Bullying & Microaggressions

Bullying: More than physical violence

Posted Jan 23, 2011

I wanted to write this blog entry back in October, when the topic of bullying was getting a lot of attention in the national media. However, I purposefully decided to wait for a few months to write on this topic. Why? Because 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 about. That being said, I will get to the point of this entry.

The issue of 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. Now, 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.

Bullies come in many shapes and sizes. Unlike the classic profile of a bully (e.g., a loner, physically intimidating, mean, angry, etc.), 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. The 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.

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.