Uniformed high school students write at their desks.
Lesson

Addressing Racist and Dehumanising Language

Use this lesson when your students are engaging with a text that contains racist and dehumanising language.

Published:

This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — UK

Grade

6–12

Duration

Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Overview

About This Lesson

This lesson is a means of addressing racist and dehumanising language safely with students, so that they can understand the challenging nature of such terms without needing to be in fear of them. We recommend that you do preparatory work on discussing race with students using the lessons Preparing to Discuss Race in the Classroom and Introducing the Concept of Race if you have not already done so, and that you revisit your classroom contract. If you do not have a class contract, you can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

  • What impact does racist and dehumanising language have on those who are targeted by it?
  • How have some people who belong to groups targetted by racist and dehumanising terms sought to reclaim those words and rob them of their derisive power?
  • How will we be addressing racist and dehumanising language in this classroom?

Students consider the impact of racist and dehumanising terms, before exploring how and why some groups have sought to reclaim such terms. They then reflect on how racist and dehumanising terms will be approached in the classroom.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 5 activities
  • 1 audio
  • 1 reading
  • 6 teaching strategies
  • 1 classroom-ready PowerPoint

In life and in school, many students will encounter racist and dehumanising language. Such language might be used to intentionally cause offence, it might be something they encounter in lessons, when reading literature or historical texts, and it might also be something that some marginalised groups have reclaimed and now use to express familiarity and friendship.

Teaching a text that includes racist slurs, derogatory words and/or anachronistic language can elicit fear and anxiety in educators. As educators, we know that unless we prepare to address language with intention and care, we risk causing harm and creating inhospitable classroom environments where students may feel like they do not belong, and where they cannot learn. Some racist and dehumanising terms, such as the ‘N-word’, have the power to destabilise a classroom environment if they are encountered without adequate preparation or groundwork. In her talk Why It’s So Difficult to Talk About the ‘N’ Word, Dr Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor states:

I hear from students that when the word is said during a lesson without discussion and context, it poisons the entire classroom environment, the trust between student and teacher is broken (11.31). 1

 

Such terms can also make students who belong to the groups targeted feel uncomfortable and singled out. In her talk, Dr Stordeur Pryor goes on to state that:

My black students tell me that when the word is spoken or quoted in class, they feel like a giant spotlight is shining on them (12.32). 2

 

These sentiments are not unique to those in America. In her BBC Radio broadcast, A History of the N-word, the journalist Dame Ellah Wakatama Allfrey interviewed young women about the use of the word, one of whom stated:

I remember when we were studying GCSE English at school, within the class we had to read out Of Mice and Men. Referring to the black character, Crooks, the other characters would always refer to him as [the N-word], so throughout the text students in the class would have to say the word, but they would whisper it really quietly, they would feel really uncomfortable saying the word. And I noticed, myself, as a black person, I felt that before someone was about to say the word, they might look to me for reassurance, which I thought was quite funny because I am no more comfortable with the word than anyone else (05.15–05.50). 3

 

The dehumanising power and loaded history of some terms, particularly the N-word and the P-word, cannot be ignored, nor can the impact they can have on students if they are not handled with sensitivity. We advise against speaking these words out loud in the classroom, but if they appear in texts or resources that are being used, it is necessary to acknowledge them, understand their problematic nature and set guidelines for students when reading aloud or quoting from the text (e.g. to say ‘the N-word’ or ‘the P-word’ when students encounter them spelt out in full in a text). Otherwise, the presence of such words might both harm students and distract them from an open discussion on a particular topic. If you realise that you will be asking students to hear, process and discuss passages with dehumanising language on a regular basis, however, it is important to reflect on the purpose of the text and its cost to students’ emotional wellbeing.

It is also important to consider how to avoid imposing your views on racist and dehumanising terms on students. We advise against educators, particularly if they are white, policing how black students engage with the N-word and how Pakistani students engage with the P-word outside the classroom. If students belonging to the groups targeted by racist and dehumanising terms use them socially, that is their choice. In the classroom, however, educators can request that all students only use substitutes as a means of ensuring that no one is triggered by such terms.

Educators should also make it clear that it is never acceptable, inside or outside the classroom, for students who do not belong to the groups targeted to use a racist and dehumanising term.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.

Create a classroom contract before teaching this lesson and/or deliver the first two lessons in this series: Preparing to Discuss Race in the Classroom and Introducing the Concept of Race.

Before discussing racist and dehumanising language with students, it is vital to consider the relationship between your identity and experiences and the language in question. This is particularly important if the language is targeted at groups that you do not belong to – in such cases, hearing offensive terms out loud might not harm you, but it may well harm your students if elements of their identity feel under attack.

Reflect on this relationship between your identity, experiences and the dehumanising term(s) that you will be encountering in class using the following questions:

  • What perspectives and experiences shape my engagement with this term?
    • Where did I first hear this term?
    • What, if any, impact did it have on me?
    • How do I feel when I encounter it? What are the reasons I feel this way?
  • Is this term used in society to attack aspects of my identity?
    • If so, how does it make me feel? What is my response to this term when I encounter it?
    • If not, how might my understanding of the term be different to those who are targeted by it?
  • How might my emotional response to this topic be similar to or different from my students’ emotional responses?
    • How might my feelings about the term affect what my students experience in my class?
    • How might my students’ own identities and life experiences shape their encounter with this term?
    • How can I create space in the classroom to discuss this topic?

Addressing Racist and Dehumanising Language

This PowerPoint for Lesson 3 of the Discussing Race and Racism in the Classroom mini-unit comes complete with student-facing slides and teaching notes, and is ready to use in the classroom.

Each lesson in this mini-unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

Before you explain to students that you will be exploring racist or dehumanising terms and their impacts in the lesson, we recommend that you create a classroom contract or revisit a previously created one. You can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

Next, invite students to reflect on the following prompts in their journals:

A famous children’s nursery rhyme states ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’.

  1. What do you think this means?
  2. How far do you agree with its message?
  3. What evidence do you see in society that words can hurt?
  4. Have you ever been hurt by words?

Debrief the questions as a class, but ensure that students do not need to share any answers if they do not feel comfortable doing so.

Then, invite students to independently consider the following questions before sharing their thoughts with the class. Make it clear that you are discussing terms in general and not asking them to list racist and dehumanising language:

  1. Where do people encounter racist and dehumanising terms?
  2. Can the context in which a term is said impact how it is received? Explain your answer.

Ensure that by the end of the discussion students have identified how racist and dehumanising terms are used to both express abuse and camaraderie, and are encountered in education, particularly in English and history lessons, and in popular culture, such as films and music.

Inform students that they will explore the impact of racist and dehumanising language on those who are targeted by it. First, they will read and discuss an excerpt from journalist and filmmaker Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, in which he describes his struggles with racism, identity and belonging in his Luton community.

Note: This text contains the P-word. It is important to read it before deciding whether or not to share it with your students. If the excerpt is read in class, we advise against saying the P-word out loud. Teachers and/or students could instead substitute the word with ‘P’ or ‘the P-word’.

Read the text out loud to students or use a reading aloud strategy, being mindful of where the P-word occurs and outlining a strategy of how you expect students to engage with it.

Then, ask your students to respond to the following questions in pairs before discussing them briefly as a class:

  1. What acts of racism were perpetrated against Sarfraz Manzoor and Rupinder when in the streets of his Luton community?
    • How might this have impacted the way they walked around their neighbourhood?
  2. Manzoor describes a racist incident in which a teacher, discussing how words can be abbreviated, uses the P-word against him in class.
    • How might it have felt to be singled out by the teacher and subjected to a racist slur?
    • Why is it significant that this occurred within school?
  3. Experiences at school often have a lasting impact on the way people think about themselves. After describing the two painful memories from his school days, Manzoor writes: ‘It is not easy to convey the impact of such incidents.’
    • What does he mean?
    • What are the different ways such experiences might shape the way people think about themselves, others, and the choices they make?
  4. How do you explain the fact that none of Manzoor’s fellow students defended either him or the Asian maths teacher when they were teased?
    • What choices did his classmates have in the different situations?
    • What might you have done to help?
  5. As a young man Manzoor remembers:

    ‘If I could have summoned a genie who could have rubbed my brownness off, the shameful truth is that I would have been elated … I wanted to be invisible and anonymous so that no one could point at me and say: “You are different and you do not belong.”’

    • What does he mean when he says he wanted to be ‘invisible’?
    • What does this tell us about the impact of racism?
  6. How, if at all, has Manzoor’s story impacted your views on racist and dehumanising language?

Next, if appropriate, share the recording of Salena Godden reading her poem ‘The N-word’ with your students. The recording can be found in the journalist Dame Ellah Wakatama Allfrey’s BBC Radio broadcast, A History of the N-word between 26.47 and 28.19. You may wish to play the poem twice. Once before showing students the questions and once again, after.

Note: This poem contains the N-word. It is important to read it before you decide whether or not to share it with your students. If the poem is read in class, we advise against saying the N-word out loud. Teachers and/or students could instead substitute the word with ‘N’ or ‘the N-word’.

Then, invite students to respond to the following questions before discussing them as a class:

  1. Choose one, two or three lines from the poem that resonate with you because of how Godden expresses an idea:
    • What did the poet do that stood out to you?
    • How did it make you feel?
  2. What does the poem suggest about the impact of racist and dehumanising language on those who are targeted by it? Use lines from the poem to support your response.
  3. Why do you think Salena Godden wrote the poem?
    • What message did she want to send?
    • What lessons can we learn from it?
  4. How, if at all, has the poem impacted your views on racist and dehumanising language?

Finally, give your students an opportunity to privately share their thoughts/feelings with you on the content covered in an Exit Card, using the following prompts:

  • I came in thinking/feeling …
  • I am leaving thinking/feeling ...

Part II Activities

Explain to students that they will continue their exploration of how to address racist and dehumanising terms. First, invite students to respond to the following prompt in their journals before leading a short class discussion:

  • Should racist and dehumanising terms be completely banned? Explain your view.

Then, introduce the concept of code-switching to your students by sharing one or more of the following resources:

  • Code-switching is the term used to describe the act of somebody changing the language they speak, the words they use, their dialect and/or their mannerisms to adapt to a certain setting or situation. In a work setting, for example, people might not use the same language that they use in their personal life, and vice-versa. Code-switching can be useful as it can help people fit in, creating a sense of connection and belonging, and it can signal that people are in tune with the norms of a specific environment: students, for example, are expected to speak and behave differently in a classroom with a teacher than they are with their peers.

    Everyone code-switches in daily life, often without thinking about it, adapting how they speak and act to the situation in which they find themselves and the people they are with. However, not everyone has to code-switch an equal amount: research has shown that people from marginalised communities have to code-switch more often than those who belong to a dominant social group. People of colour, those from working class backgrounds and those who identify as LGBTQ+ often find that they need to speak or act in a way that aligns with white, heterosexual and middle class norms to be taken seriously and avoid being ostracised or discriminated against. 1  Such self-censorship can be exhausting, and highlights a lack of acceptance for those who express themselves in ways that deviate from the dominant cultural norm.

  • Video (2.38 mins): Code Switching: What Is It and Why Do We All Do It? (Lucrece Grehoua & Jameisha Prescod, BBC News). 2
  • Radio (1.49 mins): Amandla Stenberg – Starr Carter in The Hate U Give Talks About ‘Code-Switching’ with Ace (Amandla Stenberg, BBC Sounds).
  • Article: People of Colour Have to ‘Code-Switch’ to Fit In with White Norms (Natalie Morris, Metro).

Once you have shared the resource(s), lead a class discussion using the following questions:

  • What is code-switching?
  • Who code-switches? Why?
  • In which situations might code-switching be regarded as useful?
  • Why might code-switching be regarded as problematic?
  • Do you have any experience of code-switching?

Next, explain to students that although racist and dehumanising language is regarded as deeply problematic when used as a form of abuse, some people who belong to the groups targeted by such language have sought to use it on their own terms, reclaiming it as a means of reducing its power. Some racist terms are thus used by some to express friendship and familiarity towards others who belong to the same group. This has created a debate about who can and can not use language and whether harmful terms can actually be reclaimed.

Explain to students that they will be reading different perspectives concerning the N-word and the P-word, reminding them of upholding the norms of the classroom contract and requesting that they only use the substitutions when discussing these phrases.

Share the following perspectives with students. You might choose to have students silently read and engage with each of the perspectives using either the Gallery Walk teaching strategy or the Big Paper teaching strategy.

  • Schoolgirl (on the N-word): ‘You can be told not to say a word because it’s offensive, but to tread so lightly around it and ... to completely avoid the word and to feel awkward around it that would be more offensive than to openly discuss it.’ 1
  • DJ Semtex (on the N-word): ‘I think it should be embraced, the fact that you have got so many generations of kids – they understand it as a term of endearment, it is a part of popular culture, there are tracks that are built on the use of the word and it’s not meant in a negative way at all.’ 2
  • Author Bernadine Everisto (on the N-word): ‘You could say that what these hip-hop artists and so on are doing is reclaiming the word and neutralising its toxicity, if you like, but I don’t think we’re there yet … I wonder if it’s because the history of the word [the N-word] is so deep that we just can not get rid of all its implications.’ 3
  • Rapper Ashley Walters (on the N-word): ‘It was a rebellion thing, it was a way that you could rebel against the government, against society ... and take out your anger, and what will make people look at you or be more shocked than using a word that is so negative or derogatory in a good way, you know?’ 4
  • Actor and broadcaster Mim Shaikh (on the P-word): ‘I feel like people should use more positive than negative language, and, for me, the connotations of [the P-word] are more negative than positive. I know some people feel a sense of camaraderie with using it. I do understand why people might start taking ownership of it and start being like, “I’m one of them and I’m proud.” It’s empowering, rather than allowing yourself to feel disenfranchised or disconnected through other people using the word about you. But me? I’ll never call my Pakistani brothers my ‘P-words’, you know what I mean? It doesn’t sit right, because it’s been used negatively towards me in my life.’ 5
  • Rapper and composer Premz (on the P-word): ‘I don’t believe in the whole reclaiming the word [argument], to be honest with you. I know a lot of people do, though. There are a lot of Asian rappers right now, especially younger ones, who use it in pride and camaraderie. But my advice to them is always that instead you can say ‘akhi’ [an Arabic word for ‘brother’] ... It sounds the same and it basically means the same. It’s just more positive.’ 6
  • Professor David Pilgrim: ‘I‘m sure there are people who have tried in African American community to defang it, I don’t think they are successful, I don’t think changing the spelling of the word or the pronunciation of the word, that word has a long and brutal history and I tell my students, if you are looking for a term of endearment, try brother.’ 7

Then, invite students to consider the following questions in a Think, Pair, Share or groups before leading a short class discussion:

  1. Why and how have some groups sought to reclaim racist and dehumanising terms?
  2. Do you think racist and/or dehumanising words can be reclaimed by those who they are targeted against? Explain your response.
  3. Why might it be acceptable in some situations for those belonging to a targeted group to use a term, but unacceptable for those who do not belong to that group to use it?
  4. Can you think of other situations where it is acceptable for some people to refer to others using particular names or terms, but not other people?

    You might wish to consider nicknames, how names are used in environments such as schools or hospitals, or names you have for members of your family.

  5. How, if at all, is code-switching relevant to this debate?

Next, tell students that they will watch Dr Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s talk Why It’s So Hard to Talk About the ‘N’ Word, in which the historian, drawing from personal experience, ‘leads a thoughtful and history-backed examination of one of the most divisive words in the English language: the N-word’.

If you do not have time to watch all of the video, watch from 11.03, but be sure to explain that Stordeur Pryor begins the talk by telling a story about when the N-word was first stated in her classroom, and that she uses the term ‘point of encounter’ to describe the moment that people come face to face with the N-word.

Before you show the video, share the following questions with students and encourage them to take notes while watching the video, pausing the video when you think it is appropriate:

  1. How do students feel when the N-word is spoken without adequate preparation in the classroom?
  2. What are the painful histories concerning the N-word and its use, both recent and distant?
  3. What approach does Stordeur Pryor feel needs to be taken when discussing the N-word in class?
  4. What reflections do you have on Stordeur Pryor’s talk?
    • What ideas stood out?
    • What questions does it raise for you?

After watching the video, give students some time to independently complete their responses to the questions before leading a short class discussion.

Next, inform students of how racist and dehumanising terms will be approached in your classroom:

If/when the N-word and the P-word are encountered in a text, they will not be spoken out loud. Instead, substitutions for such terms, such as ‘the N-word’ and ‘the P-word’ will be used. This is to ensure that everyone feels safe in the classroom environment and no one is triggered by a racist and dehumanising term.

It might also be important to state that this is the rule for inside the classroom and that you are not telling students who belong to the groups targeted by racist and dehumanising language that they can not say the word outside the classroom. If necessary, you might also want to make it clear that it is never acceptable, inside or outside the classroom, for students who do not belong to the groups targeted to use a racist and dehumanising term.

Once you have outlined the class approach, discuss the following questions with the class to ensure they understand this approach and so they can share any additional procedures they would like in place:

  1. How will we be addressing racist and dehumanising language in this classroom?
  2. What procedures, in addition to word substitutions, would you like to have in place?
  3. What, if anything, do you feel needs to be considered?

You might wish to collect students’ ideas and add them to the classroom contract and/or to your class approach on encountering racist and dehumanising terms.

Finally, give your students an opportunity to privately share their thoughts on the content covered in an Exit Card. You might choose to use the same prompts as previously to continue to track students’ feelings on this sensitive topic.

  • I came in thinking/feeling …
  • I am leaving thinking/feeling ...

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