The Multi-Faceted Dimensions of Bullying

Aggressive behavior is a problem that spans across all ages, socioeconomic and racial groups. I remember a story that a colleague told me several years ago about two little girls who kicked sand in his daughter’s face. At the time, his daughter was in pre-school. Understandably, the incident disturbed both him and his wife. In response, they promptly paid a visit to the school and confronted the teacher about the incident. According to my colleague, the teacher profusely apologized to the both of them for the behavior of the two little girls in question and then abruptly stated that one of the girls was “outwardly emotional” and “very aggressive” and had managed to successfully manipulate the other child. While they accepted the sincere apology of the teacher and understood that there are children that can be unruly no matter how young, my colleague and his wife made it clear that something had better be done to rectify the behavior of the little hellion and her easily influenced sidekick. From what I gathered, no further related incidents occurred afterward. 

What interested me about the incident given the information I was told, was that the teacher used the terms “outwardly emotional” and “very aggressive” in describing one of the girls. I thought to myself, this is just another form of politically correct, psychobabble nonsense in an effort to avoid saying directly and clearly what the child was in fact doing. SHE WAS BEING A BULLY! Now I realize that many of you may argue that I am being irrational in referring to a child under the age of 5 as a bully, but there is no other way to describe her actions.

For some people, there is the commonly (misguided I would argue) held belief that no one who hasn’t reached the second grade can be classified as a bully. I beg to differ. I am in unison with those psychologists who argue that bullying can began as early as 3 years old. Unless we are trained in early childhood development or related areas, we as adults may not be able to detect it, but the bully syndrome can start early.     

Most of us are aware that bullying is not a problem confined to pre-schoolers and elementary kids. It is an epidemic that transcends all age groups and generations. Who among us can forget the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado in April 1999? While the two young men responsible for this horrific atrocity, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had experienced personal and psychological problems that should have been detected prior to the tragedy, both young men had also been the victims of intense bullying by other kids, primarily athletes.

Truth be told, high school bullying is nothing new. The wildly popular new FOX television series “Glee” (I am a fan of the show) subtly, overtly  and deftly integrates the various forms of verbal and occasional physical harassment the members of the Lima High School Glee Club endure from the more popular groups—jocks, cheerleaders and even some teachers. While I concede that the show is fictional, it nonetheless does a splendid job of employing a number of real life situations into its episodes. It is the combination of fantasy and reality at its finest.

The fact is that bullying is a practice that can happen at the postsecondary level. There are a number of college students who endure all sorts of bullying. While it may not be as intense as at the high school level, it still happens. Some professors can be bullies by targeting and downgrading students they do not like, giving them unjust grades, directly or indirectly humiliating them in class. … At the graduate level such bullying can manifest itself in more sophisticated and nefarious ways—sexual harassment, misdirecting and misguiding students by pointing toward a research path that is counter to their best interests, discrediting certain students to other graduate students or faculty members etc. … While I would like to say that such behavior accounts for a very small number of faculty (and I am sure this is the case), the fact is that such behavior does happen from time to time.

Racial bullying was a major problem on a number of campuses during the 1980s. I have spoken with a number of fellow Black and Latino Generation X’ers, who mentioned to me that they knew of someone or that they themselves were the object of racial hostility during this time period as college students. I, myself, experienced an encounter where I was the subject of racial bigotry during my freshman year at college in the mid-1980s. The incident was quickly handled, and I quickly went on about my business.

Workplace bullying has long been a problem for some employees. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety Health, reported claims of sexual, racial, religious and other forms of workplace harassment have increased considerably since the late 1990s. One could argue that a number of extremist websites and blogs promote and engage in some form of bullying. Given the fact that we are supposedly evolving into an ever changing post-racial America, such news is troubling.   

While it would be totally unreasonable to believe that we will ever totally eradicate bullying, nonetheless, it is a form of physical, emotional and psychological abuse that all of us must attack with the force of a hurricane wherever we see or encounter it. The longer it is ignored or allowed to fester it takes on the form of a potential malignant tumor and can cause fatal damage to both the victim and others who are merely witnesses. This sort of behavior cannot be tolerated in our 21st century America.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book “Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board” (Rowman and Littlefield Publisher, Spring 2008).