Special Editorial.

See no Race, See no Gay: What Proponents of a Gay-Blind Approach to Bullying in the Schools can Learn from Race Relations

Today’s Special Editorial was co-written with Kira Hudson Banks PhD, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University. This article also appeared on Race Matters, Dr. Banks’s blog on race and race relations published by Psychology Today.

Pssst…… Refusing to acknowledge differences won’t make them go away.

Over the past few weeks, we have been inundated with stories of bullied and shamed young people taking their own lives due to the hostile environment of socially sanctioned hate.

Just this September three teens committed suicide after experiencing severe bullying: 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Indiana, 13-year old Asher Brown of Texas, and 13-year-old of California. All three teens were self-identified as, or perceived by their classmates to be, gay. Also in September Tyler Clementi, an 18-year -old freshman at Rutgers University, committed suicide after his roommate video taped him having an encounter with another boy and streamed the video over the internet to other students, and 19-year-old Zach Harrington committed suicide after attending a homophobia-filled City Council meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, where his neighbors opposed the designation of October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered History Month.

However, despite the recent media attention to this issue, the bullying of gay teens and the resulting high rates of suicide among them, have been major problems for years. This led Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-PA) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) to introduce the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), which would require schools receiving federal funding to implement policies to explicitly prohibit bullying on the basis of the “student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion”.

The SSIA received strong opposition from religious organizations who objected to the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected target group. For example, the lobbying organization Focus on the Family argued that this bill would “open the door to teaching about homosexuality as early as kindergarten. And it would lay the foundation for codifying sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes,” which they oppose.

The opposition to the SSIA appears to be at least partially based on the premise that the SSIA should not include any protected categories, since such inclusion would discriminate against those who are not members of the protected classes. Essentially, they promoted limited mention of the factors that were the basis of the bullying. The notion that being color-, race-, gender-, or gay-blind would better combat the underlying causes of discrimination rather than explicitly calling out the root issue is highly reminiscent of the arguments presented by conservative organizations when opposing efforts to combat racial discrimination.

Although on the surface this call for blanket anti-bullying campaigns, essentially a gay-blind approach to combating discrimination, might seem sensible, research suggests that ignoring the underlying characteristics that places someone at risk for discrimination can actually can make the problem worse. A clear example of this fallacy comes from the idea that being “colorblind” at the personal and institutional level can help eliminate racism. Research suggests that this idea is wrong. Being colorblind is actually quite problematic and does not meet the results it claims to seek.

The colorblind approach aims to combat racism by simply declaring not to see race. The rationale is that if we are colorblind and minimize rather than attend to our differences, then racism will go away. If only it were that simple.

It does not improve our ability to navigate and ameliorate race relations to refuse to address race. In fact, the scientific research on racial attitudes and prejudice is unequivocal: the colorblind approach to combating racism is ineffective and makes the problem worse. For example, a recent study empirically demonstrated how the colorblind approach falls short. Sixty 8-11 year old students were asked to help their teacher review a storybook. One book took a valuing diversity approach (“We want to show everyone that race is important because our racial differences make each of us special”) while the other took a colorblind approach (“We want to show everyone that race is not important and that we’re all the same”). All students then listened to stories that described interactions with different levels of racial bias, including 1) no bias, 2) ambiguous, and 3) explicit bias. Researchers found that students who were taught from the colorblind perspective were less able to identify the racial discrimination and recalled the story in a way that minimized the likelihood of adult intervention. The authors conclude that, “the possibility that well-intentioned efforts to promote egalitarianism via color blindness sometimes promote precisely the opposite outcome, permitting even explicit forms of racial discrimination to go undetected and unaddressed. In doing so, color blindness may create the false impression of an encouraging decline in racial bias, a conclusion likely to reinforce its further practice and support.”

Similarly, it does not behoove us to create bullying programs and not specifically name the ways specific groups are targeted. We miss the opportunity to be effective by failing to name the elephant in the room. It is possible, that like with colorblind rhetoric, gayblind anti-bullying campaigns might reinforce and permit problematic dynamics.

Sometimes it takes seeking information and listening to experiences of people who are targeted for us to begin to understand how urgent the need is for tailored interventions. It is false and disingenuous as a member of a privileged group to paint attention towards discrimination and mistreatment of a targeted group as unwarranted or even worse reverse discrimination. In my own (Dr. Banks) work with White first year college students, I have seen significant decreases in their colorblind racial attitudes as a results of intensive sessions that increase knowledge and awareness of societal and personal issues of race. As flawed as it may be, perhaps the “It Gets Better Campaign” will have a similar affect through opening people up to the experiences different from their own. Yet one of the major criticisms of the series, is that in a way it paints bullying as inevitable. Some of the stories make it sound as if bullying is a rite of passage in high school and often condone the perpetrators as simply being victims of their cultural contexts..

Bullying is not a rite of passage. Some may disregard the recent suicides as anomalies. Yet, research indicates that bullying leads to many long term consequences. Bullying is also preventable. Some have opposed anti-bullying efforts on the premise the bullying programs don’t work. However, whole-school interventions, those that go beyond making simple changes to the curriculum to address the entire school culture, are highly effective and should be the model all schools should follow. Yet, decades of research on race and racism teach us that adopting a gayblind approach to this problem is not only unwarranted, but it may make the problem worse.

*Special thanks to my guest co-author:

Kira Hudson Banks PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University. She conducts research on race, discrimination and intergroup interactions and consults businesses on diversity and inclusion initiatives. kirabanks@gmail.com

Sourander, A., Ronning, J., Brunstein-Klomek, A., Gyllenberg, D., Kumpulainen, K., Niemela, S., Helenius, H., Sillanmaki, L., Ristkari, T., Tamminen, T., Moilanen, I., Piha, J., & Almqvist, F. (2009). Childhood Bullying Behavior and Later Psychiatric Hospital and Psychopharmacologic Treatment: Findings From the Finnish 1981 Birth Cohort Study Archives of General Psychiatry, 66 (9), 1005-1012 DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.122

Vreeman, R., & Carroll, A. (2007). A Systematic Review of School-Based Interventions to Prevent Bullying Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161 (1), 78-88 DOI: 10.1001/archpedi.161.1.78ResearchBlogging.org

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3 Responses to See no Race, See no Gay: Why a Gay-Blind Approach to Bullying in the Schools Won’t Work

  1. Robinson Monteiro says:

    The bullying problem is real and should make us all very sad and shameful, since no one, specially in early ages, should be targeted by discrimination of any kind.
    But, the rationale has a problem: race points to a natural condition and a subjective perception (I am black because my colour is black, I feel black and the others see me as a black).
    In the case of sexual option, how can I explain it to children that I can be male and feel as I was female? Am I able to say that someone was born gay? Does it have scientific basis?
    If sexual option is not a case of genetics, isnt it going to be exactly what Focus on the Family argues: “teaching about homosexuality as early as kindergarten. And it would lay the foundation for codifying sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes”?

    • Robinson, there is no such a thing as a “sexual option”. Yes, the science indicating the homosexuality is not an option is extensive and compelling. The argument that homosexuality is an option was debunked scientifically years ago, but it remains the rhetoric of the religious right because it provides a nice foundation to condone discrimination and hate against those who “choose” to be that way.

  2. Kira says:

    I would add that the rationale holds even if you believe sexual orientation is a choice. The reason is that the argument we attempt to lay out addresses the response to discrimination (regardless of the root). Our perspective is that regardless of whether it is something the person _is_, _chooses_, or is simply perceived to have chosen, it is inappropriate to ignore that aspect of identity in our response. Research has shown that being blind to the identity group does not help. It is not an effective approach. So whether we are talking about discriminating against someone who is physically disabled or chooses to have body piercings and tattoos, the response is more effective if we name the group that is being targeted. So we should name the fact that it’s not appropriate to make fun of someone who is in a wheelchair similar to how we should name the fact that it is not appropriate to treat someone as inferior because they choose to pierce or tattoo. That perspective does not preclude you from have opinions about how people should pierce or paint their skin, or what role you feel they played in their physical status. What we are arguing is that to effectively deal with discrimination, we have to be willing to name it.

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