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When Kids Use Ethnicity and Gender to Bully

By and — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

The most widely studied forms of bullying are physical, verbal, and relational (e.g., gossiping). These designations focus primarily on differences in the behavior of the perpetrator. Another way to define differences in forms of bullying is to highlight the reasons a target child might be chosen by a perpetrator. During the period of adolescence, such reasons might include the potential target child’s behaviors, gender, ethnicity, physical strength, and style of dress. Each of these potential reasons is observable, may make an adolescent stand out from his or her peers, and consequently put the adolescent at greater risk for being targeted.

One of these factors, ethnicity-based discrimination by peers, has been studied in school settings by researchers in the United States (1) and Europe (2). A student is said to experience discrimination if he or she perceives unfavorable treatment by other students because of his or her ethnicity. In multi-ethnic school settings, students from all ethnic groups reported ethnicity-based discrimination experiences such as name-calling and exclusion.

Prevalence of Ethnicity- and Gender-Based Peer Discrimination

With an ethnically diverse sample of about 1200 ninth grade students from Los Angeles (12% Asian, 18% Black, 47% Latino, 11% White, 12% other/multi-ethnic), we compared adolescents’ experiences of general peer victimization (defined as feelings of being “picked on) and ethnicity- and gender-based peer discrimination (defined as “being called insulting names,” “being threatened,” and “being excluded” by peers because of their gender or ethnicity).

  • When we examined the prevalence of both forms of peer discrimination among these students, we found that 25% of the adolescents reported at least one experience of gender-based discrimination by their peers in the previous six months. Fewer boys (19%) than girls (29%) reported gender-based discrimination
  • In addition, 41% percent of adolescents reported experiencing discrimination by peers based on their ethnicity. o Broken down by ethnic group, 54% of White, 53% of Asian, 36% of African American, and 34% of Latino students reported at least one ethnicity-based peer discrimination experience.
    • These values may be somewhat surprising because one might expect ethnic minority students would experience more discrimination by their peers. In fact, African American and Latino students are more likely to report discrimination by teachers and other adult authority figures (1).
    • The ethnic composition of the schools partially explains these differences. Verkuyten and Thijs reported that students in the numerical ethnic minority within their schools were those who reported more frequent peer discrimination experiences (2).
    • In our Los Angeles study, Latino students were most often in the numerical majority. This might explain why they were the ethnic group with the fewest number of students who experienced ethnicity-based peer discrimination in our study.
    • It’s also important to point out that discrimination can also happen within an ethnic group for reasons such as differences in immigration status (1).
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