Education

The Insidious, Old-School Bullying That American Classrooms Can’t Seem To Shake

by Liz Dwyer

May 10, 2017

If you were ever bullied as a child, 10-year-old Kheris Rogers is about to become your new hero. After the Los Angeles-based student spent years being harassed at school due to her dark brown complexion, she became a social media darling for the very thing that had earned her scorn.

I look like a burned biscuit. I look like a dead roach. I was in the oven too long.

Kheris says the cruel comments came from both black and white classmates: “I look like a burned biscuit. I look like a dead roach. I was in the oven too long. They were just harsh comments that I couldn’t take.”

In late March, Kheris’s 22-year-old sister Taylor Pollard decided to brighten her day by posting photos of her glammed up from a local fashion show. "My sister is only 10, but already royalty,” Pollard posted with the hashtag #FlexinInHerComplexion, which is inspired by the work of artist and writer Kameelah Janan Rasheed. "My sister is only 10, but already royalty,” Pollard posted with the hashtag #FlexinInHerComplexion. The images soon went viral, retweeted about 31,000 times and “liked” nearly 84,000 times. Now the tween has her own Twitter account and Instagram page where she shares empowering photos and fan art.

By April, Kheris’ mom and Taylor, who is an entrepreneur with a successful cupcake business, helped her launch a new line of t-shirts called Flexin’ In My Complexion, turning Pollard’s hashtag into a rallying cry—and the first run of production has already sold out. Take that, bullies!

“Kheris has gotten so much love on social media, which is encouraging,” says Pollard. But as much as praise from the Twitterati and the success of her t-shirt line is inspiring, all the attention hasn’t changed the fact that she must deal with a unique form of harassment due to colorism: the belief that darker-skinned black people aren’t as attractive or smart as their lighter-skinned peers.

Kheris says only one of her educators—her fourth grade teacher, who was also black—ever tried to put a stop to the harsh comments she received. Some teachers even made her feel worse about herself. “In first grade we were supposed to draw ourselves, and my teacher gave me a black crayon instead of brown one. It started to make me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be (literally) black,” says Kheris. “There were only four black kids in that school. We were all made fun of because we were dark.”

Her family transferred her to a more diverse school, but other than that brief respite in fourth grade, the bullying has been almost constant. After her story went public, the response from other students in Kheris’ school has been encouraging. “Kids are saying positive things. They keep saying they want to buy the shirts,” says Kheris.

But the launch of her sold-out t-shirt line hasn’t put a stop to the bullying entirely. “Just seeing the difference with what Kheris went through last year versus this year, teachers should be more vocal,” says Kheris’ sister. “They’re the teacher and they’re in charge. They should have no problem telling kids when they’re doing wrong.”

Addressing such a complex and often underdiscussed issue isn’t exactly easy, however, especially without formal training.

“I don't believe most teachers know how to handle ... race-based situations,” says José Vilson, a New York City math educator, activist, and founder of EduColor, a national movement that elevates the voices of students, parents, and educators of color on issues of educational equity and justice. “They don't even know how to address it by saying ‘Cut it out’—much less how to discuss the trauma that such a distinction causes and the racist connotations of berating a student over the darkness of their skin. Colorism is so real,” says Vilson.

Along with contributing to bullying, “not addressing issues of race has serious cognitive effects on students, especially around school performance,” says Vilson. “Students start losing their confidence and safety in environments that immediately threaten their person.“

Not addressing issues of race has serious effects on students, especially around school performance.

Having darker skin may even make black students more likely to be funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, as well. A 2013 analysis of data from The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth by researchers at Villanova University and the University of Iowa, found “darker skin tone significantly increased the odds of suspension for African American adolescents.” The researchers discovered that suspension rates of black girls with dark skin were driving the imbalance, with dark-skinned black girls three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.

When teachers don’t intervene, a bullied kid might end up getting into an argument with a bully, or even a physical fight, and then get blamed for the situation. “I’ve been through that before, where the teacher gave me the punishment,” says Kheris.

Just because a child is darker, that doesn’t mean that they’re ugly.

Though the bullying isn’t yet over for Kheris, she has hope that the more people like her stand up for themselves, the better things will get for everyone. “I wanted to inspire other people to be confident in their skin, and make kids be more confident in themselves,” says Kheris about the shirts. Proceeds of the empowering t-shirt will fund Kheris’ college education, and nearly 800 shirts have been sold so far. 

As for what Kheris’ teacher—and all other educators—should be doing to create a supportive environment for darker skinned students, Vilson has some practical suggestions. “Obviously Googling terms like colorism and intersectionality help,” he says, as does reading the work of critical race theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, and activists like bell hooks. For teachers on social media, EduColor hosts monthly Twitter chats where people committed to addressing these issues in schools share teaching strategies and resources.

Ultimately, Kheris hopes that black children will love themselves no matter what. “Just because they’re darker, that doesn’t mean that they’re ugly. They’re pretty, they’re handsome, they’re gorgeous, and they don’t have to let anyone else tell them different,” says Kheris. Perhaps if all teachers believed this—and taught this to their students—bullying in school because of skin color would stop.

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