Cross Words – The Power of Language

Cross Words
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Terminology around issues of equality and diversity is a sticking point for many people. People face a great many barriers in understanding the power of language and the reasons why getting it right is so important, which frequently inhibit their ability or willingness to keep up-to-date with appropriate and inappropriate terminology. Ofsted’s Inspecting Equalities Briefing (2012) aims to address the current lethargy concerning the language of equality, and has outlined a number of expectations of the school with regards to the safety and behaviour of pupils. These include the following:

  • There are clear procedures for dealing with prejudice-related bullying and incidents, and appropriate staff training that equips staff to identify and deal with this effectively.
  • Questionnaires and focused discussion groups show that all pupils feel safe from all kinds of bullying, harassment and oppressive behaviour.
  • Pupils are confident that staff will address all issues of discrimination and prejudice including the use of derogatory language.

In light of these expectations, as well as the duty placed on schools by the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equality Act 2010 to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between students, many schools are approaching conversations around terminology with renewed vigour, seeing education and training around appropriate and inappropriate terminology as a stepping stone to reducing prejudice-related incidents as well as increasing staff and students’ confidence in the schools’ reporting systems and their feelings of safety within the school.

At EqualiTeach, we have been working with secondary schools across England through a programme entitled ‘Cross Words: the Power of Language’, to ensure that both staff and students understand the importance of getting terminology right and the consequences of using inappropriate language in the school setting, thus creating school environments that are safe and welcoming for everyone.

Language is an extremely powerful tool. Using inappropriate language contributes to the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes, which can have real consequences for individuals and groups of people in society and can cause disadvantage and discrimination. Understanding the power of language, and how it structures our attitudes and perceptions of ourselves, others and the world around us, is key to understanding why it is so important that we get our language right. Without this understanding, people may feel that making effort to use the correct terminology is ‘political correctness gone mad’ and that inappropriate language use is ‘just harmless banter’. In addition, by many, language is seen as constantly changing and therefore hard to keep abreast of, making people feel unable to even enter into discussions around issues of equality and diversity, for fear of saying the wrong thing or opening up a can of worms. These are all extremely common sentiments, which ensure that our workshops exploring terminology use, including who uses certain words and who decides this, often elicit a great deal of controversy and debate.

Certainly, for many people, the idea that there is a ‘politically correct brigade’ arbitrarily banning words and phrases, such as ‘brainstorm’, ‘black coffee’ and ‘merry Christmas’ in favour of the more ‘politically correct’ terms ‘thought shower’, ‘coffee without milk’ and ‘happy holidays’ is a real barrier to fully engaging with equality and diversity, and masks the real reasons why appropriate language use is so important. In reality, there is no ‘politically correct brigade’ banning the use of the word ‘black’ as a descriptive term, and celebrating Christmas and using the word brainstorm are absolutely fine. The idea that these things have been banned are myths derived from exaggerated newspaper stories which have undermined, and will continue to undermine, proper equality work about the importance of terminology unless recognised for the myths that they are.

The idea that the acceptability of words changes arbitrarily and quickly also acts as a deterrent to keeping up-to-date with acceptable terminology. However, acceptability does not change arbitrarily or quickly. People must be assured that words are deemed unacceptable for very good reasons, often rooted in history, and, whilst the language of equality does not stay the same, all language is continually changing and the rate of change is extremely gradual.

Another common barrier which prevents engagement with this work is the perception that the use of some terms is ‘just harmless banter’, which does not have serious consequences if there is no intent to hurt a person. This is an extremely dangerous perception to have. Using words that have a history of offending, despite maintaining that no offence is meant in using them, may still cause offence as the intention does not alter the effects of the behaviour. The use of inappropriate terminology cannot be defended as ‘banter’ as it creates a hostile and unwelcoming environment for students, staff and visitors, rather than a friendly and hospitable place to be, something which undermines the school’s duty to ‘foster good relations’ under the Equality Act’s Public Sector Equality Duty.

Looking more closely at specific terms often throws up more serious concerns about the practicalities of eliminating the use of that term and scenarios where approaches to dealing with the use of terms have been inconsistent and seen as unfair. These are extremely pertinent points when looking specifically at the use of the ‘n word’ between two black students in school, an example which is regularly brought into our training sessions with both staff and students.

Indeed, students often report that there have been times in school when the word has been used and the consequences have depended on the skin colour of the perpetrator, times when a difference in spelling the word (either with a ‘er’ or a ‘a’) changes its acceptability, and times when its use is legitimised because black rappers use it in their music. Staff can be confused and fearful over what is acceptable, which leaves them feeling unsure about how to respond to the use of this language by students. By educating staff members and students about the history of the term and why it is unacceptable in a school setting regardless of who is using it on whom, a consistent approach to eliminating its use can be adopted.

Exploring the roots of the word, we find that the term has an extremely long history of being used for harm. As early as the 17th century, the neutral descriptor ‘negro’ evolved to the derogatory term ‘ni**er’. The word is intrinsically linked with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, apartheid, discrimination, violence and brutality against black people and remains an extremely powerful term today. It is often assumed that those who use the ‘n word’ have a full understanding of its history. However, this is often not the case and once its meaning, history and full potency have been explained, young people of all ethnicities often choose not use it.

There is an argument that the word can be used by black people as this is an example of reclamation: where a word that has historically been used to harm is reclaimed in an act of resistance, thus reducing its power. This approach has been taken by influential rappers and language does evolve over time. However, advocating double standards within a school can create confusion, and breed resentment and division between students. A school should be an environment that is safe and comfortable for all students and staff – allowing the use of the ‘n word’, which remains deeply offensive to many, jeopardises this. When considering using a word which is known to have the potential to offend and upset, and which is often used as a weapon to harm, then that word is best avoided. It is still deeply entangled with its history, and, within a school setting, it is a word to be avoided by everyone.

Perhaps the biggest concern in many schools currently is the epidemic-like use of the word gay to mean something derogatory. Reports of ‘that’s so gay’ and ‘you’re so gay’ being used derogatorily by students are extremely common and the majority of the schools we have worked with in the last 18 months have asked for advice and guidance on how to eliminate the use of ‘gay’ as a replacement for ‘rubbish’ or ‘bad’ in their school community. And, as with all other terms we explore, confusion and reticence once again exists over how to deal effectively with its use in school. Staff express concerns over how to explain when the word gay is acceptable and when it is unacceptable and worries that broaching the subject means having to talk about sex with young people, and confusion over whether using ‘gay’ to mean ‘happy’ is acceptable. Young people often believe that ‘gay’ is just another slang word, similar to words like ‘cool’ or ‘sick’, and is extrapolated away from any association with sexual orientation as often no offence is meant towards gay people.

In reality, the use of the word ‘gay’ to describe something as bad or dislikeable creates the impression that being gay is bad or dislikeable too, which is an extremely damaging sentiment to for all students to have, and the school to effectively teach. It breeds intolerance of difference within the school environment and does students a disservice for later in life, where they will be required to work well in a diverse environment, whether at university, college or their place of work. In addition, a priority for schools must be the creation of a safe environment in which all staff members and students can feel comfortable and flourish. Using gay as a derogatory term jeopardises this safe environment, and instead makes the environment unsafe for those staff members and students who are gay, or who have friends and family who are gay. This is not an environment which will feel welcoming to gay parents of children at the school, and certainly not a comfortable environment in which students will feel able to express themselves in any way that is not in-keeping with the stereotypical norm.

Educating young people about the proper meaning of the term does not mean talking about sex; just as talking about heterosexuality means talking about love and relationships about a man and woman, talking about being gay means talking about love and relationships between two men or two women. In addition, the use of ‘gay’ to mean happy is now outside of common usage, and allowing students to use gay in this way can actually provide them with an excuse for if they are caught using the term derogatorily. Other slang words, such as ‘cool’ or ‘sick’ are words not also associated with an individual’s identity and so the potential to cause harm and upset is much lower. There is little inconvenience involved in using another word to mean bad or rubbish, and the impact of using one of these replacements instead of gay could be huge for a gay young person or staff member or a person with gay friends and family in the school. Setting these arguments out clearly for students will ensure that they fully understand the reasons why using ‘gay’ in a pejorative way is unacceptable and the serious consequences for its continued use within the school environment after this has been explained.

EqualiTeach’s ‘Cross Words: the Power of Language’ programme has been designed to offer clarity where there is confusion over terminology, as well as practical strategies for eliminating the use of inappropriate terminology and dealing with prejudice-related incidents. The programme begins with a CPD training session for all school staff which looks at the language of equality as well as how to effectively respond to incidents when they happen.

Initially, staff explore the power of language and how this can impact greatly upon the life chances of individuals or groups of people. Using the example categories of boys and girls, staff members look at how their language choices can contribute to the stereotypes of girls being pretty, delicate princesses, and boys being strong, boisterous superheroes. A simple ‘thank you, Sweetheart’ said to a girl or a request for ‘some big strong boys’ to help with carrying some equipment shapes the way in which girls and boys perceive themselves and others around them from a very early age. The perpetuation of these stereotypes throughout their school careers leads to some of the inequalities that emerge later on in their lives, where girls are vastly under-represented in subjects such as physics (Institute of Physics, 2013) and boys are four times more likely to be excluded from school than girls (The National Union of Teachers, 2013).

Having understood the implications of improper use of language, staff then explore terminology in closer detail, looking at specific terms across all of the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and discussing whether they believe each term to be acceptable or unacceptable. This is done with a language amnesty in place, ensuring that terms are spoken about openly, without using coded language such as ‘the P word’ or ‘the N word’, which can be confusing and can stifle honest discussion. A common consensus approach to terminology is also used, which ensures that we are discussing terms that there acceptable or unacceptable according to the common consensus, whilst acknowledging that there will be people who will choose to define or label themselves outside of this common consensus. Any misunderstandings or concerns over the terms are discussed and alleviated, and staff are provided with a currently up-to-date glossary of terms to aid them in their discussions about equality and diversity issues within the school.

The training session is concluded by exploring how to respond effectively to prejudice-related incidents. Staff learn of the definition of a prejudice-related incident: ‘any incident which is perceived to be prejudice-related by the victim or any other person’ (Home Office, 2004:2), and concerns about this definition are addressed, including those from staff members who feel that it is extremely broad, that it could be used maliciously or that they would be recording incidents constantly if people’s perceptions are to be considered. These concerns are allayed by highlighting that this is a working definition and should be seen as a safety blanket for staff members, rather than a cause for concern. The definition means that no-one has to make a decision on the spot as to whether something is prejudice-related or not; if someone says that they have experienced or witnessed an incident then the procedures are put into action and an investigation is begun. It may be that someone interprets a situation wrongly, however that person’s perception is their reality and it is important that their view is not simply dismissed. It is equally possible that an alternative interpretation made at the time may be incorrect. By making sure that all incidents are investigated, all parties will feel listened to and all decisions will be evidence based. In addition, the investigation which occurs as a result of the complaint will quickly uncover baseless accusations. If malicious complaints are made, there will be repercussions for the complainant, which will prevent these kinds of accusations from becoming widespread. Recording incidents should not be seen as a means to punish or to label young people, but instead as a way of ensuring that the school is aware of the prevalence of attitudes and behaviours amongst young people,  can monitor the success of any education that has been put in place, can identify further training needs for staff and students, and can ultimately be responsive, open and accountable.

Staff discuss particular scenarios, such as the use of the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative term, the phrase ‘p*ki shop’ and the ‘n word’ used within a group of Black students, and consider their initial, long-term and whole school response to the incident, in line with the school’s procedures and best practice approaches. In the longer term, where required, the school is supported to develop comprehensive policies and prejudice-related incident recording systems, as well as aided in the effective dissemination of these to the entire staff cohort.

Whilst the Cross Words CPD training for all staff ensures that the school can adopt and implement a consistent approach to dealing with prejudice-related incidents throughout the school community, the extent to which prejudice-related incidents occur can be greatly reduced by providing young people with the opportunity to raise questions and concerns about language use and having these addressed openly and honestly, once again falling in line with Ofsted’s Inspecting Equalities Briefing’s expectations with regards to behaviour and safety.

The staff programme is followed up by a Cross Words programme of work with every pupil in the school. These sessions explore terminology within a safe space, with a language amnesty in place. Young people are reminded that whilst they are able to speak freely about the terms under consideration, it is important to remember that some terms have a long history of being used to hurt people and cause offence, so they need to used carefully and respectfully during their discussions and can no longer be used after the session has ended and the language amnesty has been closed.

Young people are given space to express their concerns about terminology, a topic which gathers a huge deal of interest but is rarely spoken about in school, and are enabled to overcome the barriers which may prevent them from engaging with issues of equality and diversity. In line with the common consensus approach outlined previously, young people begin by discussing terms which are acceptable to describe someone’s ethnicity in the UK, such as white, black, Asian and mixed heritage, and those which are not, such as coloured and half caste, before discussing other terms which have a long history of offence, but remain in use today.

To conclude the session, young people are informed of their school’s procedures in dealing with inappropriate language in the school, and the importance of eliminating this is highlighted, in order to ensure that prejudicial beliefs are not able to escalate into discriminatory behaviour or bullying, creating a school environment that is safe for all young people.

The school’s teachers and support staff are encouraged to join in with each Cross Words session, meaning that their endorsement of the session’s messages are clear to the young people, who are left in no doubt as to the power and impact of their language use and what is required of them going forward.

Cross Words is a holistic approach to ensuring that staff members and students are fully equipped with the knowledge and skills to eliminate the use of prejudicial language in their school, where students understand what is expected of them and the reasons why, and staff members adopt a consistent and fair approach, both in policy and in practice, to dealing with inappropriate language use, ultimately ensuring that teaching and learning flourishes in an environment built upon respect and acceptance.


Institute of Physics (2013) Closing Doors. Exploring gender and subject choice in schools. London: Institute of Physics.

Home Office (2004) Prevent and Respond to Racist Incidents: Process. Policy Bulletin 81 London: HM Government

The National Union of Teachers (2013) Stereotypes stop you doing stuff. London: The Strategy and Communications Department of The National Union of Teachers

By Kate Hollinshead, Head of Education:

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