Stereotypes Simplified- Taking Communication, Bullies, and Bullying Down A Peg

October 10th, 2011 | Categories: Stereotypes in General

Yesterday, Anderson Cooper aired his AC360 Town Hall: “Bullying: It Stops Here.” Although I appreciate Cooper’s sensitive, in depth, empathetic approach, and look forward to his week long series on the topic, today’s blog provides a more pragmatic approach to stopping bullies. As the new academic years gets underway, teachers and other school administrators in authority positions can learn to combat bullying by understanding how stereotypes are a tool for bullies, what stereotypes are, and how they are formed. In this way, teachers and administrators can be proactive to minimize their effects in the classroom and even prevent their use.

Teachers and administrators struggle to deal with bullying every day in their schools. Students who talk, look, and dress differently than their peers are often the targets of bullies, who use these differences to demean. Bullies target those who have different skin color, clothes, body shape, sexual orientation, and speak different languages from what the bully perceives as the norm. Bullies use physical and verbal assaults both online and in person in order to berate those who are different. One of the most powerful tools bullies use to target victims, especially in the early stages of their attacks, is the stereotype. Stereotypes are used when a bully associates a group with specific characteristics. Stereotypes can include the more seemingly innocuous ones like people with glasses have four eyes to the more blatantly problematic ones about weight, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Bullies use these stereotypes to mock targets they perceive as representative of these groups.

By categorizing their targets in this way, bullies are able to view themselves more highly because they seem powerful compared to those students they target. Social Identity Theory explains why. Although the bully feels better as a result of bullying, the consequences of bullying for the victim can be severe. These consequences include poor performance in school, anti-social behavior, depression, violence, and suicide. Stereotypes impact self esteem and can cause serious damage to how students view themselves. For the bully, stereotypes are a tool to wield power over other students so that the bully can feel in control of their identity.

Bullies, and all the rest of us, learn stereotypes from the media and from the ways friends, family, and those in religious, political, and educational institutions communicate. For example, stereotypes are inherent in the rhetoric used in news coverage of issues like same-sex marriage rights and the community center and mosque near Ground Zero. These stereotypes are not only on the cover of Newsweek. These stereotypes are heard at the dinner table and the water cooler. These exchanges are witnessed, internalized, and later mimicked by bullies who then have these tools at their disposal.

Oftentimes students don’t know how to respond or engage in debate on controversial issues. Moreover, the lessons they learn at home include the adage that if they don’t have anything nice to say they should not say anything at all so students may remain silent when stereotypes are communicated despite their heated emotions. Even more often, students may simply want to avoid an uncomfortable situation in which someone has said something mean and they don’t know what to do. Unfortunately, the bully can interpret silence by the victim as confirmation of the truth of the stereotype and feel empowered to continue bullying. Similarly, bystanders, usually other students, who are equally uncertain of how to handle the situation, can be viewed by the bully as supporting or even encouraging bullying behavior.

Anti-bullying campaigns are beginning to recognize the power inherent in speaking up against stereotyping when it happens. The Cartoon Network ran a campaign titled “STOP BULLYING: SPEAK UP.” This campaign uses tools outside the typical anti-bullying toolbox by empowering bystanders who witness bullying behavior or its consequences to speak up. Communication, it seems then, is key to stopping bullying behavior. Even without the aid of major anti-bullying campaigns, teachers and administrators can encourage diversity and inclusion by changing communication dynamics.

First, school officials and teachers would benefit from understanding how bullies categorize other students as part of ingroups, or those groups to which the bully belongs, and outgroups, those groups to which the bully does not belong. Teachers and administrators can benefit from becoming familiarize with the minimal group paradigm. Put simply, research has shown that randomly assigning people into competitive groups (Team A and Team B or the Red Team and the Blue Team) is enough motivation for people to shift the perception of their ingroups and outgroups. Those in authority positions, especially teachers, can benefit from appreciating how ingroups and outgroups can shift simply by manipulating contexts so that students gain benefits from aligning with students who might otherwise have been perceived as part of their outgroup.

Second, school officials and teachers would benefit from critically the messages they are sending about stereotypes when they discourage their use by bullies. Anti-bullying tactics that discuss that a stereotype is mean or that diversity should be appreciated can backfire. By saying stereotypes are mean, authority figures are essentially telling bullies that they have picked the right tool for the job. If they want to be mean, bullies should use stereotypes. By discussing the value of diversity, authority figures promote differences as legitimate ways to categorize people and inadvertently identify and call attention to the ways that groups can be categorized. These categorizations become tools for the bully to use via stereotypes. Moreover, when teachers acknowledge that some people believe stereotypes are true or that stereotypes can be true in some cases, they make the question of whether stereotypes are accurate and whether they are good or bad a matter of opinion. This tactic allows bullies to have their opinion and empowers them to communicate stereotypes. An alternate technique for combating stereotype use by bullies is for authority figures to point out how stereotypes are nonsensical. Questioning the premise of a stereotype- rather than questioning whether it is accurate or whether it is right or wrong- places the bully in a position to explain and defend. In this way, authority figures communicate to students that stereotypes are not a valid method of communicating because they simply don’t make sense. An administrator or teacher who hears a stereotype might say one of the following responses:

“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I don’t understand what you are trying to say.”
“That doesn’t make sense to say.”
“I don’t know why you would think that.”
“I haven’t heard that before.”

Such statements remove the power of the stereotype at its root and arm students- by modeling this disarming behavior- with strategies for handling their own and others’ bullying situations.

I recall a case in which a bully stereotyped a student because of her nationality. When the bully tried to pronounce her last name she fumbled over it and added “or whatever your name is.” Seizing the moment, the bully’s target said, “You don’t even know me well enough to say my name, how could you dislike me so much?” The puzzled look on the bully’s face was priceless. The response made sense to the bully at a basic level. It questioned the premise of the stereotype by questioning how a person could view another negatively when they don’t know that person well enough to pronounce their name correctly. The response also redefined group boundaries suggesting that the person didn’t even know the target well enough for that person to be an outgroup member. These boundaries were further redefined when the target said “bye” cordially as the bully walked away. The bullying stopped.

Before bullies communicate stereotypes, administrators and teachers can manipulate contexts to redefine group membership in meaningful ways. In doing so they loosen the soil in which stereotypes are rooted. After bullies communicate stereotypes, administrators and teachers can wield their incredulity as a tool to fight bullying. In doing so, they stunt the growth of stereotypes by making them stereotype smaller, less meaningful, and less important. Through these tactics, bullies lose their most valuable weapon.

** Special thanks to Bill Johnson of Halstead Communications for his invaluable feedback on an earlier form of this article.

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