Responding to Bigotry


When someone says something hateful or hurtful  — on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status,  religion, sexual orientation or physical appearance or another identity — how should you respond?

Bigotry can trigger feelings of anxiety, anger, or other emotions that cause you to become confused or respond in ways that close an opportunity.  Hate should never have the last word, but what are your alternatives?

How does it make you feel when someone says “white supremacists are fine people” or “those people are dangerous and should go back where they came from” or “you are so gay” or “the Holocaust never happened.”

People respond to triggers in various ways. Which of the following is yours:

_____ Flight:   I leave the room.

_____ Paralysis: I get confused, unsure what to do.

_____ Silence: I become quiet, do not say anything.

_____  Respond I respond immediately

_____ Confront: I tell them they are wrong.

_____ Discuss:      I start a conversation.

_____ Strategize: I meet with a few other people.

_____ Organize: Together, we take action

If we assume that people are trying their best, but have been taught hateful words by their parents, schools, or television, what should you say?  Should you confront them, or say that their words are inaccurate? Should you listen to them, acknowledge what they say, and start a conversation rather than make them defensive and shut them down?

In a segregated society in which people are isolated, many of them do not speak with others who are different from themselves, and stereotypes and prejudice arise.  They attend segregated schools — as did their teachers — in which they were not taught what to say. When teachers themselves respond in hurtful ways, they perpetuate the situation.


  • When someone says something hurtful or hateful, do you respond or  not respond?  How do you decide whether to respond?  What explains your decision?
  • Does person who says something hurtful have a right to freedom of speech?  Are there limits and, if so, what are the limits?
  • Should you always respond to bigotry, or should you listen and then discuss, or wait until you can strategize with others?

For a case study of Responding to Bigotry, see Saline Case Study.


  • Students Speak Up: What Bias Means to Them: One year after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, students discuss racial bias.
  • Boston Teens Speak Out About Racism: Young people participate in  “Boston Talks About Racism”.
  • Fighting Racism In school  Native American students share personal stories about responding to racism.


  • How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias and Stereotypes › sites › default › files › TT-Speak-Up-Guide_    
  • Speak Up Pocket Guide › files › general › speak_up_pocket_card_2up
  • How To Teach Kids To Speak Up For Themselves › teach-kids-speak-up_a_23319489    
  • Encouraging children to speak up and speak out › news › encouraging-children-to-speak-up-and-sp…
  • Stone, et al., Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. 
  • Zuniga. Bridging differences through dialogue. About Campus. 7: 8-16, 2003.
  • Hicks, Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues. › introductions-to-in tergroup-dialogues

The academy aims to prepare a new generation of civil rights leaders. For more information contact Barry Checkoway (  #youthcivilrights

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