Opinion: Performative In Pink

Jillian Enright

It will take a lot more than wearing pink shirts to end bullying

I don’t really have an issue with pink shirt day, per se. In fact, I think it’s a great way to increase awareness and to start conversations about bullying in schools and classrooms.

Pink shirt day even began as a grassroots movement by some awesome teenagers in Nova Scotia, Canada.

As the story goes, pink shirt day began in 2007 when a grade 9 student was bullied for wearing a pink shirt. Whether the boy is gay or not, it was assumed he was because he was wearing pink, and he was called homophobic slurs.

I imagine there’s a bit more to the story, but the cool part is that a fellow student and his friends all decided to wear pink shirts to school the following day, in support of the bullying victim. Not only that, they went to a thrift store and bought as many pink shirts as they could find, then handed them out for other students to wear.

The campaign has grown worldwide and is used to promote bullying awareness and anti-bullying programs. Proceeds from pink shirt purchases often go to charitable organizations, such as the CKNW Kids’ Fund in British Columbia.

That’s all pretty amazing.

School leadership should not be let off the hook

What tends to happen with these types of programs is they’re just a flash in the pan. Schools have one pink shirt day, maybe a presentation or assembly, sometimes just a letter home to families or a post on social media.

Then everything remains status quo. Aside from some proceeds maybe going to charity, and perhaps a single day of classroom conversations about bullying prevention, there are no meaningful and lasting changes.

While pink shirt day is a good start, there needs to be significantly more done at the divisional and school levels to actually prevent bullying and to intentionally create more inclusive and accepting communities.

As I’ve mentioned previously, neurodiverse and disabled students are at significantly higher risk of becoming victims of bullying than their non-disabled and neurotypical classmates.

Studies have shown that getting to know neurodiverse and disabled people, learning about our experiences, and simply spending time with those different from ourselves reduces bullying.

Yet many schools continue to push for separate programming for neurodiverse and disabled students, claiming their needs are too complex to be met in the general classroom, and an already unsustainable teacher workload are major barriers.

Yes. These are real-life problems that must be addressed. Teachers and schools are overworked and under-resourced.

Throwing neurodiverse and disabled students into the general classroom setting without any specific training for staff, and without providing supports for both staff and students, is absolutely not inclusive. It’s a recipe for staff burnout, student conflict, and increased rather than decreased rates of bullying.

Everyone deserves better than that, but this is essentially what many staff and students are faced with in the name of — or under the guise of — “inclusion”, which sets everybody up to fail. When this happens, it is the children to bear the brunt and suffer the most as a result of systemic shortcomings and failures.

What can we do?

First and foremost, education policies in North America need to change drastically. Our education system needs to divert its intense focus on competing with other countries, rushing children and pushing them to learn material and skills before they’re developmentally ready.

Our education system needs to stop bragging about student performance and worry more about staff and student mental health and wellbeing. Education needs to be relationship-focused, with staff and student relationships built on respect, genuine caring, and unconditional acceptance.

Children’s feelings of positive well-being have been associated with their sense of belonging and connectedness with their school. This isn’t surprising, considering students spend around 30 hours per week at school for ten months of the year — that’s 1,200 hours per year.

Not only has this sense of belonging been shown to increase a sense of community, decrease bullying, and improve the mental health of both staff and students, it has also been shown to improve academic performance.

Conversely, an environment where children do not feel safe and accepted is one in which they will not flourish.

Even those school leaders who are driven and focused primarily on student performance will have to acknowledge that failing to address bullying — or doing so in a disingenuous and performative way — will do nothing to help their students achieve top marks.

I don’t blame the teachers

“Many schools leave relationship building up to the individual teachers, while also creating conditions that make relationship building difficult.”
— Alex Shevrin Venet

It’s challenging for teachers to focus on relationships when there is pressure from all sides to not “allow” students to fall behind, to spend their free periods supervising recess and lunch, and make themselves available for extra-curricular activities on top of all their regular duties — y’know, like teaching.

That said, children will remember the adults who stood idly by and watched while they suffered at the hands of their classmates just as much as they’ll remember the taunts from their bullies. (Trust me, I know from first-hand experience).

I don’t blame teachers for a dysfunctional education system, but we sure as hell need to stop blaming children.

If you think I’m going a bit too far when I say we blame children, think about how adults and school leadership frequently respond to accusations of bullying.

Some examples I have seen as a child advocate are: referring the victim to social skills supports, claiming the victim tends to overreact or exaggerate (in other words, not fully believing the victim), even citing the child’s deficits as a reason for them being targeted while using those challenges to excuse the bully’s behaviour.

“Deficit explanations point to children, rather than the structures or conditions that actually create and sustain the inequity.” — Alex Shevrin Venet

I don’t even blame the bullies themselves

Not entirely.

A lot of children who bully others have been victims themselves, but that’s not the only factor at play. Sometimes children who have loving, safe family homes can be perpetrators and have bullied other children.

This happens when it’s allowed to happen. Bullying happens when the school climate and culture is not inclusive enough, doesn’t teach students to embrace differences, and fails to create a community of respect and caring.

Doing so starts with leadership providing a supportive and respectful environment for their staff, including adequate resources and professional development. It then is incumbent upon the adults in the building to set the example, role-modelling unconditional positive regard for the students, and for each other.

When I say bulling is “allowed” to happen, I’m not talking about needing harsher punishments for bullies — quite the opposite, in fact. Punishment will only harden their resolve and they’ll take their frustration out on the weaker students, picking on others just as they feel the adults in their lives have picked on them.

Dealing with bullying quickly and quietly, hoping to keep it under the radar, will also backfire. You can bet that if one student is being bullied, there will be others who haven’t spoken out, or whose perpetrators have not yet been caught. There are also bystanders who have been witness to these behaviours, and who are likely worried about becoming the next victim.

Bullying is a symptom of larger problems, some of which are beyond the scope of a school, or even a division. Yet many of these issues stem directly from the school culture. Rather than focus on only the students involved — which is a bandaid solution at best, and victim-blaming at worst — leaders need to zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

“If we define our successes by how many individual kids we save, we also lose sight of the structures and systems that need to change to help all kids.”
— Alex Shevrin Venet

Pink shirts are great

By all means, wear a pink shirt to increase bullying awareness, my son and I will be wearing ours proudly tomorrow. Just know that it can’t end there. If we want to do more than sport a shirt of a particular colour for a day, we need to put pressure on our government and on our school leadership.

In addition to tomorrow being pink shirt day, February is also inclusive education month. I can think of no better way for our politicians to celebrate inclusion, and to demonstrate they genuinely value inclusion, than through meaningful action, increased funding, and policy change.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Cook, A., Ogden, J., & Winstone, N. (2020). The effect of school exposure and personal contact on attitudes towards bullying and autism in schools: A cohort study with a control group. Autism, 24(8), 2178–2189. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320937088

Kohn, A. (2016). The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled kids, helicopter parents, and other phony crises. Beacon Press.

Kohn, A. (1999). The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards”. Houghton Mifflin Co.

Luvmour, J., & Luvmour, B. (2019). Relationship Based Education: Relationships and partnerships in educational environments.

Venet, A.S. (2019). Equity-Centred Trauma-Informed Education. W. W. Norton & Company.

Watson, J. C. (2017). Examining the Relationship between Self-Esteem, Mattering, School Connectedness, and Wellness Among Middle School Students. Professional School Counseling. https://doi.org/10.5330/1096-2409-21.1.108

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.


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