Pink shirts won’t stop bullying – here’s 3 things that will

May 19, 2012 in General

Originally published at

Once upon a time, a 14-year-old boy made the “mistake” of wearing a pink polo shirt on his first day of school at Central Kings Rural High in the small Canadian community of Cambridge, Nova Scotia.

A group of bullies threatened to beat him up and called him gay for wearing pink.

When two older boys in graduation year heard about this, they decided to take action:

“They went to a nearby discount store and bought 50 pink shirts, including tank tops, to wear to school the next day.

Then the two went online to e-mail classmates to get them on board with their anti-bullying cause that they dubbed a “sea of pink.”

But a tsunami of support poured in the next day.

Not only were dozens of students outfitted with the discount tees, but hundreds of students showed up wearing their own pink clothes, some head-to-toe.”

That was 2007.  Since then, Pink Shirt Day has grown into a nationwide anti-bullying day in Canada, and has since spread to New Zealand, where it has been running for the past three years, chiefly organised by queer youth groups.

Unfortunately, something has gone missing in the meantime.  In media coverage this year about Pink Shirt Day, we’ve learnt that bullying is a Bad Thing.  We’ve also been urged to wear Pink Shirts to stop it.  Save for a few stories like this one from Mike King, that’s roughly where the dialogue begins and ends.

Take this report from Tauranga, arguably one of the most homophobic cities in New Zealand, titled “Battle Bullying With A Pink Shirt”:

Tauranga’s Moana Radio Breakfast show host Pat Spellman says bullying is not OK.

“Our Tamariki need to know that. If wearing a pink shirt can create a bit of awareness, sign me up.

This is well-meaning, but by itself does nothing (Spellman also notes that he is involved in a number of other initiatives to combat bullying).

In ancient times, the Aztecs believed that the sun demanded a human sacrifice on a daily basis or it would refuse to rise.  As barbaric as these rituals were, claiming tens of thousands of lives each year, doubtless many individuals participating thought they were contributing to the wellbeing of the community by appeasing the sun god.

Of course, if they’d just waited, they would have seen that the sun rose by itself anyway.  Evidence that a sacrifice was actually necessary was unrequired, and time spent on sacrificing could actually have been spent on better preparing Aztec citizens, their crops and dwellings for actual concerns involving the weather.

Pink Shirt Day is now indistinguishable from any other awareness day in New Zealand, and when the sun goes down this evening, we can happily put our pink shirts in a pile along with our ribbons, daffodils, gerberas, bandanas and various other symbols to nowhere and pat ourselves on the back for having done our bit to make the sun rise tomorrow morning.

Or, we can actually do something.

The key element missing from Pink Shirt Day is what drove the inspiring incident in the first place – meaningful action.

The two students in Cambridge saw that a younger fellow was being bullied and they started a movement of solidarity to ensure that (a) the bullies would be deterred and (b) the student would feel safe and supported.

David Shepherd, one of the two Cambridge students, told the CBC in 2007:

“If you can get more people against them … to show that we’re not going to put up with it and support each other, then they’re not as big as a group as they think they are.”

The pink shirts themselves were irrelevant, but now they have been elevated in the minds of some to the very purpose of the day itself, which is as meaningless as the wearing of a crucifix necklace.  It makes the wearer feel good, but it’s unlikely to make anyone rush to the nearest lake for a self-baptism.

Last year, I was involved with a coalition of queer youth groups and the Mental Health Foundation for a Pink Shirt Day campaign that recognised awareness was no longer enough when it came to bullying.

We already had the evidence.  The Youth07 study of secondary school students found that students attracted to the same sex were, compared to heterosexual students:

  • Three times as likely to be bullied every week at school
  • Had much higher rates of depression and self-harm
  • Had 5 times higher rates of attempted suicide

The campaign was focused around action: letters to the Prime Minister to encourage him to take leadership on the issue.  The result: students (and adults, like myself) felt empowered in recounting their bullying experiences and turning them into something useful.

Queer youth representatives and Winter Olympian Blake Skjellerup, who was the face of last year’s campaign video (produced by myself and my partner in crime Andy Jalfon at Number 8 Films), were invited to meet with the Prime Minister soon after.

In March 2011, the Prime Minister ordered school boards of trustees around the country to review their anti-bullying policies:

“Prime Minister John Key said he expected all boards to meet their principals, who would in turn meet staff and pupils to discuss bullying.

He wanted a “nationwide conversation” on how to reduce bullying. He also expected that Education Review Office audits of schools would reflect schools’ anti-bullying plans.”

Ironically, Key was accused of bullying himself for this move, which was also labelled by some as an empty gesture.

So what are we saying?  That boards should not talk to their principals?  That principals should not talk to staff?  That staff should not talk to students?

Psychologist Frances Steinberg told Fairfax:

“The government modelled one of the most brazen acts of bullying I have witnessed outside of the schoolyard. Prime Minister John Key ordered boards of trustees and principals to be reminded of their responsibilities, threatening to bring the wrath of ERO on them if they do not act appropriately.”

This is ludicrous.  Would any reasonable person consider it bullying if the New Zealand Psychological Society had Ms Steinberg expelled from membership if she failed to meet their code of ethics in dealing with her clients?

Why should we expect less from our schools, whom we entrust with the safety of our children?

Things are not going to change overnight, but we have to continue doing things that will make a change, no matter where we sit on society’s ladder: be it student, teacher, principal, work colleague, manager, or policy-maker.

Here’s three things we can actually do, on an individual level, to make a difference right now:

1. Intervene

Bullying incidents, whether at work or school, occur in broad daylight, not in noirish corridors.  Bystanders are the single largest group that can act to make a difference, and we have all been part of this group at one time or another.

At high school, I once watched as a group of senior kids picked up a Mini driven by one of the younger students and shoved it down a pedestrian walkway so it was impossible for him to get inside or move it without calling a towtruck.  Could I have stopped them?  No.  Could I have told someone?  Maybe, although I would have been afraid of the repercussions of “narking”.  Could I have helped the poor bastard shift his car when he found out about the prank?  Certainly.  Did I do this?  No.

By failing to help, I became part of the problem.

As Mental Health Foundation CEO Judi Clements said in a recent Radio Live interview about suicide prevention:

“Find out what support they need, where they’ve been for help, could you take them for help, make sure that we behave in that caring, concerned, responsible way toward each other…[people] being connected in their family, whanau and communities is what we call protective factors.”

2. Ask for help

If you’re on the receiving end of bullying behaviour, you don’t have to take it.  Your school has legal obligations to ensure your safety, and so does your workplace.  In the latter, there are plenty of case law examples where the Employment Court has ruled in favour of employees where the employer has failed to take concerns seriously or has not acted appropriately.

Don’t let fear be a trade-off for your personal wellbeing thinking you can ride it out.  25-year-old Adam Wagstaff is still recovering from bullying that was endemic in his school experience since he was 5 years old.  He told the NZ Herald:

 ”He can’t bear to walk into a room full of people he doesn’t know, for fear of how they will think of him.

He bought a house on the North Shore to distance himself from Howick, his childhood neighbourhood…

Adam declined to be photographed for fear of reprisals over his sexuality.”

This is still happening in 2012.

Not only are you doing yourself a disservice, but your non-action is allowing the behaviour to continue – and you may not be the only victim.  Indeed, it may be part of a school or workplace culture that needs to be addressed.  Tell someone what’s happening to you, and if they won’t listen, keep going until you find someone that does.

3. Examine your own behaviour

Have you ever called people names, made fun of their appearance, the way they talk or act, even if you thought it was a joke?  Have you deliberately excluded someone from activities at work or school, and not been mindful of whether or not they find out?

Have you ever spread or facilitated the spread of rumours about someone?  Have you ever used physically or verbally violent, threatening or intimidating behaviour toward another individual, and what were the circumstances surrounding it?

Have you criticised a work colleague in front of others?  Have you used someone else’s work and taken credit for it?  Have you placed unreasonable expectations on an employee or colleague without considering the impact?

If we think hard, we are all going to be answering yes to one of these questions.  Think about those situations, how you might have acted differently if placed in that situation again, and have this same conversation with your friends and colleagues.

If you’re answering yes to several, and these things are part of your typical pattern of behaviour, then it’s time to talk to someone about how you’re acting and what you can do to change.

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