Bullying has become such a trendy topic that it's borderline cliché. It's not that bullying isn't a serious issue. It's that everyone--not just students but teachers, not just geeks but popular kids--claim to be bullying victims. Does this mean bullying is an epidemic or that the definition of bullying is so ambiguous that any and every inconsiderate act now constitutes bullying? Despite all the press bullying has received in recent years, there's one aspect of bullying I haven't seen as many stories about--race-based bullying. During recent appearances on CBS' '60 Minutes" and "The Talk," director Steven Spielberg and actress Viola Davis discussed enduring bullying long before they became rich and famous because of their ethnic backgrounds.
Spielberg appeared on "60 Minutes" Sunday to promote his new biopic about the 16th president of the United States, "Lincoln." But he also discussed his childhood in Phoenix, Ariz., where Jewish people were anomalies. Spielberg's mother, Leah Adler, recalled, "We lived in an all non-Jewish neighborhood. These people used to chant, 'The Spielbergs are dirty Jews.' And one night, Steve climbed out of his bedroom window and peanut buttered their windows, which I thought was marvelous."
But that act of revenge didn't stop Spielberg from internalizing the anti-Semitism directed at him and his family. Before long, he began to deny his Jewish heritage. "I denied it for a long time. My Judaism," he told interviewer Lesley Stahl. "I often told people my last name was German, not Jewish. I'm sure my grandparents are rolling over in their graves right now, hearing me say that. But I think that--you know, that I was in denial for a long time."
Spielberg says that's why his films often feature outsiders. Of course, Spielberg has gone on to become an advocate for Jewish people, directing film such as "Schindler's List" and "Munich," which addressed the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, respectively.
Experiencing racial bullying as a child ultimately did not prevent Viola Davis from taking pride in her heritage either. Davis grew up in Rhode Island. "We moved there in 1965, and we were the only black family," Davis said on "The Talk" Friday. "In grade school I was definitely singled out and teased. Eight to 12 boys every day would chase me after school with bricks and sticks and just say ugly, black, ugly, ugly."
Because Spielberg and Davis aren't young--he's 65, she's 47--it's easy to think that race-based bullying in schools is old news. But children of today still experience such bullying, especially if they're the sole member of their ethnic group in their school or neighborhood. A friend of mine told me not long ago that her daughter, a rare black girl in her elementary school, has no friends and is called names in class. The children don't actually hurl racial slurs at her, but there's little doubt that her race has made her into an outcast among her playmates. I hope that as awareness about bullying continues to grow, race-based mistreatment of young people by their peers isn't swept under the rug.