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Bullying and Microaggressions

It's more than physical violence.

Bullying is an issue that has been and will continue to be a problem plaguing our society, and should not be an issue that is only highlighted for a brief time and then forgotten.

Bullying is multifaceted and more nuanced than it is often portrayed in the media. The classic bully is often depicted as someone who is a loner, gruff, low-achieving, has poor social skills, and comes from a highly dysfunctional family. Similarly, bullying behavior is often characterized as violent, physically assaultive, and overtly intimidating. While this may be true of many bullies, it is certainly not true of all bullies. However, I suspect that much of the attention that goes into identifying a bully is based on a profile similar to what I just described.

I don't want to discount the fact that bullies who do fit this characterization are indeed dangerous, can do serious physical and mental harm, and need to be identified. What I want to emphasize is how we can easily overlook the countless bullies who do not fit this profile by limiting our idea of a bully to the more classic portrayal.

When it comes down to it, bullying is about the misuse of a power imbalance that occurs between two or more people. The bully has an element of power that their target does not have (or is not aware they have). Typically, we think about the power of physical strength, and the bully being physically stronger than their target. Again, physical violence should not be taken lightly.

However, there are other elements of power that a bully can use to intimidate, ostracize, and harm another person or group of people. One of the most apparent imbalances of power in our society is found in social identity differences (see my previous entry).

For example, let's take the case of young Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who took his own life a few months ago. Many believe that Tyler took his life in response to other students publically outing him by streaming live footage of Tyler's sexual encounter with another man. This tragedy exemplifies how the misuse of a power imbalance, in this case inherent in sexual orientation differences, can lay the framework for bullying. This same framework can be used to think about power imbalances that occur because of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, ability, religion, or any other social identity status. When we think about a power imbalance that does not only involve physical strength, it significantly changes our mental picture of bullying.

Bullies come in many shapes and sizes. Unlike the classic profile of a bully (a loner, physically intimidating, mean, angry) a bully can also be likeable, humorous, clean-cut, high-achieving, and come from an outwardly appearing functional family. This type of bully has been dubbed a "charismatic bully." This type of bully will not rely on physical force to intimidate their targets, but rather will use subtle manipulation to exert their power over others. A charismatic bully is someone who is likely to be a leader amongst his or her peers. The charismatic bully's charm is likely to mask any hint of anti-social behavior, thus making them difficult to identify. The charismatic bully can be a student leader, athlete, business executive, or even a politician, for example.

What does the concept of microaggression have to do with bullying? Many bullies do not use overt brute strength to overpower their targets, but rather engage in intimidating behaviors that are oftentimes covert and hard to detect. This is especially apparent when we think about adults who bully. Many adult bullies fit the description of the charismatic bully, as opposed to the classic bully. We can easily think of business executives and politicians who have misused their influence and power to manipulate others into following their lead. More than likely they do this through microaggressive behaviors, such as by quieting opposing voices by purposely leaving them out of key discussions. Or, by ensuring that their viewpoints prevail by not mentoring and nurturing the talent of those who come from diverse backgrounds, thus maintaining a mono-cultural organizational climate. These types of microaggressive behaviors help to maintain an imbalanced power structure in the vast majority of American institutions.

The issue of bullying is more nuanced and complex than typically conceptualized and personified. I propose that adult bullies, who no longer have to resort to outright violence, use microaggressive behaviors to both maintain their power in society and in turn maintain an imbalanced power structure amongst groups of people largely based on socio-cultural demographics. When we expand our conceptualization of a bully to include the charismatic adult bully, we open up the possibilities of who can be a bully. We also expand the range of bullying behaviors to include covert behaviors, such as microaggressions.

About the Author
David Rivera Ph.D.

David P. Rivera, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at William Paterson University.

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