Raise Your Hand If You've Been Bullied

Always had my hand in the air. I was Hermione before Hermione was cool.

Always had my hand in the air. I was Hermione before Hermione was cool.

I read a blog post today, written by a Pennsylvania photographer, Jen Mcken regarding cyber bullying. She discovered some of her clients were bullying others on Facebook and she canceled their senior photo appointments, sent them emails explaining why and also sent emails to their parents with screen captures of the little angels being vicious. Jen Mcken refused to take money and refused to spend time with people who are ugly on the inside. She is awesome. 

I was going to thank her on her Facebook page but there are already hundreds and hundreds of people doing that very thing. So many that she'll probably never read it all. Instead I decided to do something more constructive. I want to actually talk about bullying. I don't want to talk to Jen Mcken, who doesn’t want to be a hero and really just made a principled decision for her business. No, I really want to talk to a larger audience about bullying and not in the pearl clutching, "won't someone think of the children" way that frequently happens either.

I was a victim of bullying. 

Not simple name calling (which can be vicious all by itself) or eye rolling or dirty notes, but a campaign of hatred and cruelty that tainted my entire childhood and left my self-esteem in tatters. I was the only person of color in a very small community. I graduated in a class of less than eighty students. In this little town, being different was tantamount to being a murderer. How DARE I be so different with my wee little afro, my butterscotch skin and my penchant for big words? 

In elementary and middle school I experienced all of the following and more:

- being punched repeatedly in the face
- being held down screaming by brothers who dared each other to “kiss her nigger lips"

- was called a nigger, a coon, a spic by classmates daily
- was called nigger lips by an elementary school teacher 
- had snowballs scrubbed into my face until my lips split
- had dead animals repeatedly placed in my mailbox

- had feces placed in my purse more than once
- was repeatedly thrown off the bus for refusing to share seating with my abusers
- had people hock loogies in my hair on a daily basis
- was told that I should never have been born because it was an "abomination"

My backwards school was unsure how to handle this. When my grandmother repeatedly complained, they responded by sending me to therapy to "deal with it". Yes instead of talking to the kids who abused me, I was sent to a tiny room to talk about it. I haven’t forgotten the tall white woman with bright green eyes named Mrs. K. She had no clue what to do with a depressed 10 year old. So she told me to tell anyone who called me a nigger that I wasn't a nigger, I was Caucasian. She said it meant "of mixed race". Then she started “fixing” my hair. Because it was the real problem. She’d meet me in front of the high school, take me inside and wet my hair. Then she’d try to comb it with a tiny plastic comb that wasn’t going to go through my hair without a bucket of axel grease and even, then, it wasn’t likely. The morning combing resulted mostly in me crying and her getting snarky with me because my hair was so difficult. After a week or two of this drama, she stumbled on a better idea. Without my grandmother’s permission, she held me after school, took me to a hair salon and paid to have my hair straightened. Hurray! Now all my problems were resolved! Right! Right? Does anyone else hear crickets chirping?

So, needless to say (but I’m saying it anyway), I’ve spent most of my adult years trying to undo the damage that that woman and that town did to me. For a long time, I blamed people of color for my misfortune. I denied my likely African-American heritage and became hostile if people called me black. I spent lots of money hiding my afro with braids and weaves, trying to look “normal” or what seemed normal to me.

Eventually I read some self-help books and in trying to love myself more, I started wearing an afro and writing a lot about what happened to me. I wrote essays and non-fiction pieces about how I was over it and how I was glad it happened as it made me a stronger, better person. Wasn’t I lucky to have those people teach me about the ugliness of the world and about hatred and how to be tough? Man I’m sure glad people spit on me and called my friends nigger-lovers all the time. That made me soooo tough. Whoohoo I am victim, hear me roar! 

It took a long time to see that this kind of thinking was a lie. A filthy lie, too. People need to quit convincing themselves that bullying builds character. It doesn’t. It tears character apart. Being bullied didn’t make me a better, stronger person. I was already a good, strong person. It was the strength I already had that helped me make it through those bad years without hurting myself or others. I think it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome to credit your abusers as having made you better. They gave me a life lesson in ugliness that I did not need and a lifetime of self-hatred I could have done without.

The truth is that bullies bully for many reasons and 99% of them have little to do with their victims. They don’t bully because they are jealous of their victims specialness. They don’t pick on someone specifically because they are fat, or ugly or dumb or smart. They bully because they found a weakness or because they found an easy target to vent their rage or to solidify their camaraderie with their friends. That’s all. In a way, this is scarier than having it be all about you. Instead it’s a bit like having cancer. It’s completely unfair, it could have been anyone and every day hurts worse than the last.

Bullying sucks and no amount of talking in an office would have helped me, when what I really needed, was for someone to step up and educate the people who were abusing me that their behavior would not be tolerated and is not acceptable. We don’t need more support groups for victims; we need more education for the victimizers.

So I appreciate what Ms. Mcken did, whether she intended to do it or not. She called the bullies on their crap. This may change their behavior, it might not, but she made sure that they had consequences for what they did, however small the consequences might be.

I’m certainly not the voice for all the bullied. I can’t speak for others. But as a bullied girl who bears scars, I thank Jen Mcken and wish her all the best in her photography business. May every client be beautiful where it matters most.

Christina Mitchell