What Kanye and Taylor Teach Youth About Relationships and Bullying

11/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Rachel Simmons Co-founder of Girls Leadership Institute and author of the New York Times bestsellers "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls" and "The Curse of the Good Girl"

Explaining why he hijacked the mic and moment from Taylor Swift at the VMA's earlier this week, rapper Kanye West explained that he was being "real." Yeah, he was being real. Real obnoxious.

I had an unexpectedly interesting conversation about the VMA's at the University School of Milwaukee, where I had the privilege of speaking with parents and teachers, and working with boys and girls in grades 5-9.

In case you missed it, West stormed the stage where Swift was accepting the award for Best Female Video. "Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you, I'll let you finish," he told Swift, "but Beyonce has one of the best videos of all time!" Swift stood, stunned and birdlike, as the outraged crowd rose to their feet to cheer for her. When Beyonce later won the award for Best Video of the Year, she brought the nineteen year-old Swift onstage to "have her moment." Later, in a less savory moment, West blogged a tepid apology and told Leno he'd be taking time off to get himself together (is there jerk rehab?).

The students had a lot to say about the incident. I'm sharing their insights, along with some suggested teaching points, to use for a discussion with your kids about healthy confrontation, bystanders and authentic apologies.

What do you think of the way Taylor Swift handled the situation? Should she have stood up for herself? (True, she was probably shocked, but let's assume she could have said something)

Students said that by not saying anything, Swift looked innocent and "everyone hated Kanye." They also said that Swift would have been better off talking with him in private about it.

Teaching Points:

Confronting someone in a crowd tends to make the person feel s/he needs to "perform" in front of the others. It almost always worsens a conflict.

It's far more effective to talk one-on-one. You have the person's full attention, and s/he is almost always likely to be more generous.

Sometimes, it's actually better to say nothing at all. You have to use your judgment about when, but silence sends the message that what the person has done isn't even worthy of a response. When there is no response, what people may remember most is the bad behavior.

Is West's apology on his blog acceptable?

The students who responded said a blogged apology was cowardly and insincere. It would have been better, they said, if he spoke to Swift directly.

Teaching Points:

West's apology seems insincere because he is using it as an opportunity to build his celebrity; after all, by posting it on his blog, he drives huge amounts of traffic to his site, increasing his status as a bankable artist.

Anyone can type a few words and press send. It takes real guts to face the person you've wronged. There is no substitute for the sound of a human voice, or the remorse you can see in someone's eyes. There are simply some things that don't belong online, and an apology is one of them.

If you think that it's uncool or cowardly of West to apologize on a blog, keep in mind that many of us non-celebs do the same. When we use technology to communicate powerful emotions, fight, or apologize, we also send the message that the people in our lives aren't worthy of hearing our voices.

When Beyonce stood up for Swift, she demonstrated the power of taking a stand for someone who has been put down. Twitter went insane on Kanye in defense of Swift. Is it easier to do that than to stand up for someone right in front of you? Why?

Okay, so I didn't ask the kids that. But you can ask yours! Imagine a world where as many people defended targets in real life as they seem to do for Swift online. Beyonce gave us a much needed celebrity role model moment. Let's use it to talk about the power each of us has to speak up on behalf of those who are marginalized.

For another perspective on how the incident relates to bullying, see this insightful post from Candace Nuzzo at