When Ignoring Doesn’t Work
We’ve all heard the advice to “just ignore” a bully. But sometimes, when we ignore the behavior, we allow it to exist — and to thrive.
While recovering from eye surgery a couple years ago, I went out to brunch with my husband and our youngest. I’d just had my post-op appointment and everything went exceedingly well. Our intentions were to have a relaxing, casual brunch. Just the three of us. Our older two were out of town for spring break, so this was a rare special occasion. Plus, successful eye surgery was something to celebrate, considering the extreme phobia I have of anything getting near my eyes.
After we’d been seated and placed our drink orders, my husband and our youngest headed to the bathroom. Now, my husband is a regular, stereotypical, cisgender, heterosexual (i.e., ‘cishet’) white male. Typically doesn’t encounter any issues on the way to, from, or inside of public bathrooms.
Currently at 14, our youngest is trans nonbinary and uses they/them or she/her pronouns. But at age 11, this child — assigned male at birth — had already been expressing ‘female’ for years. Since the age of 2.5, to be exact.
What started out as, presumably, a toddler’s desire (to wear older sister’s ballet costumes and play with her toys instead of big brother’s) soon became evident and undeniable as not a mere ‘desire,’ but rather, the raw fabric of our child. Unlike hard and fast obsessions with “Yo Gabba Gabba” or “Boohbah” (shows I endured hearing on a never-ending loop for the better part of three years), this was not a phase.
This was not a ‘desire.’ It’s who our child was at their innermost core. And we’d continue to see this expressed every day thereafter — through feminine identity, behaviors, mannerisms, preferences, and more.
My husband and I were always supportive of our three kids (now teenagers). We took care to appreciate their different interests and unique natures. Yes, we were supportive. But it’s not as if we indoctrinated our youngest with a preference for all things pink and pretty. We did our ‘due diligence’ trying to instill more masculine-associated concepts and toys. But then our child would look at us the way any other kid would, if they were misgendered.
In their early elementary years, role-playing all female characters was a favorite activity. By 4th grade, this child was carrying a glittery backpack from the ‘girls’ section — something their father and I feared, maybe because it was a larger symbol of what was actually happening. Having these things inside, in the safety of our own home was one thing, but sporting flamboyant Lisa Frank notebooks and shimmery pink pencil pouches in 4th grade at school was completely another.
But we gave in. It was all our child wanted; the only thing they’d asked for in a long time. And also, we realized the more we tried to rationalize away their interests (“you’ll get bullied;” “people will question you;” “but this is meant for little girls, not boys,” etc.), the more we were chipping away at our child’s self-esteem and innocent spirit — not to mention the double standard we were setting, since we allowed our older two to select their own backpacks year after year.
Shortly after the sparkly school accessories, our child ventured into the territory of wearing ‘girls’ shoes, and within a year, wearing all ‘girls’ clothes from the tween girls clothing store Justice. A store that markets itself as being “Just For Girls!” It certainly didn’t help that our state had just passed the transphobic bathroom bill, HB2, which mandated that people could only use the public bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing facilities that matched their sex assigned at birth, as listed on their birth certificate.
During 5th grade, our child told us they weren’t girl or boy. In their mind, they had a clear understanding of exactly who they were, but my husband and I had no frame of reference for this at all. We’d only just begun to grasp and come to terms with ‘trans male’ and ‘trans female.’ What our child was telling us did not register. So our child explained it like this — a simple but profoundly self-aware statement:
“Think of it like this: it’s as if God took one girl, one boy, and mashed them all up together to make one ME… Well, maybe God took about seven girls and one boy. Yeah. That’s more accurate.”
When asked, “Do you feel more like a boy or more like a girl?” our child invariably would answer, “I feel more like just a person.”
So this day at brunch, our very feminine child who was neither male nor female was wearing their typical ‘feminine’ outfit: “Twinkle Toe” Skechers for girls, bright pink sweatpants with the Justice logo in shiny gold letters stretched down the side of one leg, plain white ‘girls’ shirt, and pink silk floral headband to accommodate their hair, which was growing longer by the day.
When my husband and our youngest walked through the maze of tables in the restaurant, from one booth there arose wild laughter, followed by an older teen leaning out of the booth, pointing at my child, and loudly shouting, “OH, HE’S GAY! What a FAG!” This was followed by more wild laughter, and one person practically falling out of the seat with laughter.
My husband and child ignored it. They kept walking. But later, my husband privately admitted he wasn’t sure what to do since he rarely found himself in situations like these.
I saw and heard it all the time, though. Only because I was with our child more. Whether it was Monday through Friday working at the same school they attended, or just out and about with my youngest, running errands, I felt like I heard and saw all the things. The odd side eyes and dirty looks, the snide, rude remarks, the questions — dear God, the questions… nothing seemed off-limits for strangers before my child had “passing privilege.”
And, there was a time when I would keep walking and ignore it too, but I came to realize that’s not always best.
Because sometimes, when we ignore harassment, we give it permission to exist. And to thrive.
Being a non-confrontational person, I don’t prefer it this way, but I will speak out against it if the situation warrants it, or when my gut tells me to. Sometimes, simply stopping in your tracks, facing the person who’s making mean-spirited remarks, and calmly relaying, “I heard you. Why would you say that? Why would you make fun of or laugh at another human being?” is all it takes to shut them down (and if you’re lucky, make them think).
Though cut-downs and clap-backs are infinitely more satisfying, my trans nonbinary teen prefers the calm, stop-and-question response, and has also used it on their own — of course, with mixed luck as well. But, it’s better than nothing, i.e., ignoring.
Yet, how many times have I given my own kids the advice to “just ignore” those who harass or torment them? Probably well over a thousand times. Like it’s just an unfortunate part of life that we all must endure and tolerate. As if being on the receiving end of daily harassment or even bullying is a fact of life. Especially when it happens to those who are somehow perceived as “weak,” “less than,” or part of a protected minority group.
And particularly, when there’s some semblance of real or perceived power dynamic — when the bully is the popular, outspoken kid at school and you’re not. Or when the bully is the tenured teacher in charge of your grades, or the boss who holds your entire career in the palm of their hand. Or the president, who can make or break your very life simply by signing a bill — in Sharpie.
When I reflect on this notion of “ignore,” and by default, “tolerate,” it makes absolutely no sense.
As my youngest has always pointed out (and in their case, I’d argue it’s always true, especially in middle school, regardless of how many anti-bullying posters a school may have displayed in the building):
“Ignoring doesn’t work; they just keep on bothering you, over and over again, day after day. It doesn’t matter if you ignore them, they’re going to keep doing it. And teachers don’t do anything to stop it, either. You’re screwed either way… if you report it, you’re told you’re ‘tattling;’ if you ignore it, it never stops; and if you say anything back, then you somehow end up in trouble.”
Maybe it’s not the easy thing to do; maybe it’s not the popular opinion, but I believe it’s beyond time for us to hold people accountable for bad behavior. Even though our country is at this really weird place where folks can’t agree on what constitutes ‘bad behavior’ — let alone, what a ‘fact’ is anymore — we still should understand and be able to agree on which things should be tolerated, and which things should not be.
Of course, this means that Americans would first need to have a solid understanding of what ‘tolerance’ really means.
To put it really simply: I tolerate my Mom using Miracle Whip and calling it ‘mayonnaise’ just as she tolerates my affinity for Hellman’s or Duke’s. I tolerate my family watching Sunday night football just like they tolerate my spontaneous belting out of Broadway songs. But something like a verbal attack against a protected class of people should never be tolerated. Like racism and sexism, misogyny. Like homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, to name a few. Like the President of the United States punching down on… well, just about anyone, because he holds more symbolic power than most of the rest of us.
In a well-functioning democracy, these are things that no one should tolerate. Particularly, in this current political and social climate where the POTUS has set a precedent for the acceptance of abusive language, and the denial of scientific and/or verifiable facts, we should (and we must) counter ignorant engagements.
When our child began expressing their gender authentically and publicly, we’d often hear sentiments like, “if you don’t want people making fun of you, then don’t dress that way in public to begin with.”
But this argument doesn’t hold up. In fact, there’s a term for this kind of argument; it’s called victim-blaming. It’s not really about being a ‘victim’ per se, but rather, it’s about the fact that no one has the right to make fun of or harass someone, and then when that someone gets upset, tell them it’s their fault.
Any time someone defaults to questioning or criticizing what a victim should’ve or could’ve done differently to prevent something harmful done to them, then they, too, are participating in this unfortunate socially acceptable culture of victim-blaming.
Bullying is never the target’s fault. The responsibility for bullying and its after-effects invariably belongs to the bully.
People who are perceived as “different” for some reason do not need to change in order to avoid being bullied. Change is always and without a doubt the burden of the one who’s doing the bullying.
Largely, when harassment or bullying happen, society likes to point out what is wrong with the victim rather than recognizing that the real problem lies with the bully or attacker, and their own choices to harass, abuse, bully, or verbally or physically attack in the first place.
At other times, victims get the “he’s just too sensitive,” or, “she’s got to learn to toughen up in the real world” comments.
But statements like, “he’s just too sensitive,” are classic examples of victim-blaming statements. When people make comments like this, they are excusing the bully’s behavior by indicating that there is some type of shortcoming in the victim. Further, it implies that the victim’s reaction to being attacked is neither normal nor natural.
We can’t tell victims of bullying to simply “get over it.” Childhood and teenage bullying is not something a person can just happen to forget one day. Harassment and bullying have significant consequences and lasting impacts that go with people into adulthood.
Saying that someone who is “different” needs to “toughen up” or “man up” may actually be the worst possible thing that we can say about the victim of bullying, because it minimizes what they’ve experienced, or all out mutes or erases their personal truth. And we must begin listening to the narratives of “different” people, because — like it or not — they are here to change the world, for the better.
Instead of perpetuating the cycle of victim blaming, how about we start being better role models for our children, and teaching them not to make fun of, harass, attack, or bully other people to begin with?
Are you, as an adult or a parent, making fun of others’ physical appearance, demeanor, or ability in front of your child? The overweight woman pushing a cart out of the grocery store that you just made a snarky comment about? The rancid mumbling you did at the senior citizen in front of you, driving a bit too slowly? The group of tattered looking teens standing around that you just called “punks?” The flamboyant boy in pink sweatpants you just called “gay?” Your child in the backseat was listening, internalizing, learning. And the cycle will be perpetuated.
Sure, there are certain life skills we can teach victims of harassment and bullying to learn, like resilience, assertiveness, perseverance, and self-confidence. But lacking these skills, or not having mastered them yet are not reasons to excuse the bullying and harassment at all.
Instead, we need to focus on teaching bullies how to take responsibility for their own actions. This has got to start at home, but we know the reality; that doesn’t always happen. Therefore, it must happen and be reinforced in the community, in school, and in various public or private social situations.
We can’t afford to be bystanders anymore. We must be a part of the village and stand up to bullying and harassment whenever we see it or hear it. Ignoring is getting us nowhere.