California community leaders share what insights bullying can provide about rising racial and ethnic tensions among youth.


Though bullying seems a nearly inevitable part of coming of age, its impacts can last years.

At a Fri., Oct 27 EMS briefing, community leaders across California school campuses shared how bullying can incubate cultures of hate at a time of rising racial tensions; who the prime targets and perpetrators are; and what insights bullying can provide about racial and ethnic tensions among youth.

Bullying issues as civil rights issues

Civil rights issues are at the heart of bullying issues, said Becky Monroe, Deputy Director of Strategic Initiatives and External Affairs at the California Civil Rights Department.

While not all forms of bullying represent unlawful discrimination, some are acts of hate crimes, she added. These acts of hate “inflict physical and emotional harm on students and their school communities.”

Becky Monroe, Deputy Director, Strategic Initiatives and External Affairs, California Civil Rights Department, explains how bullying can be a hate crime and discusses the legal obligation schools have to protect students from bullying.

“Schools have a legal obligation to ensure that students are not denied opportunities, treated differently, discriminated against, or harassed because of their race,” Moore continued. Conversely, “when there is tension and an increase in acts of hate in the greater community, it will be reflected in schools and among students.”

‘Many kids are playing both roles’

In her book, “Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed,” journalist and author Dashka Slater wrote about how one Albany High School student’s racist Instagram account sent the whole community into a six-year saga of interpersonal hate acts and legal tensions.

The Instagram account featured “images of lynchings and slurs, antisemitism and body shaming, and it was specifically racist towards Black girls at the school, who were friends with the creator of the account, a Korean American junior,” said Slater. “It was a massive rupture in the community that included a demonstration at school which devolved into violence, and subsequent lawsuits over free speech.”

New York Times journalist and author Dashka Slater explains why punishing students who engage in bullying is an ineffective approach to handling and preventing bullying.

“We often see kids of color harassed for their identity, who harass someone else for their identity,” she explained. As happened at Albany, “Many kids are playing both roles, both the bully and the bullied … The radicalization happens online, as social media algorithms serve kids — many who consider themselves anti-racist — extremist content.” There is “an insane disconnect between what they were doing and who they thought of themselves as being.”

Three out of four Americans aged 15 to 25, have encountered extremist content online, and half of this content focuses on race or ethnicity, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In responding to this extremism, schools often rush to disciplinary codes, but Slater said they can’t punish kids out of bullying. “The same people who have been marginalized by the justice system are not likely to be helped by it. Schools need to be supporting the victims” — which means “media literacy for students” — “and not think their work is done once they’ve punished the perpetrators.”

Black youth as primary targets

Connie Alexander-Boaitey, president of NAACP Santa Barbara, said across California — even in communities where they’re underrepresented — Black students experience “the highest levels of hate.” African Americans comprise 2% of the population of Santa Barbara County, or “100 to 300 youth in our schools. We are often positioned in a way that says ‘Oh, but there’s not that many,’ but that many are still being harmed.”

This violence most often starts “with the violence of language,” often between ethnic groups, she said, highlighting one example in spring 2022 of a junior high student “called the N-word by young Latino students. It’s every day, it’s weekly, it moves itself into physical violence. This young man was assaulted, thrown to the ground, beaten up. The boys jumped on his neck and chanted ‘George Floyd’ … It took five months for him to even be able to see a therapist.”

Santa Barbara’s relatively small Black African American population experiences a disproportionate amount of bullying, says Connie Alexander-Boaitey, President, Santa Barbara NAACP. She notes that this racially motivated bullying is rooted in our societal erasure of Black people.

The same dynamic of bullying between Latino and African American students has since continued in similar, more recent verbal and physical assaults, she added.

The origin of this hate, said Alexander-Boaitey, is a “breakdown between communities. This is where the struggle is: how do we have leaders from the Latino and Black community sit down and have our own conversations? What supports it not happening is the erasure culture of ‘we don’t really need to talk about that, it was just a single incident.’ But it’s a constant.”

Fighting AAPI hate in liberal areas

Mina Fedor — a sophomore at Piedmont High School and the Founder and Executive Director of AAPI Youth Rising — said school bullying is pervasive even in progressive areas, “and a lot of it is Asian students making fun of other Asian students, and trying to bring down other AAPI groups to seem like they can fit in more, or else it’s seen as a big joke that people adhere to.”

She said she first began experiencing this hate while attending seventh grade in Berkeley during the COVID-19 pandemic. “At the time,” she said, “many Asians were being blamed for a virus that doesn’t discriminate, with comments that target our sense of belonging — ‘Go back to where you came from,’ the idea that we’re perpetual foreigners, model minorities that are too successful.”

Because social media accounts are often hidden from adults, they can become platforms for particularly cruel and aggressive bullying, says Mina Fedor, founder and executive director of AAPI Youth Rising.

To combat this hate, Fedor said she “organized a small community gathering at Berkeley’s aquatic Park hoping for about 70 attendees. Instead, over 1200 people showed up for the rally. That day, I realized that I can make a difference by taking these small actions … and I formed AAPI Youth Rising.”

‘It’s easier being a bully than it is being bullied’

Anahí Santos — Youth Wellness Coordinator of One Community Action in Santa Maria, on the Central Coast — said “I am Mixteca, from the Mexican state of Oaxaca; most of us who migrate come to California, and what we see here are Latino youth bullying indigenous peers. The closer you are to whiteness the safer you are … and you see that even with the gangs here on the south side of our city which are predominantly indigenous and sometimes Black,” segregated from whiter Latino north side gangs.

“In our communities it’s easier being a bully than it is being bullied,” she said, “because by the age of 12 we’re already worrying about being a caretaker in our family, having to work to survive. It’s easier to navigate school through that violence, and in the long term it turns into gun violence, drug abuse, even jail.”

Anahí Santos, Youth Wellness Coordinator at One Community Action, talks about the compulsion young people feel to align themselves with whiteness and how that leads to bullying.

Since this path stems from an inability to connect socially with peers, Santos said that encouraging this connection is key: “There’s just a lot of racism that’s embedded within Latino culture, and it’s our own community hurting itself … Even though we’re from the same country, we’re not experiencing the same things, not learning what it is to be proud of ourselves and where we come from. When youth can express themselves in healthy ways, they can care for themselves in healthy ways.”

“When youth can understand peers’ different cultural backgrounds,” she added, “although we can’t 100% experience it ourselves — whether that be the hatred or the joy in being other — students can connect in the sense of being proud of themselves, their history and future.”

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