Racist bullying is a growing problem that cannot be ignored. I grew up in London, and I'd estimate that 99 percent of the British Chinese people I have met experienced some form of racist bullying. When I recently shared with an Asian friend my experience with bullying in school, his reply was, "Weren't we all?"
While researching my novel The Life of a Banana, I heard shocking stories from ethnic minorities about being physically bullied in school. I listened to accounts of being thrown in ditches, kicked in the face and spat upon. One Asian doctor told me that he was beaten up almost every single week in secondary school. There are also stories of successful black, Asian and mixed-raced adults who faced psychological bullying as a child. They were isolated, singled out as different, ignored, treated as second-class and told to "go back home!"
In 2013 a study published in JAMA Psychiatry looked at the long-term psychological effects of bullying. The researchers studied data from over 1,400 North Carolina kids aged 9, 11, and 13 and followed up with many of them into adulthood. They found that kids who had been victims of bullying had a greater risk for a number of disorders as adults, including anxiety, panic and agoraphobia.
The scars of racial bullying sometimes take years to erase. Sadly, for some people, the scars never heal. Feelings of inadequacy and confusion that come with racist bullying often linger into adulthood. I know people who were racially bullied and still suffer from deep insecurities. They find it difficult to look people in the eye or lack the confidence of their work colleagues. I met a Chinese lady who is a very successful banker in a global firm. She shared that she finds it terrifying to speak to older, white, female bosses because she was bullied for many years in an all-girls' school.
A teacher also talked about her Muslim colleague who was bullied mercilessly as a child. Recently, when this colleague saw her bully by chance at a teaching conference, she ended up hiding in the restroom with a panic attack. Just the sight of the bully brought this grown woman back to her school days.
For many survivors of playground taunts and punches, speaking in public is a big no-no. There is deep-rooted fear of becoming the butt of jokes -- just like in school.
I've encountered victims of racial abuse as children who suffer from depression and anger problems today. They put up guards and are extra-sensitive to people they feel are out to "get them." Comments are often taken the wrong way, and bitterness from the past causes them to lash out. They defend themselves so regularly that it becomes routine, and they no longer know how to open up to anyone.
In recent years there has been a worrying trend for 9- to 12-year-olds to hang themselves as a result of being bullied. I cried when reading about Sidney Boyimbo Nzamale, a little 11-year-old Congelese boy who hanged himself after being bullied at school. My heart aches each time I read about children who take their lives because of bullying. Imagine a child playing with a Barbie doll and then taking a scarf not to wrap her doll in but to hang herself with. For a child to reach that point of hopelessness is just the lowest kind of wrong in any society.
More needs to be done!
From a young age, children need to be educated to treat their classmates equally regardless of their race, sex, economic background and sexual orientation. There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for bullying in schools. Bullying workshops once in a blue moon or an anti-bullying campaign once a year don't work. Classroom exercises, talks and workshops should be introduced as part of the syllabus. Anti bullying should be an ingrained part of the cultural makeup of any school. It needs to start young -- as young as possible.
Instead of channeling funds into end-of-year plays and musical recitals to please the parents, more schools could get involved in something like The Bully Project.
Kids are expelled for drugs or carrying knives. They are given detention when they swear or wear the wrong shoes. So why is racist bullying not taken as seriously? Why do many teachers close their eyes to name calling and "small" scuffles?
A South American lady shared with me how other children marginalized her 5-year-old daughter because she was too "huggy" for British culture. The class bully threw a sharp pen at the little girl's eye and missed it by centimeters. When the mother complained, her concerns were swept under the carpet. I saw firsthand how, within two years, this little girl changed from a vivacious and smiley child into a sullen and moody girl whom the doctor put forward for counseling.
Children need to know that racial bullying or any kind of bullying is not an acceptable part of society. A societal change needs to happen if true reform is to take root. Something needs to be done soon; if not, the stories about bullied children committing suicide will keep growing.
We cannot and must not become a society that becomes desensitized to 10-year-olds hanging themselves.
Will it take a 3-year-old jumping in front of a train to make people sit up and take notice?
Racist bullying and all kinds of bullying needs to stop!
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.