I was bullied at lot in primary school. I was bullied by white kids and Asian kids. I was a quiet girl with her hair in a bowl cut who played the cello, read a lot, was good at maths and not-so-great at PE, a girl who preferred the company of adults and kids who were older than her. I was also a sheltered kid.
My parents mainly watched the news on TV, and refused to let my sister and me watch The Simpsons or any other cartoon that was popular at the time. We only listened to ABC and BBC radio programs in the car, and we didn’t see movies very often, which meant I had very little knowledge of pop culture until my mid-teens, when I was given a laptop for high school and discovered the wonders of the internet. All these things made me an easy target.
It probably didn’t help that I kept most of the bullying to myself. But when I did, the responses from adults were fairly uniform.
He’s only teasing, and he’s only teasing you because he likes you.
Bullies only bully because they themselves are insecure.
Don’t engage, and they’ll stop.
They just want to push someone else down to make themselves feel better.
Which of my behaviours as a kid, which mainly consisted of reading a lot, were “unlikeable” enough for my peers to spread rumours about me to the point where I was suicidal?
These statements may have been true, but they in no way helped me feel better, or provided me with strategies to combat the bullying I was copping at the time. My parents told me to pray. Some of my teachers chalked it up to the fact that I was apparently “socially inept”. Others told me it wouldn’t last, that I just had to grit my teeth and get through it.
In some ways, my teachers may have made things worse. Because I was the “good girl” who always did her work without causing any fuss, I was often picked to share desks with the naughty kids. I’d get a new rowdy white boy every term. One in particular sticks in my mind, as he proceeded to ask me if I knew the difference between “nerd”, “geek”, and “dweeb”, before going into a lengthy explanation about how I was all three at once. It is safe to say that forcing me to share a significant amount of my time with people like that made me retreat even further into my quiet shell.
Author and teacher John Marsden recently released a book called The Art of Growing Up, critiquing the education system. In it, he espouses some troubling views, including the fact that if you’re being bullied, you should look at your own likeable and unlikeable behaviours and try to reduce the list of "unlikeable behaviours and unlikeable values and unlikeable attitudes and over time that will probably have a significant effect”.
My response is this: which of my behaviours as a kid, which mainly consisted of reading a lot, enjoying maths, playing the cello, wanting to play Zoombinis on the library computer, and being in show choir, were “unlikeable” enough for my peers to spread rumours about me to the point where I was suicidal?
This idea of being “likeable” so as to not be bullied is extremely reductive. It is easy to be “likeable”, and to tell others to be “likeable”, when society sees you, and people like you, as the norm.
This idea of being “likeable” so as to not be bullied is extremely reductive. It is easy to be “likeable”, and to tell others to be “likeable”, when society sees you, and people like you, as the norm. Let’s not forget the bloody history of how that came to be, either.
I attended a fairly multicultural primary school. I never had the experience of being the only Asian kid in class, but it didn’t change the fact that I still encountered my fair whack of casual racism. I still knew I was different. I was bullied because I was a soft target, because it made some other kids feel better about themselves, and maybe because some kids thought it would be fun.
Bullying still affects a ridiculous number of kids – and can have effects that follow them into adulthood. We should be telling bullies not to bully – not blaming those on the receiving end of their behaviour for being “unlikeable”, or for speaking a different language or having a different skin tone.
Yen-Rong Wong is a freelance writer. Follow Yen-Rong on Twitter at @inexorablist.
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