This past week my school board celebrated a week against bullying. I was excited that it was, in fact, at my school the students who put together the workshops every day that highlighted not only what bullying was, but who was targeted, why it was happening, and its effects. I had a really positive experience with this week until, during some professional development, I came across some material that tried to deny that bullying was in fact bullying. All this got me thinking about how we are all quick to rally behind bullying as a cause, but when bullying happens in the "real" world we forget the basic idea of it and have all sorts of really harmful ways of reacting to it.
So to start off, I thouht it'd be helpful to have a definition of bullying. There are many ways to go with this, but I'd note that most of the common definitions point out two key ideas: first, the power imbalance between the participants and, second, the fact that it is intended to cause harm. There is also a debate about whether or not it has to be sustained. More on this later.
I couldn't help but think that this sounds, to me, a lot like what adults face. Harrassment, intimidation, violence, exclusion, generally based on xenophobic sentiments. Perhaps, I thought, bullying is a manifestation of xenophobia.
To start, a lot of it comes down to the idea of inequality. In our modern world, the notion of inequality is a difficult one to have a rational discussion about, but ultimately it's the idea that two people don't have the same social, monetary, or physical capital. Whether that's based on a metric like race or religion; education or gender; sexual orientation or age. Look anywhere in the media, the political world, our personal lives, or the workplace, and you'll see manifestations of racism, sexism, or some other form of xenophobia. Sometimes it's egregious, sometimes it looks to be harmless. But it's there, always humming in the background.
As adults we get used to the fact that inequality is a "fact of life". If you don't like it you can either pretend to accept it or you can constantly try to agitate against it. There aren't a lot of choices. But what about for children?
Young people are trying to understand the world around them, and they pick up copious cues daily. They generally understand concepts like hierarchy and deference. They learn quickly whether or not authority is something to be followed or questioned. They also are learning how to relate to their peers. They learn from what they see modelled around them, which, unsurprisingly is the real world I alluded to before, full of people evaluating one another based on their differences: xenophobia.
Ultimately, students get bullied for the same reasons that adults experience xenophobia. Because they are different. It could come down to cultural differences like religious practices. It could come down to class like what kind of clothes you wear. It could come down to gender and whether or not you perform masculinity. It could aslo come down to size, race, ability, language, sexuality, or anything else. Rather unsurprisingly, these are all things that adults feel like they are targeted for.
So what about the aforemention question about bullying being sustained acts? Well, a xenophobic remark here and there may not look like sustained, but consider being the one to whom those marks are consistently addressed. That certainly feels like a threat, and perception is most certainly reality. Often I, or my colleagues in the teaching profession, don't intervene when bullying is occuring because we see it as a one-off. For the perpetrators or bystanders, it may be, but what about for the most important person implicated, the victim? It's my best guess that it's not the first time. And that's where I have some difficulty with official school board policies that discuss what is and is not bullying - it has to be sustained. There's no way to know if it is for sure, so why not treat all incidents as part of a social whole?
I write this because I see the week against bullying as a great starting point - a place to stop for a moment and reflect on inequality, belonging, fairness, justice, and participation. Let's consider talking about xenophobia more openly, thinking about how it manifests in our daily lives and what we can do to prevent its toxic influences.