November 15th– 21st is Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week. Ontario has designated this week to help promote safe schools and a positive learning environment. During this week, Ontario students and school staff are encouraged to learn more about bullying and how it affects a student’s learning and well-being. The Ministry of Education defines bullying as “a form of repeated, persistent and aggressive behaviour directed at an individual or individuals that is intended to cause (or should be known to cause) fear and distress and/or harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem or reputation”. It goes on to describe the different forms bullying can take and more information about what this week will look like in Ontario’s schools. What is missing from these types of conversations about bullying is the true motivations behind the actions we have associate with bullying.
The word “bullying” is often used as a softer alternative to describe what is really going on when these actions occur- racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, sanism, etc. Think back to your own elementary and secondary school experiences; these are the places where the language of bullying is most often used. Think of the kids who were bullied because they wore the same clothes everyday or didn’t wear the popular brands- that is classism. Think of the girls whose bras were cut, snapped and undone in the school yard- that’s sexism. Think of the children of colour who were questioned and tormented following 9/11- that’s racism. Think of all the kids who came out as LGBTQ in your high school that were harassed relentlessly by students and staff- that’s homophobia and transphobia. Think of the students with disabilities who were harassed for the accommodations they received at school- that’s ableism and sanism.
Even after our primary and secondary school experiences, the language of bullying is still being used to soften and leave what is happening unnamed. This past week, Black students at the University of Missouri were threatened following protests and action regarding the university’s unwillingness to address racism on campus. Howard University and several others saw threats and/or white supremacist presence on campus. Despite the threats against Black students, the University of Missouri did not cancel its classes, prompting many students to e-mail their professors requesting to be exempt from class the following day as they did not feel safe on campus. One professor, who is white, responded to his students with a challenge to attend class to defeat the “bullies”. Bullies? You mean white supremacists and racists who are threatening Black students’ lives? Using the term “bully” attempts to make these threats less serious and leave the racism that is occurring on campus unnamed.
The language of bullying has also been commonly used in describing the Rehteah Parsons case. This was a sexual assault rooted in misogyny and rape culture, and what took place after could be described as nothing less than harassment rooted in sexism. When this story hit mainstream media, the term “cyber-bullying” was used to describe what Rehtaeh endured after photos of the assault were posted online. “Cyber-bullying” is a softer term for harassment using technology and social media.
I think there should be conversations in schools around bullying prevention and awareness but this conversation is meaningless if we do not address the motivations behind the behaviour we determine to be bullying. The Ministry of Education website states, “bullying occurs in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance”. Let’s talk about what this power imbalance is; it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, and ability. The racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, classist, transphobic world we live in does not only begin when we graduate high school. It trickles down into our elementary and high schools where we name these children’s experiences as “bullying”.