Dealing with racism in schools

By Yvonne Lim Wilson

Mark Singh,* 12, had been dealing with name calling at school: “Buddha,” “Ghandi,” and had been told “go back to Al Qaeda.” After one particularly bad harassment after school, his mother Amala* reported it to school authorities.

The assistant principal asked Mark to stay after school to identify the harassers. Every day for four weeks Mark stayed late but was unable to find the students.

One day, as Mark was waiting for his ride home, an eighth grader, who was not one of the original harassers, came up saying, “You stupid Indian, I’ll f— your face!,” and nudged Mark three times. Mark pushed back and the eighth grader punched Mark in the face, injuring his jaw.

Amala immediately called the school and police and filed criminal charges against the bully. The boy was suspended.

Amala contends that the incident should not have happened in the first place. School officials should have had more safeguards in place, with enough adult supervision after school, especially with the previous harassment Mark experienced.

“I’m very disappointed it escalated to this,” she said. “I have taken extreme notice of what’s been happening. I don’t see any supervision. These are minors. Parents are dropping them off with the hope of getting them educated and there is all this nonsense taking place.”

It’s up to the adults

The Singh family has had to deal with racism regularly since they moved into their predominantly Caucasian suburb outside of Austin. Mark’s brother was openly called a “sand nigger” by a neighbor and also dealt with racial bullying at school.

“I don’t blame the child [bully] at that age,” Amala said. “It’s coming from home.”

Irwin Tang, an Austin-based licensed professional counselor, has worked with students on bullying issues and is also an outspoken advocate against racist acts and speech.

“Children need to know that bullying is not about them. Bullying is about the need of the bully to feel good about themselves,” Tang said. “The worst repercussion is that victims of bullying learn to devalue themselves or to be ashamed of certain aspects of themselves. Kids need to have a discussion about the traits that they are essentially born with.”

Adults have a responsibility to create a safe environment for kids since children live in a world controlled by adults, Tang said. School officials must be more watchful and proactive, and could implement awareness programs about bullying.

“It’s really important for the network of adults who surround this child in his everyday life to really be adamant about responding. A half-hearted response would be worse than no response because of possible retaliation,” Tang said.

Tang urges parents to establish a good rapport with their children, so that communication will remain open. Professional counseling is another avenue to provides a space for children to talk openly.

Mark is one of the lucky ones. With strong family support and open communication, his mother said that he has not let the incidents get to him. Amala and Mark wanted to share their story to help other families who may be struggling with the same issues.

“He has other friends, and I don’t know if they are going to tell their parents about it because families raise their kids differently and they are not as open. I wonder how many kids are in this situation but are afraid to talk about it,” Amala said.

Navigating racist environments

Racism is an especially difficult thing to explain to children since it has nothing to do with what the child has done or his or her personality. Children pick up racist ideas not only from parents, relatives and friends, but also from the media.

“It’s considered very racist to use the N-word, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made,” Tang said. “They watch these movies with good guys and bad guys; us versus them. There are a lot of foreign villains, especially Asian villains, in the movies.”

One sensitive topic hardly mentioned is the bullying that happens among people of color. Tang had recently broached the topic at a African American conference, which was quite controversial, but was described by one organizer as the most important discussion.

“There’s a lot of bullying that happens with blacks and hispanics against Asians, but to bring that topic up can be very, very insensitive. We’re talking about people who have suffered a great deal monetarily and historically,” he said.

At the same time, Tang cautioned that Asians need to be aware of their image in the African American view.

“For example, Asians dominate the market in selling wigs, weaves and black hair products. There’s a lot of resentment, especially when the Asian store owners are rude or lacking in courtesy,” he said. “There are a lot of Asians running businesses in big cities, what people of color think about Asians is almost more important than what white people may think.”

Tang said that in Texas, which has a “boys will be boys” attitude and a history of Jim Crow segregation, we need to work hard to overcome racial violence.

In the end, it’s all about understanding cultural differences and learning to work with those differences with respect, for members of any race or culture.

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.

What to do if your child is being bullied

Children who have been bullied have no good options. If they fight back, they could get hurt or ganged up on. If they walk away, the child could be considered weak or risk being chased down. The safest thing to do is to tell an adult or authority figure or wait until the bully is gone to tell parents.

  • School authorities need to be watchful and proactive to prevent bullying.
  • Awareness programs for children to talk about how bullying is wrong can be helpful.
  • Parents should address the child’s environment to help the child himself.
  • Once it’s happened, the child can seek counseling to allow the child to express his or her feelings and know someone is there to listen to them.

Information provided Irwin Tang, licensed professional counselor. For more information, visit

Originally published August 2011

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