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Speak Up to Hate Speech and Become a Master of Verbal Self-Defense

Early in our relationship my future wife and I realized we needed to pack more than undies and a toothbrush for a visit to the folks.

In particular, her mom had a knack for the offhand insult.

She became legend among our friends for complementing someone’s chunky black kicks thus: “You can get away with wearing such ugly shoes, but I wouldn’t.”

When an apology was required she favored the classic, “I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive.” So we found ourselves hurtling towards Thanksgiving supper in our Honda Civic, rehearsing the moment when my soon-to-be mother-in-law said something that hurt someone’s feelings.

“Wow!” we’d exclaim. “What a wildly inappropriate thing to say!”

My MIL’s equal-opportunity insensitivity was not born of bias. But our strategy to counter her hurtful words drew directly from the social justice anti-violence movement. As self-defense teachers we’d spent long hours role-playing pithy comebacks with our sister feminists. That’s because hate-based microagression— verbal assault predicated on a perceived aspect of someone’s identity—is pervasive, and the first station along the continuum of violence. If you know a person of color, a woman, or someone queer or gender non-conforming, you know someone who’s been the target of verbal hate.

Noticing hate and knowing what to do when it crops up are different matters. It’s easy for even the most ardent progressive to feel tongue-tied in the presence of unexpected prejudice. Verbal self-defense is a skill, which—like a strong right hook—improves with repetition. That’s why the gals down at self-defense class train ourselves to speak up.

These are some of our best tips:

Practice makes perfect.  Let yourself be a beginner. Find low-stakes opportunities to test-drive your verbal assertiveness so it’ll be there in the clinch.

Master the basics.  Take a deep breath. Make eye contact. Speak audibly, firmly, and at the lower range of your vocal register. Use statements, not questions.

Know your goal.  It will be awesome when everyone is down with the gay, joyously multiculti and raring to dismantle the patriarchy. But the short game is not about getting people on the side of good. It’s about setting an expectation—respectful speech in your presence— and sticking to it.

Be prepared.  Choose your own phrase to rehearse until it rolls easily off your tongue.  Not sure what to say? Try one of these:

  • I disagree profoundly.
  • That word is offensive.
  • It makes me uncomfortable when you talk like that.

Capitalize on surprise.   When unanticipated hate speech stuns you stupid, Lauren Taylor of Defend Yourself suggests telling the truth. “I can’t believe you just said that,” communicates approbation of the speaker’s assumption that bias will be socially accepted. It also buys you a minute to collect yourself.

Label behavior, not people.  As satisfying as it might be to holler, “STFU you sexist jerk wad!” in self-defense circles that’s known as escalating. “Please don’t tell that joke, it’s insulting to women,” identifies both the offending action and your request for behavior change.

Be a broken record.  Assertiveness guru Manuel J. Smith used this term to describe calmly yet persistently repeating a request. Acknowledge attempts to derail the conversation while sticking to your intent. “Please don’t use that word around me. I’m not calling you a racist, I am asking you not to use that word around me. Whether I’m too sensitive/ a pinko queer/a stuck up brat does not change the fact that I am asking you not to use that word around me.”

Be an ally.  The less skin you have in the game, the easier it is to take a stand. White folks have less to risk interrupting racism; straight folk are safer interrupting homophobia; men interrupting sexism and cisfolk, transphobia. Whatever privilege you’ve got: use it to make a safer world for all of us.

About the author

Lynne Marie Wanamaker

Lynne Marie Wanamaker

The last kid picked in gym class, anti-violence expert and certified personal trainer Lynne Marie Wanamaker claimed her athletic destiny when she fell in with a scrappy bunch of feminist karatekas in Brooklyn in 1988. Since then she’s amassed a collection of martial arts black-belts, sweaty tee-shirts and political rants. She is committed to making fitness and personal safety skills accessible to everyone.


  • A while ago, I told a close friend what I thought was an hysterical variant of the “how many (fill in the blanks” does it take to change a light bulb” joke. She surprised me by asking me not to tell her that sort of joke.
    I thought she was kidding. I protested. I pointed out it was funny. I asked since when had she joined the p.c. police.
    She said that if a member of the group the joke was about heard it, they might be offended or hurt. Then she said, “Cruelty isn’t funny.”
    I’ve thought about it a lot since, and I think she’s wrong: cruelty can be quite funny. But I’d just as soon not indulge. So, basically, she was right, and I was wrong.
    A longwinded way of saying that speaking out can be effective.

  • Hi , I am so glad I saw this. I just told a man on Facebook that his comment was out of line. A gentleman, and I use the term loosely, said he did not want his daughter to dress like a tramp the way Michele Obama does. My anger came quickly from my toes to the t op of my head. I felt like using one of my Mothers phrases on him, but I gave it up for Lent!!!

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