Reacting vs. Responding When Hateful Words Are Said

Last year we talked to Marianne Freeborn from the Boys & Girls Club of Salem about some instances of prejudice that came up around LGBTQ youth. The conversation was rich, and her advice on how she handled it was good advice for any kind of bias or discrimination that may occur, whether it’s around race, gender or sexuality, disability, weight, or a number of others. It feels particularly important to share this wisdom right now, given the recent uptick in race-related violence. It is vital that we address and prevent all discriminatory actions in our Clubs and teach youth the value and importance of our diversity.

We are living in unprecedented times and our youth have been caught in a deeply uncertain moment in history, on top of experiencing a global pandemic. As youth development professionals, it is our responsibility to equip youth for the outside world, preparing them to succeed and to help others succeed. Exposure to equal representation and an emphasis on empathetic communications are vital to help create long lasting safe spaces in our communities. It is more important than ever that youth have a space, even if it is a virtual one, to feel celebrated, understood, and wanted. I’d like to share with you a simple tool that has been helpful for us: Reacting vs. Responding. 

What is Reacting vs. Responding? 

  • Reactions are driven by our emotions – anger, fear, shame, embarrassment. When we react to something, we act without first thinking.  This can sometimes make things worse.  
  • Responses are driven by balancing our emotions reaction with logic. When we respond, we pause, sense how we are feeling in the moment, assess the best course of action, and respond accordingly.  

For example, if I hear hateful or discriminatory speech at the Club my first instinct is to react quickly and forcefully. I might want to say something like, “We do NOT say those words in this Club!” Or “We do NOT use people’s sexual orientation or skin color to put them down. Period, end of story!” In doing this, my intentions are good. I want to address the incident immediately, and make it clear that it is unacceptable behavior. However, this initial gut response is not always effective in helping kids learn how to do better next time.  

Often, especially with younger members, homophobic, racist, or hateful speech is regurgitated without knowledge of the meaning or the harm that it can cause others. A forceful reaction to this does not leave space for them to learn why its harmful or ask questions. They may walk away from that interaction with little understanding of how to change their behavior.  

By taking the time to respond to hateful or harmful speech, you can create a dialogue to help them understand the why. Here’s how you can walk through this process:

  1. First, pause and sense how you are feeling. What you heard may cause you to have a strong emotional reaction. That’s okay! There is no wrong way to feel. Take a moment to manage your stress response before responding.   
  2. Then, clearly and safety addressing the behavior that is concerning. Say something like, “That is a hurtful thing to say to someone. Do you know why it might be hurtful?”  
  3. Next, clearly explain why what they said was harm. Do this by defining the terms or describing the history of the word.  
  4. Then, open up a space for them to ask questions. Try saying something like, “Do you understand now why that might be hurtful to others? Do you have any questions that I can answer to help you understand?”  
  5. Finally, invite them to follow-up with you later if they have more questions. Ensure they understand that you a safe person to talk to, and you are here to help them learn.  
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For newer staff, knowing how to correctly respond in the moment can be difficult. A general statement that I use across the board is this: “You may not understand what a person is doing, or parts of their identity, but it is never okay to make fun of someone. No matter what, we can always be a good friend and make sure everyone is included.” Is this foolproof? No. Has it increased genuine connections and authentic dialogue in my Club? Yes.  

Our youth are always watching us, looking to us for answers. As we create Club cultures that promote inclusivity and celebrate diversity, we pave the way for members to create a better world for us all.

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BGCA has resources to help get you started in created a more inclusive and emotionally safe Club environment for all people in the Positive Club Climate suite. All of them are useful, but for this topic, we especially recommend:  

  • Meta-Moment: A resource to help teach both staff and youth how to respond vs. react to situations that cause strong emotions.  
  • Restorative Roadmap: A resource to help restore connections after a hurtful interaction.  

How have you created a Positive Club Climate? What tools have you used to teach youth the value of diversity and empathy? We want to hear! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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