Student Voice


March 2, 2024



Derogatory language being used carelessly

October 7, 2011

The results of a national poll show a majority of teenagers and young adults think it is OK to use derogatory language, as long as it is kept between friends. A UW-River Falls Student Life program aims to change that view.

The Associated Press-MTV poll found that 54 percent of young people have no problem using derogatory language when talking to friends. Their justification is that friends know they are just kidding.

“I understand friends joke and give each other a hard time, but using derogatory language is not cool,” said Lisa Colburn, a UWRF student and the diversity peer education coordinator for Falcon Programs. “When someone says something derogatory as a joke, they never know if it will mean the same thing to them as it does to the person they are talking to, and they never know who might overhear,” she said.

Colburn is the student responsible for launching the Peer Empowerment and Community Education, or PEACE, program. She said the goal of PEACE is to educate the UWRF community about social justice and diversity issues through workshops and campus events.

This fall, PEACE is offering a program on gender and sexuality called the Queer Identity and Ally Development track. Colburn said it is designed to provide an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to engage in conversations about sexual identity and the impact of discrimination. Attending all scheduled events throughout the semester earns participants a Social Justice Leadership certificate.

The first event for participants was an identity awareness session held last month. The PEACE program events are open to the UWRF community, but those interested in earning the certificate will need to wait until next semester if they have not already signed up, Colburn said.

“It all starts with conversation,” Colburn said. “Once conversation gets going, it rarely stops.”

The AP-MTV poll was conducted by Knowledge Networks, a research and analysis firm with offices across the U.S. A total of 1,355 people aged 14-24 participated in the survey, which was administered online from Aug. 18-31.

The poll is part of “A Thin Line,” a campaign sponsored by MTV to stop cyberbullying. “The campaign is built on the understanding that there’s a ‘thin line’ between what may begin as a harmless joke and something that could end up having a serious impact on you or someone else,” according to its website.

The website details the dangers of cyberbullying, and provides support tips for combating it. It also features an interactive tool that awards users points for completing tasks like deleting discriminatory posts they made on social networking sites. The points can be redeemed for discounts on the MTV online store.

“A Thin Line” is one of several recent attempts to bring the issues of bullying and sexual discrimination to the forefront of national discussion. Pop singer Lady Gaga has been especially vocal on the subject. She dedicated a song performed at last month’s iHeartRadio Music Festival to Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old who committed suicide on Sept. 18. Rodemeyer was bullied for being gay. “The past days I’ve spent reflecting, crying, and yelling. I have so much anger. It is hard to feel love when cruelty takes someone’s life,” Gaga posted to her Twitter page on Sept. 21. Later that day she added, “Bullying must become be illegal. It is a hate crime.”

Discrimination at UWRF made headlines in 2009 when a racist message was found written on the wall of a bathroom in the Chalmer Davee Library. The graffiti threatened violence against black and Asian students. In 2010, the University released the results of the Campus Climate Survey, an initiative to gauge the extent of diversity and discrimination problems within the University community. It revealed that 31 percent of respondents reported witnessing or being made aware of discriminatory actions that made for an “offensive, hostile, exclusionary or intimidating working or learning environment” at UWRF, according to an executive summary of the survey.

“I think we’re mostly tolerant at UWRF, but there’s always room for improvement,” Colburn said. “As an institution we are making good strides.”

In addition to conversations between friends, young people are likely to encounter discrimination and derogatory language online. The results of the AP-MTV poll show that 51 percent of respondents often or sometimes witness acts of discrimination on social networking sites like Facebook. In comparison, 37 percent reported never or rarely encountering it. The most commonly discriminated groups on social networking sites are the overweight, gays, lesbians or bisexuals, African-Americans and women, according to the poll. The most common derogatory phrase young people encounter online: “That’s so gay.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Meghan Foster, 22. She is a UWRF senior and past participant with the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a student support and awareness organization. “That phrase gained massive popularity in the last seven years or so.”

Many people who use derogatory language are not trying to be cruel, they are just ignorant of the impact their words have, Foster said. She suggested the best way to stop the trend is to confront people when they use hurtful phrases.

“National campaigns and celebrity endorsements bring visibility to the issue, but I don’t know how effective they are,” Foster said. “The best thing you can do is politely engage with someone and tell them what they said was wrong.”

The results of the AP-MTV poll can be viewed at