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Creating Hate: The Power of Words

Amanda Christy of Boston Collegiate Charter School.

Amanda L. Christy
American School in London

Title: Creating Hate: The Power of Words

Description of School and Students

A suburban school with a population of approximately 1,800 students. The student body is ethnically and socially diverse. The average size of English classes is 25-30 students. This unit has been designed for a 12th-grade class of average ability.

Generative Topic

  • Language, Power, and Hate

Generative Object

Any hate word appearing in the context of literature being read in the course. I have created this unit in response to the word “nigger” which appears often in American literature. Put the word — whichever one works for you — on the board in big, bold letters. It will immediately generate discussion (and discomfort) as students enter the classroom and see it.

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • What is the relationship between language, power, and hate?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • In what ways do we use words and what does our ability to use language give us?
    • When and how do words become weapons?
    • What kind of hate language occurs in our school?
    • How do these words create images and stereotypes?
    • Where do these words obtain their meanings?
    • How does a word’s meaning change depending on who utters it?
    • How does the power of the written word differ from that of the spoken?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line

These lessons were inspired by my students’ discomfort with the word “nigger” which appeared in a reading we did, and by my concerns about the frequent use of the word “gay” as an insult to male students that I heard in the halls of our school. The goal of this unit is to help students become aware of the power of language — specifically how it can be “loaded” and used as a weapon of hate. Through awareness, students will gain sensitivity as to why authors choose to use such words in literature, how these words acquire meaning, and how the words they use might hurt others. Essentially, I want students to think before they speak or write and to be critical of the language authors and narrators use to describe others.

Each of the lessons below is built around one of the above critical engagement questions. It is expected that each question will frame a 40-minute period’s worth of activities. Homework throughout the unit will consist of reading the novel we are currently studying according to a schedule designed so the generative object (word) appears in the reading immediately preceding Day 4. Instead of or in addition to being used as part of a novel study, this unit could be used as part of a larger unit on stereotypes, racism, gender discrimination, religious hate, hate between social classes or a combination of all of these.


Day 1

  • In what ways do we use words and what does our ability to use language give us?
  • Begin class by having students brainstorm in their journals about the ways in which we use language. Get them thinking by asking: When do we use words? Why? Share these and discuss them as a class. What advantages do we have over other creatures because we are able to use language?
  • After this conversation, divide the class into groups of three or four. Hand one of the following scenarios to each group on an index card. There will be some overlap, which is fine.
    • You are in a courtroom, accused of a crime which you did not commit, and are facing a stiff prison sentence. How do you defend yourself?
    • You slipped and fell getting out of your bathtub. You feel like you might have broken something and can’t get up. Your parents are watching TV downstairs. How do you get their attention?
    • Your school principal is accusing your best friend of starting a fight. You are the only witness to the fact that she is not responsible. How do you clear her name?
  • Ask students to imagine that in each situation, they are unable to express themselves through written or spoken language. Once they have read their scenario and put themselves in this position, ask them to respond to the question posed by scenario and the following: How does being unable to speak or write in this situation make you feel? How would your response to the scenario change if you could use language?
  • After allowing groups to think and respond to this activity, call the class together and have one student in each group report out on their discussion. The consensus should be that being unable to use language made them feel powerless in each of the situations and that being able to use language would give them power — whether it be to defend themselves, help themselves, or defend a friend. Language gives us power over ourselves and others. Close class by calling upon several students to sum up class responses to the critical engagement question that frames the lesson.

    Day 2

  • When and how do words become weapons? (What kinds of words are used against me in school? By whom? How does the use of these words affect me? Why do these words affect me?)
  • Today begins with reflective journal writing. Ask students to set up two columns on their page. One the left, ask them to list any words used to describe them or the groups to which they belong in school and to note who uses each word — whether it is a specific person or a group of people. Allow plenty of time for this. Once students have exhausted this prompt, have them write how each of these words affects them in the right-hand column.
  • Open up discussion by going around the room and having each student share one word they noted and how it affected them. Having each student share will ensure that many different perspectives are represented and that a variety of words are on the table. Since the subject matter is personal and could be somewhat sensitive, allow a student to pass if he or she wishes. At the close of this sharing, ask students: How many of you have heard these words before? How do you feel when you hear them used to describe someone else? Why do these words have any effect on us at all? How many of you have ever used one of these words to describe someone else? Why did you use it? How did it feel to use it? Why do people use words as weapons?
  • To end class, have students engage in an extended journal entry in response to the following prompt: Which word on your list hurts the most when it is used against you? Who says it? What makes it a weapon? In other words, why and how does it hurt you? If you can, recall and relate an incident with this word.
  • Closure question: Drawing from their writing, have students respond orally to the critical engagement question: When and how does a word become a weapon?

    Day 3

  • What kind of hate language occurs in our school?
  • Explain to students that today they will engage in a field study, recording and reporting the hate language used by students in their school. Ask that they find a place where students congregate and are allowed to talk, like the cafeteria, lounge, hallway, locker room, etc., and listen. Have students copy the following chart from the board or supply them with photocopies of it to help them record their observations.

    Word | Tone | Context

  • Students should record any word used to describe another, whether it is said jokingly or seriously, or seems to them to be negative or positive. (Many students use words like “gay” so casually that they have no idea it could be used as a hate word.) They should note the tone used as well. Context might include such things as the gist of the conversation, the relationship of the speakers, the space in which the conversation took place, etc. Make sure the instructions are clear before students leave the room, then send students out in pairs to eavesdrop. Give them about 20 minutes for this activity.
  • When students return, discuss their findings. What surprised them? How common are words like those that came up yesterday? What did they notice about how language was used in different contexts? How many of the words they recorded seemed to them to be hate words? How could they tell?

    Day 4

  • How do these words create images and stereotypes? (Where do these words obtain their meanings? How does a word’s meaning change depending on who utters it?)
  • Open class by randomly grouping students in threes or fours and having them list all of the words they heard around school yesterday or have heard in school that suggest stereotypes, or are insulting or hateful. Give them no more than five minutes. Then ask one student to read the list out loud. Students will probably express discomfort with this activity. Many of these words are words that they have been conditioned NOT to say or write. You’ll probably have one or two, though, who will be up to the challenge; they’ll want to say the words for the very reasons most students won’t! Once this is done, ask why students felt uncomfortable. Why are these words hard to say out loud for most people? Play devil’s advocate by saying “They’re just words.” That should get them talking. Extend the discussion by asking: What makes a hate word a hate word? Why do some words have negative connotations? How do things like tone and context affect how words mean what they do?
  • Call attention to the word “nigger” written on the board (the generative object). What do they think about this word? Ask them if they know what it means. How is it used in the novel? Why is it used at all? Why is it difficult for us to read this word?
  • Hand out copies of Gloria Naylor’s article “Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean.” Have a student(s) read aloud stopping to clarify as questions arise. It is a rather difficult piece, but worth struggling through.
  • After reading, discuss: Where does this word obtain its meanings? How does a word’s meaning change depending on who utters it? Why can a black person call another black person a “nigger,” but a white person can’t? This gets to the issue of power — discuss how some groups have reclaimed words, thus reclaiming power. Close class by bringing the issues the article raises around the word “nigger” to bear on the words they listed at the beginning of class — how do words become “loaded” with meaning? What kind of power do words have in the creation and perpetuation of hate?

    Day 5

  • How does the power of the written word differ from that of the spoken? (Which is more effective as a weapon of hate?)
  • Begin by asking students to turn back to the list they made at the beginning of the unit about the ways in which we use language. Ask if they would add anything to this list. Hopefully, they would! Talk about the ways in which language is used to wield power over others — as we have seen throughout the week, to express hate, and to reclaim power.
  • Naylor seems to say that oral speech is superior to the written word. Why does she think this? How does she capture the oral nuances of hate words in her writing? Ask students if they think written or spoken language is more powerful — especially in regard to hate language. As a class, consider those elements that come into play, adding dimension to each — subtext, connotation, thought, body language, etc. How do these add power to words?
  • Ask: Ultimately, whether written or spoken, what controls the meaning of a particular word?
  • To close the unit, ask students as a class or in groups of three or four to consider the essential question posed at the beginning of the week: What is the relationship between language, power, and hate? Discuss responses. Have students complete the final assessment detailed below for homework.


Students will be evaluated throughout on their group participation, journal entries, and written assignments. For a final assessment of the thinking progress students have made during this unit, ask each student to write a one-two page reflective letter to you in response to the issues, activities, readings, and discussions that have taken place this week. Ask them that the letter include at least one important thing they will take away from their study of language, power, and hate and one important question about these ideas that remains unanswered. All evaluations will be based on student/teacher-generated rubrics already in place.

Resources Recommended

Note: This unit could be used as part of an inquiry into any piece of literature that includes hate language: "To Kill a Mockingbird" (Harper Lee), "Fences" (August Wilson), "Ragtime" (E.L. Doctorow), and "Of Mice and Men" (John Steinbeck) are some included in my school’s curriculum.

Amanda Christy’s lesson plan "Creating Hate: The Power of Words" was published in The Media and American Democracy Compendium 2000, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 209

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