The End Of Innocence: Taking The Bystanding Out Of Bullying

The End Of Innocence: Taking The Bystanding Out Of Bullying
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Natalie Charlesworth

Trump’s reversal of the Obama policies recommending protections of trans kids in schools is yet another reminder that it is an increasingly perilous to be anything but a white, straight Christian male in this country.

Schools districts may make the right rules against bullying, but those are particularly difficult to enforce in spaces generally devoid of adult supervision, like bathrooms. In certain areas of the country, cultural attitudes among the staff itself can even abet the abuse, as teachers and administrators look away when they quietly share the belief that trans and gay kids need correction, not protection.

Every parent in America will tell you that they are against bullying – including the parents of bullies, who almost universally deny that their “good” kid could possibly be involved (or might have even learned the behavior at home). Of course, their distress doesn’t compare to that of a bullied kid and his/her parents. But our tendency to focus on either perpetrator or victim ignores a third group that is essential to battling this problem; the parents of children who are bystanders to bullying. Their kids constitute the silent majority who witness what they know is wrong but say or do nothing about it. Their acquiescence is often taken by the victimizer as assent – even encouragement.

These kids do not step up because they haven’t been taught to step up.

Most parents are understandably afraid their own kid will be the next one bullied, or be branded a snitch for reporting abuse to an authority figure. Minding one’s own business is as American as apple pie, after all. But so is standing up for what’s right. And that doesn’t just happen on its own; kids have to learn these values. What parents should be telling them is:

“If you witness bullying, you must never just be part of the audience. You’ve got to try and stop it. Use your words, loudly; grab your friends to help or send them to find help. Be a leader. And if you come home suspended, or with a black eye, but you got it defending someone else, I will be the proudest parent imaginable, and be right next to you when it comes to handling any fallout and fighting it.” (This would also be a great time, by the way, to teach them how the Danes saved their Jewish population during the war, to let them know that an entire country can stand up to the worst bullies imaginable.)

I was a very short, gay kid who came very close to being bullied except I’d developed an early talent for making kids laugh – including (especially) the meanest ones. My dad – the ultimate good guy – was the type of man who would come upon an accident on the highway and jump out and direct traffic until the police arrived. My mother –who taught at my high school – often let vulnerable kids use the teachers’ lounge bathroom. Both, on multiple occasions, were insistent that my siblings and I understood that we needed to be willing to spend whatever social capital we had befriending or defending those who were vulnerable to harassment. I never brought a friend home who didn’t get a dinner invitation – and for a few our house became a real refuge.

When I did a stint behind bars in 2004, the example of my parents came back to me, and at Chino State Prison I was the only inmate willing to sit at the same cafeteria table with a newly arrived trans woman. As an openly gay man there, my social status was only a notch above hers, but it made a tremendous difference in how vulnerable she felt – especially on the walk to and from chow, when the catcalls were hard to ignore. I didn’t do it because I am particularly brave, which I am not. I did it because I remembered my mother insisting I invite the least popular kid on the block over for my birthday party; and my father giving me “the look” when he saw me about to complain.

If you are parents, it’s not enough to make sure your kid isn’t either an abuser or one of the abused. (And make no assumptions on that count – particularly when it comes to social media.) But neither can you assume he or she will do the right thing unless they know exactly what the right thing looks like.

I don’t have kids, and my prison record won’t allow me to teach. But I live in very diverse neighborhood and take the subway a lot. When I see a woman in a hijab, or sit next to trans girl, I always rehearse the reaction I would have to any harassment, (three foot stomps and a “LEAVE HER ALONE” in my very booming voice.) So far, thank God, I haven’t had to do it. But I always try to exchange at least a smile with anyone who might need to know an ally is close by.

In the age of resistance, these can be no more innocent bystanders. When it comes to bullying, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

My book, Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir will be published in the Spring.

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