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Bullying Others: Factoring in Race, Ethnicity and Immigration

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Mar 5, 2012

Kids bullying others that they perceive as “different” is nothing new—from America to Iran, children are targets for harassment based on their immigration history, ethnicity, and race. Sara, a girl whose mother is American and father is Iranian, agrees.

Whatever is a characteristic that’s different, that’s a minority,” she says. “Those are the characteristics that are going to be made fun of and known as the odd or the weird because it’s different.”(1)

This focus on immigration, ethnicity and race bullying is still being studied, but research has uncovered some trends in bullying that focuses on these characteristics of students.

Immigration and Bullying

Students—both those who have recently moved from one country to another and those who were born in the country where they’re living, but whose parents immigrated—report being frequently bullied by their peers (2). Interestingly, children who were born in a different country than where they live are also more likely than other students to bully (3), and sometimes form groups (such as gangs) that bully others (4).

Race, Ethnicity, and Bullying

Race most commonly refers to physical qualities, such as skin color, and assumes some shared ancestry (e.g., Asian), and ethnicity usually includes cultural beliefs and practices (e.g., Chinese American). Bullying based on these factors tends to happen most often between students in different racial and ethnic groups. However, ethnic bullying within the same racial groups has been noted.

The racial and ethnic make-up of the particular schools students attend can contribute to bullying experiences. Students of minority (or less common) races or ethnicities within school buildings are more likely than majority students to be bullied, especially based on their race or ethnicity (5).

Preference for one’s own group is a normal part of development (6), but hostility toward those in other groups varies among children. A child’s ability to consider another’s views or feelings, how much competition or conflict a student experiences directly or believes exists between groups at school or in the community, and prejudicial beliefs (such as an unreasonable fear of foreigners) expressed by important people in a child’s environment (7) all factor in to the likelihood of he or she bullying others.

Differences in social rules, language, dress, and religious practices may contribute to bullies’ views of victims as strange or weak. These differences can lead to students being less accepted by their peers, having less friends from other cultures, and feeling isolated or lonely (8).

Pain from the experience of immigration, and from being bullied, could lead students to believe that there is a need to protect oneself or one’s group rather than put up with being bullied—sometimes resulting in a decision to bully others.

How to Reduce Bullying at School

Tension about race, ethnicity, and immigration can result in violence and harassment in school, making it an unsafe learning environment. You can improve this problem by advocating for:

  • Bullying prevention programs. Contact the school and ask about anti-bullying procedures and diversity education. Do they have research to back up their programs’ effectiveness? Bully prevention programs and diversity education are most likely to be effective if they’re used regularly and are backed by research showing they have been tried and shown to be effective before.
  • Codes of conduct. Make sure that everyone is protected by asking the school to list detailed descriptions of the types of bullying (racial, ethnic, immigrant, etc.) that won’t be tolerated. Conduct codes often list just a few of the most common types of bullying, and students may not understand that other kinds of bullying are wrong, too.
  • Recorded stories. Keep track of bullying that targets race, ethnicity, or immigration, so you can begin to evaluate the extent of the problem at your school. Once you’ve gathered sufficient data, present it to the administration or school board to help facilitate change. Sharing actual examples can help show school leadership that there is a problem that needs attention.
  • Reach out. Make sure that students have an on-campus adult who shares their language—or at least has an understanding of their culture. A trusted adult can give kids the courage to report bullying incidents, especially if they believe the report will result in help being given.
  • Survey. Student surveys and focus groups can help spread the word about local conflicts and possible solutions to bullying. Additionally, putting a spotlight on these incidents will show students that their school is aware of this problem and is working to fix it.
  • Rally the troops. Encourage educators, parents and community leaders to work together and solve problems related to bullying. The more solutions that are suggested, the better chance the group has of finding an effective solution to bullying based on race, ethnicity and immigration.

Children who feel like outcasts based on their heritage often feel hurt and angry, which could lead to behavioral problems down the line—and they need advocates for their protection and well being. Take a stand to eliminate hate-based bullying, and you can have a positive impact on not only these students, but also on the levels of acceptance of students in general.

This report is based on this chapter:

Scherr, T. G., & Larson, J. (2010). Bullying dynamics associated with race, ethnicity, and immigration status. In S. R. Jimerson, S. M. Swearer, & D. L. Espelage (Eds.).The Handbook of Bullying in Schools: An International Perspective. New York: Routledge.

And these additional references:

McKenney, K. S., Pepler, D., Craig, W., & Connolly, J. (2006). Peer victimization and psychosocial adjustment: The experiences of Canadian immigrant youth. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology No. 9, 4, 239-264.

Pepler, D., Connolly, J., & Craig, W. (1999). Bullying and harassment: Experiences of immigrant and minority youth. (CERIS Report). Retrieved from http://ceris.metropolis.net/Virtual%20Library/RFPReports/Pepler1997.pdf

Tartakovsky, E., & Mirsky, J. (2001). Bullying gangs among immigrant adolescents from the Former Soviet Union in Israel: A psych-culturally determined group defense. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 16, 247-265. doi: 10.1177/088626001016003005

Graham, S., & Juvonen, J. (2002). Ethnicity, peer harassment, and adjustment in middle school: An exploratory study. Journal of Early Adolescence, 22(2), 173-199.

Aboud, F. E. (2003). The formation of in-group favoritism and out-group prejudice in young children: Are they distinct attitudes? Developmental Psychology, 29, 48-60. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.39.1.48

Nesdale, D. (2004). Social identity processes and children’s ethnic prejudice. In M. Bennett, & F. Sani (Eds.), The development of the social self (pp. 219-245). New York: Psychology Press.

Strohmeier, D., & Spiel, C. (2007). Immigrant children in Austria: Aggressive behavior and friendship patterns in multicultural school classes. In J. E. Zins, M. J. Elias, & C. A. Maher (Eds.), Bullying, victimization, and peer harassment: A handbook of prevention and intervention (pp. 103-120). New York: Haworth Press.

Additional resource:

Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services. (2010). Tool 4: Refugee and immigrant youth and bullying: Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from http://www.brycs.org/documents/upload/bullying.pdf

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