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Bullied brown

By Neha Navsaria, PhD



It was rare to see South Asians mirrored in media and entertainment when I was growing up in the US. Anything that represented being South Asian, such as food, clothing or skin color, easily set us apart from the majority culture.

This experience of being notably different from others has constantly placed South Asian children at risk for bullying.

Let’s fast forward to present day. With the popularity of South Asian culture and Bollywood music, movies and popular culture, it appears all things South Asian have become trendy. One would think greater acceptance into mainstream culture means the next generation of South Asian youth are not targets of harassment.

Sadly, the data paints an upsetting picture and extinguishes this hopeful thought. During a Bullying Prevention Summit hosted by the White House in 2011, the Department of Education released an alarming report based on a survey of 6,500 students¹:

• 62% of Asian-American students say they have been harassed over the Internet

• More than half of these Asian-American teenagers say they have been bullied

• Asian-American students are 20% more likely than other ethnic groups to be bullied at school, and 3 times as likely to be bullied over the Internet.

This tells us South Asian children are specific targets. We’d like to say this has nothing to do with ethnicity, but evidence tells us otherwise. An article published in the British Journal of School Psychology found a significant difference of racist name calling between South Asian and White children who were bullied².

A similar study from Britain found that bullying against South Asians was more likely related to religious or cultural difference, such as the animal forms of some Hindu Gods, the clothing worn by South Asian Muslims or the languages spoken.³ It seems differences in appearance and lifestyles will always create a perception that South Asians are “foreign” and a target of harassment.

Who have South Asian youth turned to for support? Asian bullying victims often feel they can’t turn to their parents because their parents don’t understand what bullying is4. Bullying doesn’t necessarily include violent actions; there are subtle forms as well. Bullying can refer to verbal taunts, physical assaults, exclusion from a peer group, spreading rumors and gossip, and more recently, cyberbullying through social media such as Facebook.

Some immigrant parents may have difficulty recognizing the implications of bullying because they too, have experienced racism or harassment upon arrival to the country. Perhaps they feel if they survived it, why can’t their children do the same? While the experience of bullying is harsh for any age group, to be ridiculed and embarrassed during a developmental stage when identity is formed and self-confidence is built is quite dangerous.

These experiences can negatively shape a child’s sense of self-worth, and enduring bullying without outside support can take a toll. Bullying is linked directly to depression and anxiety, and in some cases, suicide.

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes signs parents should look for when they suspect their child is bullied: ripped clothing, hesitation about going to school, decreased appetite, nightmares, crying, or general depression and anxiety.

The APA provides the following suggestions for parents who have found out their child is getting bullied:

• Don’t tell children to “Let it go” or “Suck it up”.

• Have open-ended conversations to learn what is really going on at school so you can take appropriate steps

• Practice scenarios at home where your child learns how to ignore a bully and/or develop assertive strategies for coping with it

• Help your child identify teachers and friends who can help

There are also things you can do at a school or community level. For example, KiVa, an innovative anti-bullying program for schools developed at the University of Turku in Finland, has shown great success in preventing and tackling emerging cases of bullying5.

It is focused on influencing children’s perceptions of their peers, and teaching children how to manage peer relations in a constructive and healthy manner. The success of the KiVa model means discussions with your children on how to manage encounters with children from diverse backgrounds are important. And remember, it’s not just the conversations. Being a role model is important; so watch what you say and to whom you say it—respect for others can be contagious!

For more information on what can be done to prevent and address bullying, visit Stop Bullying

Neha Navsaria, PhD is a child psychologist with interests in parent-child relationships, parenting issues, immigrant mental health and cross-cultural psychology. She would like to remind everyone that October is Bullying Prevention Month. Do what you can, big or small, to prevent bullying!


¹Dutt, E. (2011, November 11). South Asian parents, students urged to report bullying incidents. News India Times from

²Eslea, M. & Mukhtar, K. (2000). Bullying and racism among Asian schoolchildren in Britain. Educational Research, 42 (2).

³Moran, S., Smith, P. K., Thompson, D. and Whitney, I. (1993), Ethnic differences in experiences of bullying: Asian and white children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63: 431–440.

4Hwang, H. (2012). In the face of bullying. Hyphen. Issue 24 from

5Williford, A., Boulton, A., Noland, B., Little, T.D. and Kärnä, A. (2012). Effects of the KiVa Anti-bullying Program on Adolescents’ Depression, Anxiety, and Perception of Peers. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 40 (2): 289-300


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