How to deal with racist bullying at school

This article was first published in June 2020.

Alex Holmes is a leading anti-bullying campaigner, Founder of Anti-Bullying Ambassadors and Deputy CEO of The Diana Award. Here, he tells us about how he overcame racist bullying at school and shares his advice for dealing with it if it happens to you or if you see it happening to someone else.

Alex Holmes

I was called racist names at school. It made me feel shy and isolated and it affected my self-esteem. – Alex Holmes

When I was at school I suffered from racism. My dad is black (his family is from Jamaica) and my mum is white (her side of the family is from Spain). I was called racist names at school. It made me feel shy and isolated and it affected my self-esteem.

I decided to do something about it at school, aged 16, using my voice to speak up and speak out. I told people about what was going on and then started a programme called Anti-Bullying Ambassadors so that people like me could learn how to stand up to bullying and stand up for others. There are now more than 35,000 Anti-Bullying Ambassadors in over 4,000 schools in the UK whose job it is to prevent all types of bullying, including racist bullying.

What is racism?

Racism is when someone is treated differently or unfairly because of their colour, culture, ethnicity, nationality or race. When someone does this it is discrimination, which is when someone treats you unfairly or wrongly simply because of who you are. This is against the law and also known as a hate crime.

Sometimes a simple but powerful message can make the person stop and think about what they are doing. – Alex Holmes

What is racist bullying?

Racist bullying is when someone’s actions, words or treatment focus on your colour, culture, ethnicity, nationally or race. This could involve violence, racist names, verbal jokes, graffiti, damaging possessions or being left out or excluded in some way. It is important to remember that racism doesn’t only happen if you are black. It can be because of where you or your family are from or if you or they speak a different language or have a different religion.

What can you do if it's happening to you?

It’s natural to feel upset or angry if someone is being racist towards you. Here are some things you can do:

• Firstly, try not to fight back with harmful words or actions. You can use your facial expression and body language to send a clear message and help the person or people understand and see that you are not happy with their behaviour. If you feel safe to do so, you could be bold and confidently ask the person to stop what they are doing: “I’d like you to stop that now or please don’t be racist”. Sometimes a simple but powerful message can make the person stop and think about what they are doing. But you shouldn’t feel under pressure to confront it if you’re not comfortable or don’t feel safe.

• If the racism is online, you can try to stop the situation from continuing by muting, blocking, reporting and telling a trusted adult (ideally face to face) about what’s going on.

• If the racism is at school, you could tell a teacher, perhaps your form tutor, your head of year or even your head teacher.

• There are lots of good people to tell if it happens outside of school or when you are out and about. Your parent/ guardian is probably one of the best people to tell but you might also feel confident seeking support from a shop keeper, bus driver or member of the local community.

• Don’t suffer in silence and don’t bottle it up. Tell someone about what is happening and together you can solve the problem. If you feel you can’t talk to your parent or guardian or other trusted adult you know about what is going on you could speak to Childline on the phone, by email or online chat. It doesn’t cost anything and it’s confidential.

• If the racism continues, try and remove yourself from the situation or the place it is happening and seek help from an adult you trust. If you or your parent/ guardian thinks the racism is very serious, or if you or someone you know is in danger you should call the police.

• It’s important that you keep yourself safe whilst calling out or confronting racism. Remember that you can choose to remove yourself from the situation and go and seek help. You could tell a trusted adult or friend to ask if they could help or advise you.

Even if you felt that you’ve dealt with what happened to you really well, you should always let someone else know what occurred and how it made you feel so they can support you and help to keep you and others safe.

What can you do if you see it happening to someone else?

It sounds really obvious but don’t join in and don’t encourage the behaviour by laughing or saying nothing, as this could send a signal that you are ok with what is happening.

• If you feel confident and you know the person well, you might feel happy to say something, to challenge it and call it out. Sometimes a simple “that’s not funny” or “don’t do that” or “that’s racist” might send a clear message and help the person realise that you think it is wrong. Sometimes you can initiate a conversation that can help educate people and help them understand they are wrong to think the way they do. None of us is born racist. We learn racist behaviour from our environment, so it is possible to change our attitudes and behaviours and you could help someone do that.

• Again, it’s important that you keep yourself safe whilst calling out or confronting racism. Remove yourself from the situation if you need to and make sure you tell a trusted adult or friend.

• Don’t forget to support the person on the receiving end of the racism. Some words of support, either in person or online via direct message, can be very powerful: “I saw what happened. It’s not ok and I am here if you want to talk. I support you,” could make the world of difference.

In history, peaceful protests have often been one of the most powerful ways to bring about change. Violence doesn’t solve anything. Although it is hard, try to remain calm and respectful when you are challenging racism. Be the bigger person, stay in control and be a positive role model.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the issue of racism to your friends and family. Yes, it’s a sensitive and difficult subject but it is one that we all need to address. – Alex Holmes

What if I think that my family or friends don’t take racism seriously?

Firstly, well done for looking closer to home. Racism isn’t always something that happens far away in the world. Don’t be afraid to talk about the issue of racism to your friends and family. Yes, it’s a sensitive and difficult subject but it is one that we all need to address. Have conversations that educate yourself, educate friends and educate family.

I find one of the strongest ways to go about this is to use what is in the news to spark a discussion: “Mum/ Dad did you see/hear about x”. It can be a great way to start an important conversation and for you all to reflect on the situation. There are loads of great videos to watch online together, programmes to watch or books and articles to read. Share them not only with your family but also on your social media feeds.

Thinking about what you see and read online or hear from your friends is really important. I try and make sure I am friends with and follow lots of different people on and offline (of course keeping privacy in mind and not sharing any personal details). It helps keep my views, opinions and understanding of the world diverse. I would hate to get stuck in a bubble or only hear from certain voices or certain beliefs and opinions.

If you ever hear a racist joke or viewpoint, take a deep breath, think about what you might want to say and, if you feel it is safe to, try and challenge it, gently with another viewpoint or a soft reminder or fact that you know about the situation. Challenging racism is really important but so is your own safety and mental health and it can feel really traumatic so don’t be worried if in the moment you were not able to. You should always let someone else know about what is going on or ask for their support or advice.

What should you do if you feel your school isn't doing enough to stand up to racism?

When I was at school, I didn’t feel they did a good enough job tackling racism and at the start I had to keep on telling people like my teachers about what was going on. I used my voice. I spoke to my headteacher. I even gave myself a job: student anti bullying coordinator.

If you see something is wrong in the world, talking about it helps shine a light on the issue so don’t suffer or let others suffer in silence. Be part of the solution. Some people may not realise what’s going on because it’s not affecting them. Your voice is really powerful and so are your ideas. Put together an email, letter or presentation for your headteacher. I am sure they will want to hear about the part you can play in your school to make it even better and safer for everyone.

The key is to work with others not against them, so be positive and offer your ideas to your school. If you feel the school isn’t listening, take it higher - start with your form tutor or head of year, then headteacher, then governors, then local education authority or your local MP. You and your parent/ guardian may even decide to make a complaint to the police if you don’t feel the school is taking it seriously.

It’s also a great idea to speak to your parent or guardian about their thoughts and their own experience and their ideas.

One of the biggest things I have learnt is that actually the things that made me different, like my race (being dual heritage) was actually a strength in disguise. I just didn’t realise it at the time, and neither did others, but now I’m proud and use my experience and where I came from to help others understand the world more.

If you need support

You should always tell someone about the things you’re worried about. You can tell a friend, parent, guardian, teacher, or another trusted adult. If you're struggling with your mental health, going to your GP can be a good place to start to find help. Your GP can let you know what support is available to you, suggest different types of treatment and offer regular check-ups to see how you’re doing.

If you’re in need of in-the-moment support you can contact Childline, where you can speak to a counsellor. Their lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There are more links to helpful organisations on BBC Action Line.

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