Being the target of bullying can be painful and damaging. And when you are targeted because of an aspect of who you are—your core identity or a facet of it—that can be particularly destructive. It can cause you to internalize negative messages about that part of your identity and crush your self-esteem in lasting ways.
Identity-based bullying resides in the intersection of bullying and bias. It is defined as any form of bullying related to characteristics considered part of a person’s identity or perceived identity group, such as race, religion, disability, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical appearance, etc. Because identity-based bullying targets who the student is—a core part of their identity—it can be especially harmful. It impacts not only the individual student but everyone else around them who identifies in the same way and who worries that they may be the next target. It also affects the rest of the school community by sending a message that anyone’s identity is fair game.
In discussing this with young people, it’s important to make the point that bullying happens because of an aggressor’s bias, not because of the target’s identity. One should never blame the target. A person is not bullied because they are Jewish or gay or blind. That person is bullied because of an aggressor’s bias against that identity group.
Identity-based bullying can take many forms, such as:
- Stigmatizing a student with a disability
- Teasing an overweight teen about their body
- Using homophobic language toward students who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual
- Excluding a young person because they don’t conform to gender norms
- Trying to pull off a Muslim student’s hijab
- Sending a text message using a racial slur
- Slut-shaming a young woman
Bullying is “repeated actions or threats of action directed toward a person by one or more people who have or are perceived to have more power or status than their target in order to cause fear, distress, or harm.” The power and status elements are especially key when it comes to identity-based bullying. The power can be derived from social relationships, emotional connection/disconnection, or physical power. In this way, students who are members of marginalized groups or in the minority at their school are most vulnerable.
A new study from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network of U.S. students ages 13 to 18 reveals that identity-based name-calling and bullying are widespread and often based on personal characteristics. A sizeable percentage of students reported feeling unsafe. Just over half (50.9 percent) of U.S. middle and high school students reported being verbally harassed at school based on appearance or body size, and the numbers for bullying based on other identity markers were also worrying: race/ethnicity (30.3 percent), gender expression (21.9 percent), sexual orientation (19.4 percent), gender (18.1 percent), religion (18.0 percent), and disability (12.7 percent).
Three Things You Can Do
To help all students feel safe and supported at school, to help every child feel free to discover who they are without judgment, and to promote a school climate of respect and inclusivity, it is important to do the following:
Teach about identity and bias: An important way to decrease bullying, and specifically identity-based bullying, is to engage students in anti-bias education work, which teaches students about the various dimensions of identity, develops their capacity to understand bias, and builds skills to challenge bias in themselves and others. Further, creating a culturally responsive classroom environment will help students both learn about differences and feel affirmed and accepted in their identity.
Be more approachable: The data tells us that many students who experience bullying don’t tell any adults in their lives about it—not their parents, not their teachers, not other school staff. And as students get older, they are increasingly less likely to report bullying to adults. They believe it won’t help and may even make things worse. One way to increase their openness to talking with adults is to be more approachable by taking the issue seriously, investing the time and space to listen before moving into problem-solving mode, not harping on the past, and being a role model by not engaging in gossiping and name-calling yourself.
Help students learn and feel empowered to be allies: Because so much bullying behavior takes place when adults are not around (at recess, in the hallway, on the back of the bus, online, etc.) and because many students don’t report bullying to adults, we need to help students help each other. The best way to do this is to motivate students to change from being bystanders to acting as allies. There are many ways to act as an ally, including being supportive to the target, telling aggressors to stop, not participating, and being intentional about getting to know others instead of judging them. Educators can teach students these skills, have them practice, and most importantly, inspire them to want to be allies.