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Racial Bullying Shouldn't Be a Fact of Life

Photograph by Twenty20

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I was terrified of the school bus. That No Man's Land between the classroom and home was where I was sure to be called racial slurs and have kids make mock Chinese sounds and pull the corners of their eyes as I walked down the aisle looking for a seat.

It was the 1970s in the Midwest. As an an Asian American girl, racial bullying was just a fact of life. I don't think I ever talked about it with my parents. They would have just told me to ignore them and concentrate on getting good grades.

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I wish I could say race-based bullying is a problem of the past, but unfortunately, that's not the case. My second-grader experienced the eye-pulling taunts, and many of my Asian American mom friends have told me their sons or daughters have been called racial slurs or teased because they look or speak differently. These aren't isolated cases. A recent study reveals that half of Asian American youths in New York City public schools reported racial harassment. And within our community, Sikh, Muslim, Micronesian, LGBT youth and kids with limited English skills are especially at risk.

Kids are still coming to terms with their ethnic or religious identity, and they may resent their parents for the culture or skin color they've inherited from them.

It's hard as a parent to know what to do when our kids are the targets of bullying because of their race, ethnicity or religion, especially if our own parents were immigrants and unsure of how to speak up or even how the American school system works. That's where the White House comes in. This October, for National Bullying Prevention Month, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Americans is launching the Act to Change campaign. With partners at the Sikh Coalition and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), the White House wants to give AAPI youth—along with teachers and parents—tools to address bullying.

Even though I feel like I'm doing the right things by being aware of bullying and being involved in my sons' lives so I know what's going on at school and who they're friends with, I don't want to be the over-reactive Mama Bear. But I don't want to bury my head in the sand and ignore potential problems, either. One of the things I find most confusing is trying to figure out what constitutes bullying, as opposed to kids just being annoying.

The federal government defines bullying as:

"Unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems."

Harjot Kaur, Community Development Manager at the Sikh Coalition, a group that's been at the forefront of fighting racial bullying, gives some examples. Classmates calling an Indian girl called "Rapunzel" for her very long hair might be benign, but names like "Bin Laden" or "curry head" certainly aren't.

And don't assume your kids will tell you if they're being harassed at school. Remember, I never talked to my parents about what was going on. Kaur says that kids are still coming to terms with their ethnic or religious identity, and they may resent their parents for the culture or skin color they've inherited from them. A kid who's being bullied might show signs such as anxiousness, frustration or using their phone more—or less. And if your child does talk to you, take it seriously. "Students go to parents when they feel they need a push to go report it," explains Kaur. "Because the parents will find out anyway."

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Even if you're not Asian, you can help raise awareness of this problem or help make your community welcoming to all kinds of people, such as befriending a parent who isn't familiar with American culture. And whatever your background, there's something we can all do: Speak up. As Kaur told me, "You cannot expect that other people are going to stand up."

Visit the Act to Change website for more information about how you can prevent the bullying of Asian American and Pacific Islander youth.

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