?
  • Where does it fit on the Triangle of Hate? If it is allowed to fester and permeate might it become more hateful?
  • Where does the hateful speech and/or behaviour stem from?
  • What is the intent behind it? – is it intended to hurt?
  • Might the young person’s intent be to cause mischief, to rile and provoke the youth worker or bring attention on themselves and might they know what they are doing is wrong?
  • Might the young person be scapegoating someone because they feel bad about something in their own life?

You may also ask yourself:

  • What damage is being done?
  • What is the gravity of the damage?
  • How many people are being damaged or influenced by the speech or action?

A youth worker may not immediately recognise what is being said as being hate speech and/or behaviour. Language and images change all the time and new expressions can emerge that will be unfamiliar to the youth workers.

  • If it feels wrong it is worth investigating?
  • A hate incident may be something you see straight away or it may be something you recognise over time while observing and coming to understand the thoughts of the young people through their attitudes and behaviours.
  • Do you see signs of hurt, exclusion etc.?

After you have asked yourself the questions above, it is possible that what is happening is not hate speech or behaviour, but that in itself does not mean that a reaction from the youth worker is not necessary. There might be violent behaviour or language present that derives from roots other than hate towards marginalised and minority groups. While this Manual is intended to support the youth workers precisely when hate speech and behaviour occurs some of its advice will have relevance in other instances of challenging behaviour.

Light bulb moments:

  • People repeat words and behaviour they hear in their community – we are seldom conscious we are doing so. Young people are no different. It is important that we support people to hear and see themselves and then take personal responsibility for their speech and actions.
  • Youth work is about enabling critical thinking – hearing what we are saying in a new light.
  • It is important to always remember the young person’s wider context – what are they experiencing in their lives?


“Is this Hate?” The Question of words being reclaimed.

Youth workers often ask “what do we do when young people use terms amongst their own identity group that they clearly see as being okay for them to use but if they were to be used toward them by others it would be deeply offensive?” Youth workers might wonder if the young people are reclaiming words, or ‘flipping the script’ to take away the derogatory power from the oppressors who originally used them.

Youth workers are aware that some groups have reclaimed words as their own to use. Some of these words, such as Gay and Queer, are labels by which some people may self-identify and these will be the only terms by which they identify. So when asking yourself if the words being used between two or more young people are okay, it helps to run through a number of questions:

  • Are the terms being used in your youth setting referring to people’s chosen identity but being used out of context or being used against them or being used by others without the person’s approval (for example, some people identifying as Queer themselves do not like others using the term to describe them)?
  • Are the terms being used in a youth setting where other young people are getting mixed messages on what is okay?
  • Are young people using the terms amongst themselves as a way to ‘joke’ or banter with friends i.e. calling someone else by a term but not referring to themselves by the term?
  • Are the young people copying or repeating popular lyrics, hip-hop or rap?
  • Are there young people in the setting, including from their own identity group, who might find the terms offensive but would be uncomfortable saying so?

If the answer to these questions are yes then the terms are not being reclaimed. We would argue that there are certain terms that can never be reclaimed because of the history of oppression that is attached to them. While these terms fall into the wider category of hate speech there will be different ways of tackling their use.


  • Is it the right time and place to enter into a dialogue with the young people on their use of the language – can you ask them if they are consciously trying to reclaim it or trying to take the sting out of it – or is it internalising the hate?
  • Ask the young people what message they want to send to others in the group? In asking them to take responsibility for the use of any word in a youth setting, stress that they need to consider others in the group who find the terms offensive.
  • When the ‘hate’ words have appeared in lyrics that are being repeated you will need to consider:
  • The identity of the person repeating the lyrics, and
  • The intent of the creator and performer of the lyrics.
  • Understand that change takes time and managing the use of the words in a youth setting is only a first step. (See Sections 4 and 5: Management and Transformative Practice, where we present a few tools to address all of the above using an approach that looks at the needs of the young people as the priority.)

Freedom of speech is defined as the power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty.

It is often raised as a defence by people who argue that it gives them the right to offer their opinion and that anyone fighting hate speech is denying them this right.

In practice, we have to consider if the person who is speaking is presenting an argument or opinion that can be given space. Is the content, and/or the way the person is presenting the content, intending to stereotype, prejudice or discriminate marginalised and minority groups? If the answer is yes, then this is hate speech. If it is an opposing opinion or argument that does not dehumanise another person and/or group of people, then it is not hate speech.

It is always valid to challenge hate speech, and to address it where you see the speech as being a denial of human rights and dignity. This does not in itself restrict or deny someone their right to freedom of speech. In fact, those using freedom of speech as a defence should welcome such challenges.

It is best encapsulated by James Baldwin when he says: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”


It is important to be able to name the type of hate you are hearing and seeing. Even where you have doubts it is important to recognise and name it. If necessary tease it out with your colleagues or people who have more familiarity with the type of hate you suspect you are seeing.

You may decide that it is not the right time to name it to the young person who is doing the harm, if by naming it they disconnect from what you are trying to say. However, it is important that YOU recognise it for what it is, especially so that you can support the person targeted who will most likely appreciate your recognition of it and your validation of their experience.


It is helpful to recognise the origins (stems) of the hate speech, and the severity of the hate implicit in the stem, to be able to decide how best to tackle the situation and work toward transformation.

The following are 6 examples of where hateful behaviours stem from:


  • We all fear what we do not know and some people might be more fearful than others due to an array of reasons. We need to find ways to dispel those fears through addressing the fact that fear comes from a deep need in people for security.

  • We all hear false facts repeatedly and find it difficult to know myth from truth, especially when we hear it from sources we respect, such as parents, older people, media, religious leaders etc. We will need to discover the ‘false facts’ that are being used so we can find ways to dispel them.

  • People repeat what they hear around them especially from those closest to them particularly their families and their peers. While the severity of hateful behaviour due to learned behaviour can be high, it is often subconscious
  • Hateful terms become normalised and used in everyday conversation – we need to unpack the terms used and know/show how they are linked to systems of oppression.

  • We cannot assume that the person using hate speech and/or hateful behaviour has not experienced the marginalised group they are targeting in a negative light first-hand. In this case, you may be tackling stereotyping and prejudice based on a limited (and limiting) knowledge of the marginalised group. You may need to find ways to challenge stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes by introducing wider and differing narratives.

  • A plethora of media channels actively promote hate speech which gives it a false legitimacy.
  • Social media apps are being used to persuade people to spread abuse and hate toward others. As it is online, the targets are often unknown and often overseas. People can be desensitised toward the hurt they are causing others when it is done online and they can’t visibly see the hurt.
  • When hate speech is tolerated and normalised and where no punitive action is seen to be taken, it has been shown to create a licence for people to express prejudice without fear of consequences.

  • A young person might belong to a political organisation/party or a religious institution that actively indoctrinates its members/followers into a discriminatory world-view
  • Young people are vulnerable towards social pressure and radicalised groups, the young person might already sympathise or even be a member of a radicalised group

In recognising the role of the stems above in each incidence of hate, we observe in our youth settings, we will see that they are interlinked with each other – it is unlikely that we can blame just one influence.

Moreover, underpinning all of the stems above is the role of systematic oppression that feeds fear, allows ignorance and misinformation to persist, fails to tackle stereotyping or educate for change, and permits hate to pervade the media without a strong counter narrative. While initiatives may be put in place in education and law, these are a drop in the ocean in tackling hate.

  • Does it need to be stopped instantly or does there need to be a period of reflection and a critical education programme initiated?
  • Is it an opportunity to start a dialogue about a topic of contention while maintaining a commitment to respect?
  • Have I checked in with myself – am I aware of my own perceptions, beliefs, assumptions, expectations, feelings and judgements?
  • Can I approach all the young people involved with compassion and the understanding that they all come from a place of need and require my support?

Once you recognise something as being hate you can help bring about societal change by reporting it in any reporting mechanisms are present in your country. Those who collect the reports need an evidence base to advocate for change at a national policy level.

Reporting hate also demonstrates to the young people who experience hate in your youth setting that you are standing up for, and with, them.

What can I do?

  • Report the hate – in whatever reporting process is relevant and appropriate in your country.
  • Support the young person to report on-line reporting sites in your country. This supports the young person to know they have been heard and their voice is working toward policy change.
  • Accompany the young person to report at a police station if relevant.


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