We all have our biases — but just because bias is a universal part of the human experience doesn’t mean it is something we should ever dismiss offhandedly, either in ourselves or others. That’s because bias has serious consequences, and when left unchecked, it can turn into bullying. A 2012 study of California middle and high school students published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 75 percent of all bullying originated from some type of bias against a person’s race, sexual orientation, religion, disability or other personal characteristic.
People often talk about bullying in general terms. But as Annaleise Singh, a professor of counseling and associate dean for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Georgia, points out, “If you look more closely at ‘general bullying,’ what you’ll see is a lot of bias-based bullying.”
SeriaShia Chatters-Smith, an assistant professor of counselor education and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling in schools and communities program at the Pennsylvania State University, defines bias-based bullying as bullying that is specifically based on an individual’s identifying characteristics, such as race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or weight. For example, adolescents might create Snapchat stories that attack someone on the basis of their race, weight or sexual orientation, and parents or teachers might treat children differently on the basis of their skin color, notes Chatters-Smith, an ACA member who presented on “Bullying Among Diverse Populations” at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Research indicates that individuals of color, particularly black and Hispanic men, are more likely to be identified as being aggressive, she adds.
In her research on transgender people, Singh, who co-founded the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition and founded the Trans Resilience Project, has found that bias-based bullying can be based on appearance, gender expression or gender identity, and it can range from name-calling to physical and sexual harassment and assault.
A four-letter word
When people start talking about someone having a bias, those four letters typically trigger a negative reaction and shut down conversation, which isn’t productive. Thus, Chatters-Smith argues that helping people understand that everyone has biases is crucial to addressing bias-based bullying.
However, this task can be difficult because people often resist closely exploring their own prejudices. Counselors should help clients realize that just because everyone has biases doesn’t mean they are excused from recognizing and addressing their own, Chatters-Smith argues.
Because bias is often an emotionally charged topic, Chatters-Smith finds it helpful to start with a nonthreatening example. After pointing out bias, she asks clients when they first identified something as their favorite color. Most people can’t remember when this color preference started because they were young, Chatters-Smith says. She explains how after someone establishes a color preference, the brain starts to sort things by that color.
“When you see something that is your favorite color, you are more likely to gravitate toward it. You have more positive feelings toward cars that are your favorite color. … And sometimes a car may not be the best-looking car, but because it’s our favorite color, we gravitate toward it. That is bias,” Chatters-Smith explains.
Bias is a kind of sorting process that our brain goes through, she continues. “The experiences that we have with individuals can then cause us to have specific attitudes toward someone, and when we see them, we prejudge that they are going to act or be a certain way because of those experiences. … We do an automatic sort.”
Counselors are not immune to bias either. For example, a counselor might assume that a black male client who is unemployed did something to cause his unemployment, Chatters-Smith says. If this happens, the counselor needs to take a step back and ask why he or she is entertaining that assumption, she continues.
These internalized biases can also have a direct effect on students. For example, Singh says, LGBTQ students will not feel safe reporting bias-based bullying by their peers when they hear educators or school counselors expressing anti-queer or anti-trans views. Educators can also hold bias against students in special education, which may limit the opportunities those students have to learn, she adds.
Singh, an American Counseling Association member and licensed professional clinical counselor in Georgia, finds cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helpful because challenging irrational thoughts is at the heart of addressing bias-based bullying. Thus, counselors need to ask clients and themselves some CBT-related questions: Where did you learn this thought? What research supports this idea?
Counselors “have to become strong advocates in order to interrupt those beliefs systems because the person enacting them — whether or not they’re conscious [of it] — isn’t going to stop until there’s an advocacy intervention,” Singh says.
After making clients (or educators) aware of bias, counselors can work with them to figure out times that they might have sorted a person into a category before getting to know that person and then brainstorm ways to manage that differently in the future.
Counselors can also benefit from bias-based bullying training. In working with Stand for State, a bystander intervention program at Penn State, Chatters-Smith found that certain questions or situations related to bias would cause the counselors participating in the bias-based education to pause or stumble. “A person who is not educated to know [how to respond] can get really thrown off guard,” she says.
Chatters-Smith knows from experience. Once in a workshop, she mentioned how saying that all Jewish people are good with money is an example of a racially charged joke. One of the participants responded, “But all Jewish people are good with money.”
Chatters-Smith questioned this statement by asking, “Really? All Jewish people? Where does this stereotype come from? Is this a racially based stereotype that is meant in a negative way?”
“One of the most damaging things that can happen in [a] workshop is if a bias educator is perpetuating bias,” Chatters-Smith contends. This experience helped her realize that the trainers themselves needed training to be effective at bias and discrimination education. She is currently developing workshops and a workbook that will allow counselors to practice answering questions and go through specific scenarios related to bias-based bullying to help them gain confidence and knowledge in handling these challenging situations.
A counselor’s role is to interrupt the systems of bias-based bullying, Singh argues. This process starts with the intake assessment, which should clearly define what bias-based bullying is and provide examples, she continues.
Counselors need to ask upfront questions about bias and harassment in counseling to let clients know that these issues exist and that they affect mental health, Chatters-Smith says. The best way to know if it is happening is to ask, she adds.
Of course, when assessing clients, counselors can also be alert to signs that bias-based bullying may be occurring. Anxiety or fear of being bullied may cause younger children to wet their beds at certain times of the year (right before school starts, for example) or to avoid public bathrooms, Chatters-Smith notes. She advises school counselors to pay close attention to the dynamics between students in the cafeteria. “A child can be sitting at a table full of kids because they don’t want to sit alone, but no one is interacting with them. No one is talking to them. They’re purposely being excluded,” she says.
Singh and Chatters-Smith also urge counselors to watch for signs of depression or anxiety, client withdrawal, client complaints that are not tied to anything specific, chronic tardiness, or changes in client behavior such as nervousness, avoiding school or sessions, or missing certain classes.
Counselors should exercise the same level of vigilance with young adult and adult clients. Chatters-Smith finds that counselors often fail to factor in the isolation, feeling of being ostracized and lack of belonging that some minority college students experience at predominantly white institutions. Counselors “know all of [these factors] impact mental health from [the] K-12 research of bullying but seem to forget about it when people graduate from high school,” she argues.
In addition, counselors often “do not factor in the cultural pieces of experiencing bias-based bullying at work. It manifests itself differently,” Chatters-Smith says. For example, individuals may go on short-term or long-term disability, or bullying may result in harassment claims or absenteeism from work. In certain instances, clients may not be able to put a finger on the core issue causing them not to enjoy the workplace, or they find that for some unknown reason, they can’t please a co-worker or employer, she says.
Sometimes, clients don’t even recognize that bias-based bullying could be an issue until the counselor brings it up, Chatters-Smith adds. Thus, she advises counselors to ask questions such as “Have you experienced any prejudice or discrimination at work?” or “Do you have increased anxiety around yearly evaluations for work?”
“In any organization that has built-in hierarchies, bullying [is likely] to occur,” Chatters-Smith says. For example, in the military, transgender individuals still face discrimination, and often discrimination is based on race or socioeconomic status, such as enlisted individuals versus officers who require a college education and receive more money and leadership positions, she explains.
When people are introduced to the concept of bias-based bullying, they often assume that it involves someone from a dominant group bullying someone from an oppressed group. “When you think about bias-based bullying, typically people are going to gravitate toward majority [versus] minority … but at the same time, it can happen within group,” points out Cassandra Storlie, an assistant professor of counselor education and supervision at Kent State University. She cautions counselors not to overlook the possibility of intracultural bullying because it does happen. For example, a Latino child may bully another Latino child because that child doesn’t speak Spanish, or an individual may bully someone else of the same ethnicity because that person’s skin color is judged to be “too dark” or “too light.”
Just because someone is oppressed does not mean that they can’t be oppressing others, Chatters-Smith emphasizes. “For centuries … African Americans have bullied each other based on darker complexion versus lighter complexion, and the same thing happens in Latino and Hispanic groups as well,” she says. “What makes it identity based and bias based is because there are biases that come along with the perspectives of individuals who are of darker skin. Even though it’s within a specific racial category, the bias is still there, and then the individual still has the psychological impact because they’re being bullied just for who they are.”
In addition, although people of color have a higher likelihood of being bullied in predominantly white settings, bias-based bullying can still occur when they are in settings with higher diversity, Chatters-Smith notes. The bias may just take another form and be based on characteristics other than race, such as sexual orientation, she explains.
Within transgender communities, someone who is more binary identified and operates with certain gender stereotypes may discriminate against another transgender person for not looking enough like a woman or a man, says Singh, a past president of both the Southern Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling. Within-group bullying is particularly painful to the individuals who experience it because the group is supposed to be their source of support and belonging, she says.
Singh also points out that bias-based bullying can be targeted at anyone based on how he or she is perceived. “If they’re perceived to step out of a gender or sexual orientation box, even if they don’t have that identity, they may experience [bias-based bullying].” In fact, Singh says, a substantial amount of anti-queer and anti-trans bullying is actually experienced by cisgender and straight people.
Creating a positive, safe environment
“Ethnic identities are strong protective factors,” says Storlie, president-elect of the North Central Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. She encourages counselors to find ways to celebrate cultures and differences. If counselors are practicing in a school district or community that isn’t taking preventative measures against bias-based bullying and being inclusive and advocating for all students, then they need to take initiative and educate those communities, Storlie says.
One approach that Storlie, an ACA member and a licensed professional counselor with supervisory designation in Ohio, suggests is to mention how diverse populations are increasing. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of white students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools decreased to less than 50 percent in 2014, while minority students (black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native and those of two or more races) made up at least 75 percent of the total enrollment in approximately 30 percent of these schools.
Storlie works with a school district that has Ohio’s second-highest number of students who speak English as a second language. Roughly 50 percent of the student body is Latino — up from approximately 2 percent only two decades ago.
When Storlie first walked into the school district, she couldn’t find any Spanish on the walls of the schools or in school materials, but since she started working with the educators and teachers, all of the school district’s documents are translated. “If you’re handing this information out to students … you’ve got to make sure it’s in the right language,” she argues.
Schools are in transition now because of increased diversity, Storlie notes. “It’s happening across the country where teachers don’t look like the kids that they’re teaching anymore, and they have stereotypes that can be pervasive,” she observes. Thus, counselors need to work with educators and communities to ensure that they are being inclusive.
Storlie advises counselors to facilitate events such as English classes for parents whose first language is not English to improve communication between teachers and parents, and workshops to educate parents, school personnel and the community on bias-based bullying. Counselors might also provide workshops for school personnel on multicultural competency, she says.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program is one helpful resource, Chatters-Smith says. The program provides training and resources such as recommended books, lesson plans and videos to school educators to help them create inclusive, supportive school environments and aid them in preventing bias-based bullying.
Building strong relationships
Storlie has found that teachers and school personnel who instill hope in their students — regardless of any identifying characteristic — have the best outcomes. These students often have higher levels of school engagement, demonstrate greater resilience and enjoy more academic success.
The therapeutic relationship can play a central role in instilling hope and achieving these positive outcomes, Storlie argues. For that reason, she adds, counselors shouldn’t become so focused on theories and techniques that they forget what it means to foster a good relationship with their clients. Among individuals who have been oppressed or marginalized, there is often an “us versus them” attitude, so the challenge for counselors is finding a way to reconnect and develop the relationship, Storlie says.
Trust is one key component of building a strong relationship with clients. However, Chatters-Smith has found that adults don’t always trust children’s reports of bias and discrimination. In her private practice, Chatters-Smith often works with children of color who report that no one believes them when they complain about bias-based bullying. Over time, this disbelief can result in their silence. Thus, she emphasizes, it is crucial that counselors believe children when they report having experienced bias-based bullying and discrimination.
In addition, Storlie stresses the importance of taking a team approach to bias-based bullying. “You can’t do it solo. … You really have to have the team approach because that’s how change happens,” she says. This is especially true for school counselors confronted with high student-to-counselor ratios, she adds.
When school counselors notice bias-based bullying in their schools, they should connect with other leaders in the school district and position themselves as a part of the leadership team, Storlie advises. Then, in this leadership position, counselors can educate school personnel on warning signs and interventions for bias-based bullying, thereby creating a team approach to intervening, she explains.
School counselors should also strive to work with families to address bias-based bullying. Because family members’ work schedules may not coincide with school system hours, counselors might have to get creative to find ways to reach families, Storlie continues. “School counselors who stay in their offices are not going to be able to reach families the same way that … [counselors] doing outreach with families would,” she adds.
In Storlie’s work with undocumented Latino youth, she found that the school counselors who were present, who made a point of getting out of their offices and who were visible to parents — for example, showing up at basketball games after school hours — enjoyed the most effective relationships with families and students. Their students were also more receptive to looking ahead and thinking about their future careers, she adds.
“What hurts [children] typically is not specifically the bullying itself. What hurts them is the other children around who stand and watch it happen,” Chatters-Smith asserts. The inaction and silence of bystanders causes people who are bullied to feel depressed and isolated, and it feeds into dysfunctional thinking that they are not good enough and no one cares about them, she adds.
In workshops, Chatters-Smith uses an active witnessing program to train people how to respond to discrimination and bias. Because bias-based bullying is often verbal, onlookers can state that they disagree with what is being said and question the validity of the biased comment, she elaborates. Bystanders can also support the person being bullied by telling them they are not alone or calling for help, she says.
Bystanders can also help people who commit the offense to self-reflect by asking them to repeat what they said and letting them know that it was hurtful, Chatters-Smith continues. If a bystander doesn’t feel safe to intervene at the time of the incident, they can later call a manager (if the bullying incident happened in an establishment or organization) or notify someone about what they witnessed, she advises.
Chatters-Smith has also used ABC’s What Would You Do? — a hidden-camera TV program that acts out scenes of conflict to see if bystanders intervene — in her workshops. She plays the scenarios from the show but not the bystanders’ reactions. Instead, she has workshop participants use the skills they have learned in the workshop to see how they would respond.
The more aware counselors become of bias, prejudice and discrimination in their day-to-day lives, the more it will affect them in their work with clients, Chatters-Smith says. “Practice is what helps us move forward as individuals,” she explains. “When you are at the store, when you are eating in a restaurant, when you are in the mall, when you see these things happening, if you feel [like you] know what to do, you’ll become more aware of what it is and you’ll feel more confident at not only being able to intervene and be empowered in your everyday life but also being able to talk to your clients about their experiences.”
Storlie and Singh both tout training student leaders as an effective approach to preventing bias-based bullying. Often, students — not counselors — are the ones who hear about or witness these instances of bullying. So, counselors can work with these student leader groups to teach them how to intervene, Storlie says.
Another way to create a team approach to bias-based bullying intervention is through the use of popular opinion leaders, Singh says. With this approach, school counselors and teachers nominate student leaders who represent different groups in the school (à la The Breakfast Club). With the counselor’s guidance, these students discuss bias-based bullying, what they’ve noticed and how they might be able to change it. Then, after learning bias-based bullying interventions, the popular opinion leaders try them out and report on which ones worked and which ones didn’t, Singh explains.
An ongoing issue
Singh warns of the danger of minimalizing bias-based bullying — such as saying that people “don’t mean it” — because it sends a message that it is OK to have bias. Comments that dismiss bias-based bullying “can really add up over time in the form of microaggressions for transgender people,” she argues. “But, more importantly, [these comments create] a hostile environment in society, and that hostile environment in society can set transgender people up for experiencing violence.”
“When children grow up in an environment where they are taught implicit and explicit messages about whose identities matter and whose don’t, and then there’s power attached to that, then you’re going to see those negative health outcomes,” Singh argues. “And they’re not just negative health outcomes and disparities. They’re verbal, physical and sexual harassment that play out across people’s bodies and communities. Those microaggressions add up to macroaggressions on a larger scale.”
Apologizing isn’t the answer either. Often, people who bully, commit a microaggression or say something prejudiced will apologize by saying that they didn’t intend it that way, Chatters-Smith says. “It’s not intent that matters. It’s impact. … Whether or not you intended it, it doesn’t matter. It hurt the person.”
One possible solution is to start bias education at a young age so that over the life span, people are more aware of bias-based bullying and discrimination, Singh says. Counselors can challenge the internalized stereotypes that people learn in society about themselves and others and counter those biased messages with real-life experiences and compassion, she adds.
Education and awareness are key because bias-based bullying is an ongoing issue. “[Bias] is not going to go away. … People are going to find a way to treat each other differently. I think that what will change is more and more people not accepting it,” Chatters-Smith says.
This past spring, social media revealed another case of discrimination when two black men who were waiting for a friend were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia on suspicion of trespassing. The incident might have received little notice except that a white woman posted a video of the arrest on Twitter and challenged the injustice, which prompted protests. Starbucks responded by apologizing and announcing that it would close thousands of stores for an afternoon to conduct racial bias training in May.
Even though this injustice never should have occurred, the public outcry sent a message that these two men were not alone and that bias is not acceptable, Chatters-Smith says. “The intervention is what’s going to change [things],” she says. “If we have more eyes on it, hopefully we can reduce the impact and reduce the duration and the longevity of the impact of these instances.”
Chatters-Smith, Singh and Storlie all agree that counselors have an important role to play in educating people about bias and building strong partnerships between educators, parents, students and communities. “[Counselors] are in the business of helping people challenge inaccurate, internalized thoughts,” Singh points out. “Counselors have to challenge those thoughts and help rebuild beliefs systems that include the value of a wide variety of social identities.”
Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.
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