Flexible bullies

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Imagine a school where little Suzie is getting bullied by the other kids. She has a different skin-color than the other children in her class. Her skin is a bit darker than theirs, and a gang of mean kids tease her about it. (A). They keep talking about her as being different from them, excluding her from cooperative school projects, even making her fear for her safety. After several months of escalating bullying, the teachers step in. They declare that it is not acceptable to bully people for having dark skin.

The gang of bullies comply. They stop picking on Suzie. Having dark skin is now a protected group. Picking on such kids can get you into trouble. The gang figures that it's just not worth it, so they start picking on James instead. He has glasses, and they tease him about that. Again the teachers eventually step in, declaring that it's okay to have glasses. (B).

Meanwhile, another gang of bullies are picking on Jenny. They tease her for her skin-color, sometimes they even make threats and beat her. (C). At first, the teachers have a hard time understanding that this is a problem. Jenny is white. Didn't we just agree that dark kids are the ones who get bullied? Most of the kids in the school are white, but most of the kids in Jenny class have darker skin.

Once the teachers realize this problem, they let Jenny move to Suzie's class. People believe that the problem is solved. However, the gang in Suzie's class start picking on Jenny. Their excuse this time is that Jenny is a “southpaw”, someone who use the left hand more than the right hand. (D). Some kids has also started picking on Suzie again. This time based on her being too smart, for which they label her a “nerd”. (E). The kids doing this are not members of any gang. Meanwhile, the gang in Jenny old class has started to pick on Tommy, one of the few remaining white kids in that class. (C, again).

The teachers catch on, eventually. One day they declare that all skin-colors are protected, and so are using the left hand. Maybe they'll forbid bullying against right-handed people as well while they are at it, just in case that ever happens. However, the gangs know the routine by now. The decree will not even slow them down.

They like to pick on other kids. It make them feel powerful and safe, as well as giving them a sense of being part of a family. They will keep inventing new excuses to target other kids. Too fat or too thin. Too bad at math or too good at math. Too “schplarunx”, which is a word they just invented and have yet to clearly define. (F). Or simply “not really one of us”. (G). The options are endless.


So, what is going on here? Well, various facets and foci of categorism are at play. Yet, the teachers are all but ignoring the facets of categorism. Instead, they put all their efforts into combating specific foci of categorism.

The bullying takes forms such as othering, marginalization and violence. Lets take a look at the various foci and abstractions used as excuses for this behavior.

A). Here we have racism in general, and perhaps also afrophobia in particular. While the racism in the class is at the individual level and group level, it is also connected to systemic and structural racism in society, making Suzie more vulnerable to it.

At this point, it is wise of the teachers to make a stand against racism and afrophobia. However, they should ALSO at the same time speak up against bullying in general. Putting emphasis on the fact that everyone deserves respect, regardless of categories such as for example skin-color. Talking on how othering, maginalization and violence are very bad things regardless of whether they are connected to a specific prejudice – for example based on skin-color.

B). Here we have ableism, in this case against people who need glasses. While it on the individual and group levels is just as bad as the racism above, it has weaker ties to systemic and structural oppression. Which doesn't make it okay: The goal here should be to stop bullying in the school, no matter what category is being targeted.

The teachers should have caught on by now, putting more attention to the facets and less to the foci. Meanwhile, it would also be a good thing to teach the kids about variations in functionality.

C). Here we are back to individual level and group level racism, but this time without connection to structural and systemic racism in society as a whole. Which doesn't make it okay, but may be a clue signifying that structural prejudice in society isn't the only factor at play here.

At this point, it has become a big mistake to keep explaining the bullying problem as mainly a matter of different categories of people. It should be obvious that a big part of the problem is with the social dynamics in the school. The bullies are targeting whatever kids they can get away with targeting, using whatever excuse they can get away with. The teachers need to take these opportunities and excuses away from them.

D). Here we have categorism targeting lefthanded people. (As this point, we don't need a shorter name for it. We can simply call it “categorism targeting lefthanded people”. If it was still a widespread problem at this point in history, we could try to establish a word such as “mainhandism”.)

Living in a society where widespread systemic and structural oppression hasn't been an issue in decades, this new vogue for putting down left-handed people should be seen mainly as individual bullies taking whatever petty excuse they think they can get away with. While keeping this in mind, the teachers could also tell the classes about how prejudice, bigotry and discrimination against left-handed people used to be a really big thing in society but that most people have since realized that this was a really bad idea.

E). This could be viewed either as alterophobia (with Suzie's high intelligence making her non-mainstream) or as ableism (with Suzie's high intelligence making her differently abled). Either way, it is bullying and needs to stop. The children need to learn to accept each other's differences without making it into an “us versus them” mindset.

F) Moving on from specific foci to abstractions, the kids have now started squeezing people into a loosely defined Abyss-category (which may also develop into a foci of its own)...

G). ...as well as doing unspecified xenophobia.

There isn't really any way to even try to solve this by turning one's attention to specific groups and how they should be respected. If the teachers haven't yet realized that they need to change their strategy, now is the time. One can hope that the next time a wave of bullying sweeps over this or any other school, the teachers will be better prepared.

In conclusion: When categorism is done, we need to talk both about facets and foci. Not just one or the other.

This page is a hypothetical example of categorism.