Identity-Based Bullying Is a Social Justice Issue

Most psychologists are likely familiar with bullying and its detrimental effects. However, they may not be familiar with the term “identity-based bullying,” which includes any form of bullying related to the characteristics considered particular to a child’s actual or perceived social identity. Identity-based bullying is one form of discrimination, and it is also a
method through which children learn prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes.

Identity-based bullying can include:

  • Ostracizing a student with a disability
  • Teasing a black student by saying he or she is “acting white”
  • Calling a girl a “slut” or shaming her about sexual activity or her body
  • Teasing an overweight teen about her/his body
  • Using anti-gay terms or teasing adolescents who identify as LGB

Participants had the opportunity to learn about these types of bullying during a session organized by Mindy J. Erchull, PhD, and Michelle M. Perfect, PhD. I had the privilege of opening the session with a presentation describing why psychologists should address identity-based bullying as a social justice issue.

anti- bullying

Identity-based bullying includes behaviors that are rooted in discrimination. Unfortunately, most discourse within schools about bullying minimizes power relations based on social identities. Some schools intentionally avoid discussing issues of identity out of fear that the conversations will be too controversial. In these cases, the term bullying may be used in place of terms such as sexism, racism and homophobia to minimize discussions about systemic problems rooted in cultural stereotypes and oppression.

During my presentation, I asserted that psychologists should address identity-based bullying as a social justice issue–examining systemic causes so as to change not only the outcomes for individuals, but to transform the processes that lead to identity-based bullying. Identity-based bullying is both reflected in and influenced by cultural factors including legal and political battles, media messages and social movements. Many societal structures (including schools) often serve to reinforce and reproduce messages about inequality.
However, schools can be sites for intervention. At this session, Susan Swearer, PhD, described school-based approaches for identifying, preventing and intervening in bullying, sharing the promising research findings for a number of programs. She discussed how she has engaged multiple stakeholders, such as school nurses, to be involved in the battle against bullying.

Identity-based bullying is a societal problem and the most effective prevention and intervention strategies extend beyond changing any one individual (or a series of individuals). As scholars and mental health professionals, we have a responsibility to embrace such possibilities because all children deserve to attend schools that provide safe, supportive environments that reinforce equality and teach respect for all people.

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