Friday, October 19, 2012

Bullying: Hot Topic

This week I have noticed, and how could you not, the explosion of press attention given to bullying. Following the death of Amanda Todd after online disclosure of extreme bullying, school boards, radio shows, community organizations are once again stepping in to say that something must be done. This seems like something that I have seen ebb and fall, as another death or high profile case hits the mainstream, people get really worked up for a spurt before having the issues of bullying return to the closets, PM feeds, and notes passed in the backs of class, under the eyes but without the attention of the millions. I want to throw my own thoughts about bullying, and how we need to address it as communities affected into the ring. I wish to self identify myself from the start as a former victim of school yard bullying, and a trans gender adult who continues to see bullying behavior play out on the street side as a witness and target of this attention as well as occasionally the bystander who has spoken up and stepped in. I would like to add some of my thoughts about this idea, about bystanders not standing by and what it takes to step up or step in. A prominent memory that flashes into my head when I think of school bullying, takes place in my aunts kitchen. My mom was working as a house cleaner for her sister, while I would be occasionally hired to watch her daughters. This particular memory may have followed a particular incident, or it may have just been a point where a dam broke, and after years of teasing, exclusion, name calling and physical violence I couldn't hold it together anymore. I remember buckling over in tears, sputtering through my gasps to my mom and aunt the ways that I had been targeted. I cried and asked them in earnest if it would ever stop, why the other girls at school were so cruel, and what I would need to do to protect myself. I was able to tell even at that point, probably 7 or 8 years old, that the specific details that the bullies would pick out and make a scene over never seemed to run out. Coming from a working class family where clothes were either home made or second hand, being tall and lanky at 6' 0" by 6th grade, religious associations, not fitting gender expectations, being asthmatic, being double jointed, music tastes, and intelligence; it didn't seem to matter, there was always something to be picked out. At this point, 7 or 8 years old, I was unsure I could maintain the pressures. I thought about getting out of the school system, but also had known the bullying that extends to the ever awkward and outside of social norms 'homeschoolers'. My aunt tried to assure me that it would get better, that eventually I would come out on top stronger for it. The "it gets better" mentality around bullying and harassment is a long time stand by. Dan Savage kicked off his campaign a little more than two years ago, which now hosts over 30,000 videos of people giving their version of the hold on, get through, it will be better on the other side message. Although from the best intentions, from my aunt in her kitchen, and from thousands of strangers on the internet, it falls short. I would like to point out that once I got through school, bullying didn't go away, and in some ways, it got worse. Primarily because navigating the systems in which to find support and hold bullies accountable in the work place, in the housing market, and while walking down the street, are a lot less easy to identify than the pamphlet filled offices of the high school guidance counselor. When I worked as a bike messenger, my dispatcher was a bully, later working in a bike shop, a older male owner was a bully, trying to access community spaces I've encountered bouncers and bar tenders exemplifying bullying behaviour. I've become well practiced at filing complaints, leading boycotts, and finding ways out before situations get beyond my control. One of the things I have learned, as a life long victim of bullying, is that often outside the school yard, people call it something else. It's sexism, it's homophobia, transphobia, it's predatory sexual advances, it's discrimination, classism, ablism. I think it's time that we start calling bullying what we call it when it happens to adults. I think that calling sexism and predatory sexual advances bullying down plays what it really is and how it affects those on the receiving end. We could serve the victims of school aged bullying by giving them the empowerment involved in acknowledging their struggle as real; I think the cultural perception of "bullying" discounts the experience as people imagine thumbs on noses and lines of taunting. Let's call it what it is- a wedgie is an act of physical assault. Posting photographs of someone without their consent is theft and in many cases of 'school aged' cases, distribution of child porn. Bullying is a softened word that describes the intersectionally oppressive practice of abuse, harassment, violence, destruction of personal property, character defamation and use of hate language. Surviving ongoing onslaughts of this type of behaviour is a challenging and commendable feat. Finding ways to thrive are that much more important. The ways that the 7 year old girls would make fun of my pants being too short with taunts and exclusion, the ways the 10 year old girls convinced my only friend that she could be cool if she stopped acknowledging my existence, the knee of the 10 year old boy bruising my pelvis in response to my attempts to play soccer with the boys, the way that the 11 year old girls excluded me from their spin the bottle and truth or dare games rationalized by my yet to be developed breasts, the way the 13 year old boys named me "manchild" as a way of drawing attention to my failures at performing "girl", the way that the grown men employing me as an adult woman would make explicit suggestions and inappropriate and unwelcome advances, the way that sales people direct me to the side of the store they feel would be more appropriate to my perceived gender and the yells I hear walking down the street when the bars let out. They are all unacceptable, they are all "bullying", but they are also so much more. Understanding the intersectionality of these issues is important. I have heard a lot of media around vigils being held in Amanda Todd's honour today. Today is also the day that queer and trans communities have been drawing attention to these issues within our communities for years already. A few more weeks and we will be approaching Trans Day of Remembrance, another case of communities who have been living with a personal understanding of how these issues affect us for a long time, that have been finding ways to address and honour the victims for years. I am glad that more school districts are recognizing that these are issues to talk about up front, but I challenge them to find ways to look at what has already been happening and integrate the energy into a unified front. School districts and community organizations organizing vigils and discussions this week are calling students to step up and not be silent bystanders. I think that this is an important step in creating safer schools and communities, I think it's vital to look at what taking a stand takes. Many times, the threat of becoming the next target keeps bystanders silent. The threat of retaliation for being a 'narc' from cohorts is real. As well, many people don't speak up, as they don't see the behaviour or don't recognize its problematic nature. As well, knowing what will happen if attention is drawn to an issue is an important factor going into the choice to step up. When threats of personal harm are on the table, and we aren't sure that our actions will have any affect, or an affect we agree with, it can keep witnesses silent for their own calculated interests. I believe having upfront and open conversations about approaches of justice in schools, work places, and communities could prove incredibly valuable. Knowing if a student bully would serve punishment, and what that punishment could be is a make or break element of this challenge. If a bully is given a suspension as a result of bullying, all that means is that they have time off campus to prepare a next assault. It could mean that a bully is laying in wait, right off the school grounds, right outside of the arm of the schools' jurisdictions for the 'narc' to walk into their trap. Whereas, engaging students, employees, community members in ongoing accountability dialogues, wherein issues can be identified, addressed and explored can create a container for the pain and trauma which causes people to enact hateful and violent behaviours on each other. Within this container compassion can be bloomed, understanding can be planted, and cycles of violence and trauma can begin to heal. This type of dialogue and process cannot exist in a bubble. It cannot exist in divided categories where the queer and trans youth are discussing homophobia and transphobia in segregated settings, without the support of het and cis allies. This type of dialogue cannot happen once a year, in a large group setting without ongoing follow up. This type of process requires a large scale commitment to delve into the really hard and painful things that lie under the surface of 'bullying'. Addressing the ways that the legacies of colonization and institutional racism spawn slurs on the playground, addressing the ongoing sexism that exists in the "binders full of women" world we live in, addressing economic inequality, addressing child poverty and sexual exploitation of minors and alcoholism and drug addiction and ablism are not easy one afternoon topics, that can have a candle lit for them and have them go away. They don't get better when you survive the institution, especially if you are living in the intersections of oppression. Addressing oppression is required to end bullying, so when we talk about making schools safer, we must realize that we are really talking about a societal paradigm shift. Perhaps this increased attention will be a key piece in creating that shift. I hope that as the topics enter conversations online and off that you may be a part of, you can challenge the idea that bullying is a school yard problem. I hope you can be a part of this change within your own families, communities, and work places and I look forward to hearing about the ways that this is working where you are.

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