What to Do When a Child Endures Racial Bullying in School

Teaching children to stand up for themselves may help

Bully Free Zone. Eddie S./Flickr.com

Racial bullying in school should be taken as seriously, if not more so, than other forms of mistreatment children endure at the hands of peers. Parents don't have to sit idly by while a bully chips away at their child's self-esteem. By learning to identify bullying, who's at risk and how it can be stopped, parents can take action.

What Is Bullying?

Want to end race-based bullying? First, it’s necessary to outline exactly what bullying is.

Bullying may consist of physical violence, such as punching, shoving and hitting; or verbal assaults, such as spreading gossip about a classmate, calling the classmate names or teasing the classmate. In the electronic age, bullying also manifests in mean-spirited emails, text messages or instant messages.

Additionally, bullying may involve excluding a classmate from group activities or ignoring the classmate. Sophisticated bullies are another matter entirely. Instead of abusing a person directly, they enlist their friends to gang up on a classmate for them.

Studies on bullying indicate that 15 to 25 percent of U.S. students are bullied frequently. What’s shocking is that both bullies and their targets suffer from the practice. Students who bully have a higher chance of dropping out of school, abusing substances and committing crimes than others. On the flip side, up to 160,000 targets of bullies skip school annually to avoid abuse.

Who’s at Risk?

Make good grades or have a cute boyfriend? A bully may target you. That’s because bullies pick on those they envy as well as those who don’t fit in. Because students of color in predominantly white schools stand out in the crowd, they make convenient targets for bullies.

It requires little imagination for a bully to insult a classmate because of race.

A racist bully may leave racially tinged graffiti on school grounds or verbally single out a minority student’s skin color, hair texture, eye shape and other distinguishing features.

Hit 1996 film “The Craft” has a storyline in which a white character named Laura racially harasses an African American classmate named Rochelle. In one scene, Laura and Rochelle are in the locker room after gym class, and Laura says, “Oh, God, look, there is a pubic hair in my brush. Oh, no wait, wait, that’s just one of Rochelle’s little nappy hairs.”

When Rochelle asks Laura why she relentlessly teases her, Laura responds, “Because I don’t like Negroids. Sorry.”

Rochelle is clearly hurt by the remark and her performance in gym class suffers because of Laura’s constant teasing. Targets of bullies not only suffer academically but may have trouble sleeping and eating. Their moods may change markedly as well.

As the only black student in an exclusive Catholic high school, Rochelle finds herself in a clique of other misfits, including a new girl from out of town with magical powers. To stop the racist bullying, Rochelle enlists the help of the new girl to make Laura’s hair fall out. Too bad magical spells can't stop bullying in real life.

Standing Up to Bullying

How do you stop bullying? Ending it will likely require action from parents, students and schools, alike. By talking with children, parents can pinpoint when bullying is most likely to happen and act to prevent their children from being targeted at such times. For instance, if a student is bullied before or after school, parents can arrange to have the child driven to school or picked up afterwards to prevent the child from being alone with a bully.

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.

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.

Parents may also opt to discuss the bullying with school officials and enlist the help of administrators and teachers to end the mistreatment. As violence on school campus increasingly makes headlines, schools take bullying more seriously now than ever. When reaching out to school officials, let them know that you want your child’s role in having the bully punished to be a secret. Because bullies often up their abuse when found out, it’s important that their targets are protected from acts of retaliation.

Does your child attend public school? Academic institutions that receive federal funds are mandated to prevent students from exposure to racially hostile environments. Should a school fail to take action to thwart racist bullying, parents have the option of filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, which investigates such matters.

OCR typically resolves such complaints by requiring schools to adopt anti-harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students and address the incidents in question, according to its website. To boot, schools and teachers can reduce the likelihood that racist bullying will occur by pairing students of different races together on projects, holding diversity workshops and encouraging students of all races to sit in the cafeteria together.

Damage Control

Racist bullying may give children a complex about their ethnic background. To counteract the messages of a racist bully, help children feel good about their racial heritage. Celebrate important cultural events, put up images of individuals from diverse backgrounds around the home and allow children to socialize with peers from diverse backgrounds. Expose them to literature, film and music in which people from their ethnic group figure prominently.