Racism and Bullying in My Hometown

When you’re a little kid, you hear racist and bigoted comments around the schoolyard and at your lockers before class – sometimes even in class – and you don’t quite realize the magnitude of your actions or your words.

I just read a stunning article in my town of Jasper’s local paper by Natasha Singh, who grew up in Jasper like me, and because of her race and that she was a ‘good target’, faced tyrannous bouts of bullying by her classmates while her teachers and leaders did nothing to stop the cruelty thrust into her face every single day.  The worst part is that she is now a university professor who divides her time between California and New York, and she returned to Jasper about a year ago to do a reading and still felt ashamed, embarrassed and uncomfortable about her childhood and upbringing, despite that those who bullied her are no longer in her life in any capacity, and despite her enormous success as a writer, educator and traveller, who survived the September 11 tragedies and now lives in the North American mecca of culture, arts, leisure, action and celebrity, she still felt afraid, ashamed and uncomfortable to be back home.

What sparked Singh to write the article in the first place were recent racist actions against a Korean family who live in Jasper and now want to move because their home is being vandalized by a group of local kids.  They actually caught one of these junior vandals and the man of the house held onto him while they called the police to come get him.  His parents responded by saying that the man shouldn’t have laid a hand on their son.

I can imagine my parents’ reaction to something like that; “Miya, go to their house and offer your sincerest apologies, don’t argue with us, you’ve done the worst thing anyone could ever possibly do.  Go over and offer to do anything it takes to make it up to those people”….

Another family also came out of the woodworks and claimed that they moved from Jasper because their child was bullied at school because of his race (Chinese, I believe).  Suddenly now, my town seems being painted as a hotbed of bigotry and racism.

Hearing these stories brings me back to my own experiences in the town of Jasper…

I heard racist comments every day. And only now do I remember them.  It’s as though Singh turned on a light switch and all of these racist, bigoted comments that I can remember are flooding back into the foreground of my mind.  Homophobic comments were the most common when I was in high school; calling someone a ‘faggot’ was such a common practice in my high school, teachers never corrected kids who used the hideous word, nor did they ever educate us on reasons (and there are many) of why this kind of comment is inappropriate, exclusive and wrong.  Only once did a teacher ever make a stand against that word and other homophobic comments.  It’s the homophobia that I can remember the most.  Having a best friend who was gay, those comments surrounded and deeply affected me for most of my high school life.  They followed the two of us around viciously wherever we went.  Soon it went deeper than homophobia; the comments weren’t blatantly homophobic but were the undertone, the cold foundation for further bullying, shunning and alienation.  Homophobia was ramped.

But reading Singh’s article I thought to myself, was there racism in my high school life as well?  And did I just turn a blind eye to it and pretend that it never happened?  And upon answering these questions, memories of stinging racist comments that weren’t even a part of my life or the lives of my friends emerged clearly; kids throwing magazines at a boy in my grade from Pakistan, as well as constantly making fun of his thick accent; following around and calling  a Muslim boy ‘Mohammed’ all the time (he and his family eventually and very quickly moved; perhaps there is a correlation?); making fun of two kids from South Africa’s accents; the clear line between international students who weren’t white, and everyone else (the German and French students were readily accepted into the culture of the school); making fun of a Japanese girl’s broken english… there are examples of this everywhere.  Even in my family my father gets discriminated against in his way; and I have a faint memory (though I don’t know if it’s accurate or not) of one person in my grade calling me ‘yellow’ once.  And of course when I was in elementary school, I was asked if I was adopted, and many classmates  asked me, “are you an Indian?”

The thing is, kids don’t know unless they’re told, how racist and bigoted these things are.  In the mind of a kid, they’re just funny jokes.  And Natasha Singh’s article points out very poignantly that no, these aren’t jokes.  They cut people so deeply they can hardly stand up for themselves, plagued by further fear of alienation by their already-alienating peers.  For example, Singh points out that she never defended her mother when classmates would mock her accent, and she didn’t defend another student who schoolmates referred to as ‘Paki’.  People who have never been bullied can’t understand how it feels to want to defend the honor of yourself and the people you know or love and not be able to.  People who haven’t been bullied can’t understand how it feels to be surrounded by people who senselessly hate you for no reason at all, and just be coerced into taking it.  It’s a life experience that is, to be honest, worthwhile… but it leaves dents that can never be be patched up.

My bullying was not so much to do with race, but… well, everything else; mostly my weight, my shyness, my clothes and that I constantly wore headphones (when you realize how music is a buffer from the goings-on of the ‘real world’, you learn quickly to use it as a shield from words – I did this every day).

I remember once, a girl asked me what I was listening to.  It was a song from the 1970’s and since I knew that a) she wouldn’t know it, b) she would say something mean regardless, and c) I didn’t want to look un-cool listening to something old that no one knew, I just replied with a sassed up, “music”.  And then she turned to her friend and said, “Oh,  Miya’s just listening to music; it’s probably Barney; or Sharon, Lois and Bram.”  No, it wasn’t; it was probably a song that helped me win free alcohol at Name that Tune, played with cool, witty, interesting, artsy loyal friends at my university’s bar; one of the top universities in Canada.  Regardless of all of that however, all the good things that have come of my life, I still can’t forget the badness.  You just don’t.

Another time, I was drawing a picture (something else I used to do constantly), and a classmate came up to me, looked down at my paper and said, “you realize that those people look creepy and stoned, right?”

One time I was eating a muffin and I guess there was some chocolate on my lip; a classmate approached me and said, “you look like a fat baby.”

I was walking home once and two girls essentially followed me home, constantly saying “hi” to me over and over and over again, trying to get me to talk to them.  Because it’s so funny to say hi to a shy kid; because see, shy kids are stupid and they think that any acknowledgement is a signifier of friendship and popularity.  So the punchline is, say hi to them and if they say hi back, it means that you can cut them down by shunning them and making them feel stupid.  I knew the game – know the game – and I didn’t give in.  So they started to repeatedly ask me, “how come you don’t talk?  Are you retarded?  Or is it because you’re ugly?”

Once, a girl (the same one who made fun of what was on my walkman) made fun of me for having dandruff in my hair.  She also later made fun of me for having trichotillomania.  And ironically, I’ve read that “(an) additional psychological effect can be low self-esteem, often associated with being shunned by peers and the fear of socializing due to appearance and negative attention they may receive” (Wikipedia).  She and her two cronies followed me around saying, “aren’t you a little young to be going bald?”

A classmate (the same one who called me yellow, allegedly) once told me that I “waddled like a penguin”.

Someone called me ‘fatty’ constantly.  Constantly.

I was email-bullied once; a girl emailed me and said I was as ugly as a “pinch-faced old man” and that I wore thrift store clothes.  I cried a lot, and my mom told me it was dumb to cry over something so mild.  But there was more to my life than this email.

I woke up every day and it became a daily mission to not talk to anyone, see anyone or listen to the words of anyone.  I avoided spending too much time at my locker, I avoided lingering after school, I took routes less travelled to avoid running into the people who most commonly bullied me… you make life changes when accomodating mean peers.

How do you become a victim of bullying?  It’s easy; you have to be an easy target.  Not the outgoing kid; not the beautiful girl who dates boys and parties on weekends; not the kid with athletic or dance ability; not the kid whose parent is an important mogul around town, or a teacher; not the kid who is on ‘their’ level socially, financially or mentally; not the kid who fits in because of their pot-smoking and sweatshirts; not the kid who talks back to authority figures… basically, the shy kid who is physically unable to dance or play sports, whose parents are either richer or poorer than their parents, who is smart or talented at something other than winning a volleyball game, who doesn’t drink because it’s againt the law, and the kid who is clearly struggling with their lack of social adaptibility.  Bullies take note: you find that kid, and you’ve got yourself a prime target, who will take all of your shit – all of it – without complaint or tattling.  You can do anything you want to that kid.  It will affect their life later, for years in fact; they will feel a lack of confidence with clothes, their body, the opposite sex, with friendships and in social situations, they’ll be afraid to talk in class, they’ll think they’re horrible at everything, and they’ll develop anxiety about social situations which could stunt their social growth entirely.  They will remember all of your words, they will always be terrified to fight back, and they will end up overly-sensitive weaklings who are strong inside but have trouble finding and manifesting that strength.  Yes… it will affect their life.  Butyou have an advantage; you’ll never be there to see these reprecussions.  It’s a guilt-free adventure for you to pick on someone else.  And you don’t even get to be jealous of their success, because you’ll never know of it either.  They won’t even get to take their revenge.

A lot of the people I know, or know of, who have been bullied, went on to do great things; they went to school, moved away, fell in love, achieved some of their dreams and goals, and have enough dignity and strength to talk about their past traumas with friends.  It seems to be a pattern with victims of bullying that they achieve; they achieve because they’re strong enough to overcome obstacles, any number of them, from being lost and alienated in the most crucial and awkward socialization period of their lives.

I can only think of one very clear example in which this rule is false; I had a friend; HAD a friend.  She was like me, and was actually bullied so much worse than me.  But unlike me, she wanted to fit in more than anything else in the world.  Perhaps at night, she prayed for the day when she would become popular and befriend those who bullied the shit out of her.  That day came; she became best friends with all of her former tormentors.  Likely this torment has never been hashed out or discussed; and now she lives their life, and she is still hanging out with them.  And pretty much only them.  She even still lives in Jasper.  I look at her and think of her with utmost embarrassment and frankly, anger.  You should be ashamed of yourself, selling yourself short like that and forgetting why me, who never double-crossed you and stood by you no matter what happened.  Forgetting me completely.  I’ll never forgive you.  You should be ashamed of yourself.

And this was my life; this is how my life connects with Natasha Singh’s; we were both victims of bullying and although her dreams have come true and though many of mine have also come true, that doesn’t change the past; it only makes those victories and successes sweeter than they might have been.  Some might call it karma, these successes in the face of cruelty and adversity.  I don’t think it’s karma, or luck; I think that people like us build up a strength of character that allows us to take on whatever we want to.  I wish I could thank her for showing that to the people of Jasper, showing her determination and strength and dignity.

You know… I used to give tours of the town when I was working my way through my first two years of university; historical tours, sometimes in period costume, unless it was raining.  And whenever I told patrons that I was born and raised in Jasper, they would respond with how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful place.  And that’s what’s funny about Jasper; I can’t see it as the beautiful place that it is, that I wish I could see it as.  I simply can’t.

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