Is Race-Based Bullying the "Elephant in the Room?"

8 years ago

According to reports in my hometown paper, the Toronto Star, Ontario-based hockey coach Greg Walsh was recently suspended and could face a lifetime ban from coaching junior-league hockey because he pulled his entire team off the ice when an opposing player called a black player on Walsh's team the N-word.

They were sent to the penalty box for two minutes, where “we were chirping each other,” McCullum recalled.

The other boy then called him “the N-word.” The referee didn’t hear it, so couldn’t impose a penalty.

The Austin Trophies coach benched his player for part of that period. But when the boy was put back on the ice the next period without offering an apology, Walsh was furious.

“In order for us as a team to protect our player from that, we said that we weren’t going to play and we went to the dressing room. Simple as that,” he said.

Despite the public outcry in support of Walsh, with many feeling that it should have been the other coach who was suspended for letting the hockey player continue playing, Walsh might still be banned.

In Canada, where hockey is not only beloved but our national sport, there have been a number of reports over the past few year of on-ice racial bullying and taunts between young White players and young minority men, many who have grown up idolizing the primarily white sport. As the Greater Toronto Area is exceptionally diverse, it is certainly not uncommon for young boys to want to get involved in a sport where, despite the general lack of melanin, is seen as almost a ritual in becoming a "good Canadian" (insert sarcastic smirk here). But with more Black, South Asian and East Asian kids picking up the sport, there have been more reports from players of racial slurs and taunts. Unfortunately, the Hockey Association decided to ignore the real reason why Walsh pulled the team off the ice and instead, chose to follow their rulebook and punish him for it.

The above story reminds me that despite all the recent online campaigns and the media’s effort to increase awareness of the effects of bullying, there has been little interest in discussing the cause. There have been several public initiatives to combat racism, but no one has looked at the effects race-based bullying has on its victims. We do not hear about the suicides, the depression, the inability to trust people and the ability to forgive. Instead what happens is a whole lot of denial: Structural initiatives might be effected, but still, no one wants to talk about why it happens in the first place.

I was bullied in both public and high school. In public school there were maybe three other black kids, and my first account of being harassed began at age six. I asked my parents for earplugs because I didn’t want to hear "jigaboo" and "ni#$er" on the school bus every day. In high school, there were maybe six black kids out of 800-900. Perhaps like the kids who presently face harassment because of their presumed sexual orientation, my black friends and I did complain to teachers and told our parents, and I’m assuming that there are also similarities in that nothing was done about it -- the parents were more concerned that future educational opportunities could be hindered if they got involved (and perhaps in relation to sexual orientation, maybe the parents felt more comfortable avoiding talking to their kids instead of protecting them and championing their right to be "different" than their peers).

Looking back twenty-plus years after my high school days, I can understand why parents might be reluctant in defending their children within the educational system -- but they do not realize how their inaction, whether on purpose or by accident, leaves a lasting effect on their children. We might forgive, but we do not forget.

But the harassment wasn’t just racial taunts or threats of physical violence. There was also an uneasy silence and a feeling of thickening tension that never seemed to go away. An absence of words that were anticipated, but were never verbalized. As bullies get older, they understand the power of insinuation -- how to convey a feeling without having to open their mouths. How taking the long and measured approaches to exert control over another’s emotions is more satisfying when it's drawn out and unsettlingly anticipated by the victim.

When people pretend that you do not exist, purposely do not include or acknowledge your presence, it can be worse than the name-calling or being shoved into a locker. The silence of teachers who clearly heard when someone called me the N-word in a classroom during a lecture, and said nothing. Simply pretended that they didn’t hear it, which made it easier from them to avoid having to do something about it, but made me feel that we weren’t even worth the effort.

A friend of mind learned about that silence when one of my black friends wondered why, despite her B+ average in high school, why the teacher wrote to her parents and said that her dreams of attending university were unrealistic, that she would be better suited to working in a school cafeteria. The teacher refused to discuss -- and was never pressured to do so -- the reason why she would recommend that, when my friend’s marks and other achievements displayed that she was an excellent student.

Within four months of graduating high school, I left my hometown and never lived there again. Did things get better? Sure, because I left the racist, one-horse town I grew up in. But the “bullying and taunting” never disappeared, it just manifested itself into other forms…into the games that adults play, as high school-era microagressions transformed into racially tinged, thinly veiled threats. Bullies might not have the power to hurt my feelings any more, but they had the power to affect my income, which was worse.

Bullies don’t grow out of being bullies. They just learn how to exact emotional harm in more insidious ways. Funnily enough, I’d almost prefer the treatment that I received in high school, versus the passive-aggressive crap I deal with now on a daily basis, as at least kids are emotionally immature and their messages are unfiltered.

When discussing race-based bullying, racism is still perceived as the "elephant in the room" -- and race-based bullying is less likely to be directly addressed. According to a recent article about a case in Ontario involving twin boys who asked for a school transfer after being racially bullied, avoiding the issue stems from the lack of proper anti-racism training by teachers, their reluctance to take training seriously and the potential public embarrassment of being blamed for racism are potential reasons for it to go unaddressed:

The boys say they were taunted on five separate incidents -- including one with a KKK hood -- and believed the school did not deal with it properly. “They see one boy gets a one-day detention after they’ve had months of abuse and name-calling and it seems to them that nothing happens,” said their mother, Jacqui Testoni. “It’s just been too much for them and too much for us. We just want it over now."

“Principals and teachers will go through extensive training on computers or BlackBerry use, but roll
their eyes when we talk about anti-racism and equity training.” (Dr. Karen Mock, Thornhill’s federal Liberal candidate) said she is willing to provide assistance to any school struggling with racism. “Sometimes, principals and teachers are afraid of asking for help with the issue for their school, viewing it as a sign of weakness.” Fighting racism takes time and resources, she said, “and you can’t just have one anti-racism day, a one-day workshop and say been there done that.”

So what happens when people experience bullying centered on racism and perceived sexual orientation? Does one cancel out the other? Below the Belt Asian blogger Jason Teng believes that the GBLT community is not as embracing to people of color as one might think:

I think that the It Gets Better Project at its core is a good idea, (but) the gay promise failed me. I went from being ostracized by my straight classmates in high school to being ostracized by many white gay men in an urban gay enclave." It's important, he says, to "be aware and critical of the very real problems and deficiencies the current gay community has in its inability to make that gay promise accessible to everyone who falls under the rainbow banner."

Intra-race intolerance plays a huge factor in discussing bullying. In October of this year, VIBE magazine published a feature on LGBT students at Morehouse College, a prestigious (and predominately Black) all-male university in Atlanta Georgia. While it can be presumed that the article was written to show that yes, there are out gay Black and transgendered men at the school, what it also did was display the level of denial and straight out-ignorance surrounding LGBT folks that remains within Black communities. From a commenter:

I would never disrespect a 'gay' person male or female...neither will I judge the way they walk, talk, dress, behave (unless its detrimental in some way to my well being)... -- however -- I really feel that homosexual people have mental distortions (I'm being careful of my wording, so I won't say mental "problems") many studies done on their cognitions with so many conclusions/outcomes...I'm no scientist but I hypothesize the result of a traumatic life/sexual experience that remains embedded in their subconscious mind...or maybe on their conscious mind, their sexuality/lifestyle is a form of rebellion from whatever traumatic experience they've endured...

Should there be more emphasis on educating people who share the same misconceptions as the above VIBE commenter? On the other hand, as Racialicous editor Latoya Peterson writes in the conclusion of Where is the Proof That Things Get Better that perhaps the reluctance to discuss the cause can be swept under the rug because once young people reach adulthood, they have more control over their lives and usually the bullying ends. But does it?

It isn’t guaranteed to do so, but most adults have one thing teens lack: control over their lives. At some point, the decisions you make become those you determine. And that kind of control and autonomy does make a world of difference.

There is an organization called The Workplace Bullying Institute that serves as a resource for adult victims of workplace bullies. In relation to the after-affects of bullies into adulthood, here are some statistics that adult bully victims feel in relation to present-day harassment:

In a recently completed Nov. 2010 WBI Instant Poll with 1069 respondents (of whom 98% are typically self-declared targets of workplace bullying), we asked if any personal shame or stigma was attached to being bullied at work. The results were as follows: 35% believed that “somehow I might have deserved the criticisms”; 28% blamed themselves for “not being able to counter or confront” (the bully); 22% were embarrassed from “allowing it to happen to me”; while only 13% felt no shame, saying they “did not invite or deserve the assaults.” Guide Nadra Kareem provides some advice to parents whose children are facing racial bullying in school (below is a reactive example but she does explain the cause):

Parents may also enroll their children in an assertiveness training course to give them tools to stand up to bullies. If a child is subjected to physical violence by a bully, parents may provide self-defense lessons as well. Reaching out to the family of a bully may also stop the abuse. However, one of the reasons children bully is because they witness bullying at home or have chaotic home lives. Moreover, the bully may be picking on minority classmates because of racist attitudes they’ve been exposed to by family members. Given this, the bully’s family may be of little help in ending the abuse.

Here are a couple of online resources that include racial bullying in their mission statements:

The We Got Your Back Project provides a forum in which LGBTQIA youth, straight allies, adults can share stories "to encourage and strengthen youth who may be getting bullied, harassed and otherwise mistreated for being who they are. This project will make sure that lgbtqia of color, bisexual and transgendered folks will not be left out of the work of telling their stories and having their voices heard."

The Embracing Intersectional Diversity Project is a non-profit program based out of Montreal, Quebec ( but with a national reach) that focuses on "bringing the lived experiences, narratives, knowledge, creativity, and contributions of diverse groups, including queer women of color, youth of color, queer youth of color, trans folks, First Nations and Two-Spirited folks, white allies, and folks living with visible and/or ‘invisible’ disabilities, into the mainstream."


Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting

Writer: Hellbound

Writer: Exclaim! - Aggressive Tendencies

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