In the wake of several high profile cases, there's a great deal of emphasis placed on bullying. Bullying-- for all kinds of reasons, most of which amount to being perceived as different in some way-- has been going on forever. My mother told me stories of being picked on by the other black girls back in the days of segregation for having long hair (a girl even dipped one of her braids into a burning candle at a Christmas pageant, setting her hair on fire!) I remember being called names at my predominantly white schools for being one of the few black students. These days, students who identify themselves as gay are often the victims of bullying-- but certainly they aren't the only ones. Bullying is probably as old as human beings. Difference is the issue; it almost doesn't matter what the difference is.
Several recent stories seem to have brought bullying to national attention. They center on the suicides of young people who were "outed" or tormented on the basis of their difference. One strikes particularly close to home for this family: a Virginia teen whose military family had recently been stationed in the area, hanged himself after suffering daily abuse. His crime? Being an "Emo" kid in a more rural and conservative part of the state. Here's a link to the sad story.
I know the "Emo" scene well. Sisi is a proud "Emo". I guess Emo is to this generation what "goth" and "punk" once were to earlier ones: a sort of widely-known fringe element. Unlike Goth, Emos like colors: they sport pink, purple and blue hair. Like punk, the hair should be as spikey as possible. The looks is androgynous-- girls and guys go for the same basic style, and many emos claim to be bi-sexual. Skateboarding-- or at least the look of a skateboarder: beanies, hoodies, Converse sneakers-- are required. It's also good to have a few band T-shirts: Blood on the Dance Floor is the favorite around here. You buy the whole look at Hot Topic, Sisi's absolute favorite store. In fact, the last time she was in there, the manager said she'd give her a job there. Why?
"You've totally got the look!" she enthused.
Fortunately, there are a community of like-minded kids here. Sure, the look raises eyebrows, but there are a least a few kids who share my daughter's interests. They stick together--and form a community that offers some shelter from the other groups and cliques of high school.
In other communities, Sisi's chosen identity might cause her problems-- especially if she were the only one. That was the case with this poor Emo kid in Virginia.
In some communities, simply being a bi-racial child can put a kid in an isolated, "only one" position. Being "different" in that way can be enough to bring a bully into the life of a bi-racial child. It's critical to teach children not to suffer in silence. Fortunately, parents now have a great deal more help with these issues.
A whole new wave of public service announcements and programs are placing new scrutiny on bullying-- and encouraging students to speak up, to tell adults, to confront bullies in safe ways. These messages are aimed not only at kids who are being bullied, but also at the kids who witness the bullying of others. I love the "It Gets Better Campaign" that many celebrities-- and even President Obama-- have now joined, reminding kids that as adults, they soon will be able to create a life that frees them from the forced peer relationships of a school setting. Middle school or high school might feel like the entire universe to a child-- but we know better. It really DOES get better: and this is a critical message. Even TV shows are getting into the "re-education" act. Last night's Glee tackled the issue with a fresh and surprising twist.
The ideal, of course, is to place our bi-racial kids in situations where they aren't so different, where there is a community of similarly-situated children for them to bond with. But in the absence of that community, our kids must learn the tools for confronting bullies and for identifying trustworthy adults from whom they can obtain assistance and intervention when necessary.
Always, always, always, though, it comes back to communication. Listening to our kids--straight or gay, bi-racial, outgoing or shy, whatever-- and being willing to step into their worlds and intervene when our guts tell us we should (sometimes, even when our kids say we shouldn't). And, as their parents, we owe it to them to affirm their difference, to celebrate it and encourage them to embrace it... whether that difference is in the race of their parents, their sexual preference or even the blue streaks in their hair.