Helen Anderson is the Manager of Curriculum and Research at Harmony Movement, a not-for-profit organization that delivers educational programming on equity and inclusion to youth, educators, and social service providers, empowering them to becomes leaders of social change. Helen completed her Ph.D. in Theory and Policy Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, focusing in her research on social justice and anti-racism education. She has taught at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University and has worked with numerous community service organizations to address issues such as racism, food security, gender-based violence, youth violence, and homophobia.
I was teased a lot in school as a child, mostly for getting high marks. I worked hard and was an eager learner. As a white, heterosexual, Christian student without a disability, I enjoyed participating in an education system where my knowledge, learning style, identity, culture, and experiences were valued and affirmed. I was called a geek, a nerd, a teacher’s pet.
The taunting was hurtful. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, excluded. At times I felt worthless. But at the end of the day, I knew there was something good about doing well in school. I knew that high marks paid off, they came with a reward, both in school and in society. It didn’t ease the sense of social isolation I felt, but I knew I was being teased for something I was good at, for something that others valued.
I share this story here to draw an important distinction between different forms of bullying and their impacts. While all bullying is hurtful and can have a negative impact on a student’s academic performance, engagement with the education system, and sense of self-worth, there is a difference between bullying based on mean-spirited or negative behaviour such as the taunting I’ve described above and bullying based on systemic discrimination.
To take a “one size fits all” approach to anti-bullying education focused solely on addressing bad behaviour is to fail to address the underlying inequities that contribute to some, but not all, bullying. Bad behaviour might be mean-spirited actions that hurt another person’s feelings, such as in the way my brothers and I would tease or make fun of each other as children. But we weren’t discriminating against each other. Mean-spirited actions or harassment based on discrimination are different. They are part of, and contribute to, larger systems of power imbalance that disadvantage particular groups of people based on a part of their identity. If my brothers called me stupid, it was simply to upset me. But using the same word to refer to someone with a learning disability or developmental disability is an example of ableism and targets an entire group of people. This kind of bullying reinforces the idea that some groups of people are better than others, and this idea is at the heart of inequity. It is at the heart of why some groups of people are provided with more opportunities and institutional advantages than others, and why some groups of people easily feel affirmed and valued by society, while others do not. Bullying based on discrimination is not only an attack on an individual student, but an attack on all people who are part of the same group.
Treating all bad behaviour as the same fails to draw a distinction between individual-based bullying and group-based bullying. While individual-based bullying undoubtedly has a personal impact on the affected individual, it does not have a larger social impact in the way that group-based bullying does, which is an assertion of dominance of one group over another. Failing to address the inequity behind some situations of bullying allows the inequity to remain unchallenged and to become worse. In my case, I was made fun of for something that I was generally advantaged by in society – getting high marks opened up a lot of opportunities for me. While I felt disrespected and excluded by my classmates, this experience differs greatly from a scenario in which bullying contributes to the systemic obstacles or disadvantages a student may experience based on her/his/their race, ability, sexual orientation, language, gender identity, faith, socio-economic status, citizenship status, or other part of their identity. This is not to say that bullying about high marks and discrimination-based bullying can’t co-exist. If a student is bullied for getting good marks in a way that draws upon stereotypes or expectations about her or his race (e.g. “students from that race always get good marks,” or “students from that race never get good marks”), this would be a form of discrimination-based bullying.
Often, the term “bullying” is used in place of discrimination or hate crime, which can cover up the real problems without providing any meaningful solution. For example, Pink Shirt Day was an initiative started by two high school students in Canada to address an incident of homophobic and transphobic bullying at their school. This initiative has since been adopted nation-wide, but is often framed as an “anti-bullying day,” erasing the need to specifically address bullying related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
When schools keep silent about homophobia and transphobia and erase the realities of homophobic and transphobic bullying, students will lack the support they need to address these problems of discrimination in their schools. Bullying behaviour is frequently just the tip of the iceberg of larger systems of inequity and discrimination, so that addressing the negative behaviour on its own is simply a band-aid solution that is ineffective in preventing further violence and harm from occurring.
Effective strategies for bullying prevention and intervention need to take into account the different forms of bullying and take a pro-equity approach to addressing discrimination-based bullying. Teaching virtues or character traits such as respect, kindness, empathy, and honesty is not enough, especially without questioning the power relations implicit in how those virtues are defined and practiced. Rather, as Cris Mayo points out in her article “Civility and Its Discontents: Sexuality, Race, and the Lure of Beautiful Manners,” this sort of character education approach to teaching students to be “well-behaved” can actually serve to perpetuate discrimination, as it can silence opposition or resistance to discrimination as “uncivil” or “impolite.”
Shifting from an anti-bullying approach to a pro-equity approach means first acknowledging the difference between bullying that contributes to larger systems of inequity between groups (i.e. racism, homophobia, classism, sexism, ableism) and bullying that does not (such as in the case of being taunted for getting high marks). When responding to a situation of bullying, it is important to be able to identify what type of bullying has occurred. Was it based solely on a personality clash, a disagreement, or jealousy? If so, an appropriate response might involve conflict resolution strategies, mediation, and empathy-building, as well as potential legal action if a crime was committed (such as vandalism, harassment, or assault).
Or was the bullying based on larger power imbalances in society, targeting a student because of her/his/their race, faith, sexual orientation, language, weight, ability, mental health, or other identity? If this is the case, responding to an incident of bullying requires an anti-discrimination approach, actively addressing the issues of inequity at play. An appropriate response in this case is not only to address the behaviour, but also to address the underlying prejudices and stereotypes that contributed to the behaviour through anti-discrimination education (e.g. anti-racism, anti-homophobia, or anti-classism education).
Preventing incidents of discrimination-based or group-based bullying requires more than character education focused on kindness, empathy, and respect. It requires a pro-active approach to challenging inequity in the education system, which involves having discussions about inequity with students and staff – How is inequity present in society? In your school? What is its impact on students? It also involves ensuring that all students’ identities are reflected, respected, and welcomed in your school. Applying an equity-based analysis to a learning environment can help identify areas for improvement.
An equity-based analysis is a set of questions that can be applied to curriculum, lesson plans, resource materials, assessment tools, classroom or school environment, physical surroundings, staff, interactions between staff and students, interactions amongst staff, interactions amongst students, interactions between staff and parents/guardians, etc. These questions are relevant to all aspects of the education system and to a student’s experience of school. When examining educational practices, materials, and environment through an equity lens, some helpful questions are:
Some identities to take into consideration might include:
– gender identity
– socio-economic status
– sexual orientation
– mental and physical health
– family status
These questions can help identify areas where greater inclusion or equity is required. In the same way that the prejudices and stereotypes that lead to discrimination-based bullying are learned, so too can they be unlearned. Ensuring safe and inclusive learning environments for all students requires looking beyond bad behaviours to address systemic inequities that contribute to exclusion and bullying. It is important that educators approach bullying through an equity lens, actively examining the roles that racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, sexism, faithism, sizism and other forms of discrimination can play in bullying and harassing behaviour. Creating schools in which all students feel safe, engaged, and set up to succeed means widening an anti-bullying approach to education to include pro-equity education.
Mayo, C. (2001). Civility and its discontents: Sexuality, race, and the lure of beautiful manners. In S. Rice (Ed.), Philosophy of Education 2001 (pp.78-87). Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society. ojs.ed.uiuc.edu/index.php/pes/article/download/1873/584