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Is bigotry bullying?

Does labeling bigotry as bullying increase or decrease a school’s motivation to respond?

Dr. Al-Fartousi (2016) conducted an informative study of Shi’i Muslim girls in Canada to communicate their experiences in public schools.  These young girls, ages 9 - 12, each wear the hijab and identify as members of their Shi’a community.  Among the stories they told were heart wrenching narratives of gender, racial, and religious bigotry.  Some experienced this as taunts after school, others received threats to pull off their hijab.  One girl shared that her sister was called a terrorist.  For each negative experience that the girls had, they labeled it as bullying.   Why?  Why is this one word used to communicate discrimination, steeped in racial and gender bias and religious bigotry?  And yet this same word is used to describe children who are repeatedly mean to one another.

Dr. Al-Fartousi (2016) stated that “Schools act more decisively when the discriminatory action is labelled and falls under anti-bullying legislation.”  As an educator, I am concerned that we have established inconsistent messages to our students about bullying and bigotry.  Have we told our children that bullying is something to expect in our schools?  Have we asked them to respond by reporting the experience, but not rebuking the context?  And have we created an opportunity for children who espouse these words and acts to be called a ‘bully,’ but if those same acts occurred outside a classroom it would be named as a hate crime?   

As a policy researcher, it seems that we have implemented legislation that responds to bullying among children but fails to assign punitive responses to those who discriminate according to race or gender or religion.  In our nation, schools and institutions rely on offices of Civil Rights and Title IX enforcement to ensure that girls and children of color and religious minorities are not subjected to bias because of their identity.  This work is prioritized with accurate reporting that describes the number of incidences and their associated context.  If our schools are labeling this as simply bullying, do we have accurate data that describes discrimination and bigotry inflicted to students?  

In light of the increased reports of hate crimes as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, schools need to accurately document student actions and behaviors to create appropriate institutional responses.  There is a risk in identifying playground bullying with the same worth as a playground hate crime.  A school leader that recognizes an increase in social isolation will respond differently than a leader who observes an increase in hate crimes in the hallways.  Let us insist that the educators responsible for our children demonstrate a nuanced understanding of children's behaviors to better guide them, and their families, towards socially responsible behaviors.  And, let's ensure that educators rebuke discrimination in any of its forms to communicate values that prioritize respect and dispel bigotry.  

I appreciate that Dr. Al-Fartousi’s (2016) study shared the lived experiences of these young girls practicing their Muslim faith with religious dress.  I pray that they respond to acts of bigotry according to the context in which it occurred, not simply as a common act of bullying.  And I hope that the educators around them have the strength to label racist or sexist or religious bigotry with the admonishment that it deserves.  And may the rest of us speak out against discrimination and bigotry in all of its contexts, even when it occurs in a classroom.

Al-Fartousi, May   (04/01/2016).  Enhancing contextualized curriculum: integrated identity in young Shi’i Muslim Arabic-Canadian students’ social worlds.. Journal of curriculum studies, 48(2), p. 192 - 225. 

Amaarah DeCuir