On re-reading Australian test cricketer Usman Khawaja’s article about the racism he encountered in Australia as a young boy of Pakistani descent that I wrote about recently, I noticed that he tossed out a statement almost in passing, that “Kids can be mean and that is normal.”
The statement is a little ambiguous in its meaning. He says that kids can be mean, which can be taken to mean that only some choose to be mean for some of the time. That is unexceptional. But then he adds that it is ‘normal’, which suggests that he thinks pretty much every child tends to do it. It is the latter interpretation that I have some issues with and served as the spur for this post.
Is it really normal for kids to be mean? By normal, I mean that it is some kind of development stage that all children pass through. I find that hard to believe because I see no reason as to why it should be so. Why would our developmental stages require a period of meanness? What purpose would it serve? Speaking purely on the basis of personal experience, I lived as a child in England and Sri Lanka and went to school in both places. I had had polio as a child and thus was physically very different from others, the usual reason for being targeted by mean kids. But it was only in England that I encountered a few kids who were gratuitously mean. And they were mean to others too, not just me, so their behavior wasn’t necessarily driven by skin color but more by a bullying culture that permitted the existence of a hierarchy with the bullies being allowed to dominate whoever did not toady to them and was weaker. I don’t recall ever experiencing that kind of meanness and bullying in Sri Lanka.
Khawaja wrote about the racist slurs that he and other players of color experienced as part of this meanness. I think the problem is deeper that racism and lies in a culture that accepts bullying as normal. Bullies will use any weapon at their disposal to emphasize their dominance and race is as good a weapon as any. For example, racism is pervasive and deeply embedded in Sri Lanka, going back a very long time, leading to vicious and bloody civil wars periodically erupting but as a schoolboy, I do not recall overtly racist taunts being used because the bullying culture that would make them ‘normal’ was not there. Individual children might well have harbored racist views but using them as a taunt would have been highly unusual.
So I don’t accept that meanness is ‘normal’, in the sense of something that all children go through, all over the world. I think it is cultural, something that is inculcated in some children by their families and the immediate environment they encounter as part of a culture that accepts bullying. According to Khawaja, it seems exist in Australia, and in my experience it also existed in the UK. In the US, the existence of a bullying culture in schools seems to be taken for granted, as the ubiquity of the ‘mean kids’ phenomenon suggests. But even in those countries, it likely does not exist everywhere but depends on local factors as well.
It would be interesting to hear from those in other countries whether it is ‘normal’ there.