Bullying while Black

Lilah-Rose-playing-at-age-four, Bullying while Black, Inside/Out Gallery News & Views
Lilah Rose playing at the park at the age of four.

by Chinyere Egu

Born in 1979, the world was much different. There was no internet, social media, or texting. However, there was racism and discrimination. As a young child, I experienced racial slurs at school and sometimes out of school playing outside my neighborhood. I didn’t understand what the meaning of “Go back to Africa” meant. I remember one day playing outside in my frog pool that my father had bought me, and a Caucasian boy walked by me and told me to “Go back to Africa.” I asked my mommy what that meant and what do I say, and she told me, you say “You don’t have to go back because your ancestors brought us here.” So, as I exited elementary school and entered middle school I did not experience much racism.

I finished high school, went to college, and had my daughter Lilah Rose Jones in 2009. First time being a mommy and I did not know what to do, but I knew I was a protector. Lilah was and still is my baby, my doll and my joy. Raised by a single parent I already knew it was going to be challenging, and it is.

Many years later Lilah and I moved to Sunnyvale California in 2017. She was enrolled at Pomeway elementary school in Santa Clara California, and then the following year she went to Lakewood elementary school in Sunnyvale, California. Little did I know things were about to change for Lilah and me as we entered a different demographic of people. 

Bullying can be one of the number one causes for a person’s declining self-esteem and self-worth. In 1997 the California Department of Education collaborated with certain counties to address the issue of bias and hate speech and they also provided training to board members to help recognize bias in school. In 2019, the United States reported that between 15-22% of people aged 12-18 have been bullied, which brings me to my daughter Lilah Jones. In 2017 we moved to Sunnyvale as I mentioned before and I enrolled her at Lakewood elementary school. It was picture day and Lilah wanted to wear her African dress from Nigeria. 

The dress was beautiful, it was royal purple, with bright citrus yellow and orange flowers on it. I dropped her off at school and she was excited to show her dress off. After school, Lilah informed me that one of her classmates asked why she was wearing that dress. At the time Lilah was in fourth grade and she did not understand why her classmate would ask her such a question. I called her teacher and explained that the school needs to learn about other cultures. The school was mostly Latino, with few Black students. 

The following year Lilah explained to me that there was a certain classmate that was picking at her, and she told me that the teacher knew about it. I went to her school picnic. At the picnic I noticed Lilah looked like an outsider, not belonging, different, she was alone even though she had classmates that she played with. As my daughter continued her school there, she began not wanting to go to school and told me she has no friends. Lilah’s math was also starting to fail, so I enrolled Lilah in a tutoring center called Kumon. Kumon is a center to help students with math and reading. In Sunnyvale, 47% of the people are from foreign countries, and 1.2% are Black (African American). 

From marginalized racial or ethnic origins, bullying, harassment, and unfair treatment are more common due to disparities in educational resources, cultural biases, and discriminatory views. Lilah began to excel in math both at the center and at school after one year. Lilah then moved on to fifth grade, and each night part of the homework was to read for about 30 minutes along with their parents. Lilah and I read a book called “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang.

The book was about an Asian family coming to the United States to settle. The family got a job at a motel and the owner let the daughter of the family know that she should not rent a room out to Black people because they are bad. Once Lilah read that she let me know that her classmate told her that she doesn’t like her because of the color of her skin. 

I then requested a meeting with the girl’s parents to get an understanding of what her statement meant. The principal stalled, but I let her know that if we cannot have a meeting then I will contact the parents myself. A meeting was set up quickly and, in the meeting, before it got started the principal stated that the issue was medium-sized. 

Immediately corrected her and let her know that the issue is a huge problem that continues to exist regarding race! The meeting consisted of Lilah, myself, the principal, Lilah’s classmate, and an interpreter for the mother. I was appalled because the mother of Lilah’s classmate had an interpreter while I had none. The girl barely apologized because for some reason she could barely speak in the meeting. Verbal abuse can have a major negative effect on motivation and performance in a competitive environment. 

Lilah-Rose-selfie, Bullying while Black, Inside/Out Gallery News & Views
Lilah Rose outside taking a snapshot.

It impairs focus and attention by causing psychological anguish, lowering self-esteem, and raising anxiety. Negative emotions undermine an individual’s ability to excel and realize their full potential by impeding optimum performance. Middle school came the following year. Lilah was excited to grow older and learn new things as well as be in a pristine environment. Lilah made new friends and she enjoyed going to seventh grade in person. Lilah would be the only Black student in her class again, but that did not bother her, she was versatile.

Lilah would come back and tell me she made a new friend who was from Pakistan, and was Muslim, a transgender, a person with a disability, and even gay and lesbian classmates. The thing Lilah never talked about is meeting another Black person (African American or African) that looked like her. When I asked her how many Black students are at your school, she told me like five. I would always look around when I would pick her up from school and I barely saw any Black students. I knew that might be a concern for her because being different in an environment can be emotional at times because you have no one to relate to. 

Not too long after, Lilah would report back to me that some students were using the N-word, and how that made her feel uncomfortable. The N-word was not directed to her per say, but in a way, it was since she was the only Black person around most of the time. I went to the School District Offices and informed them about diversity at the school and the incident that happened at Lakewood elementary school since it was in the same district. I would come to find out that the incident that happened at Lakewood was never reported. I knew at this point that I had to be the voice for Lilah.

In the digital age, cyberbullying has become a serious problem, especially for students (Hinduja & Patchin, 2018). California is one of the states that is in the top 10 that has cyberbullying cases according to the Uken Report. This is because California is home to a sizable population of tech-savvy people. Bullying can lead to physical fights, missing school, and even suicide. In 2011 according to the California Attorney General’s page over 50% of teenagers experienced cyberbullying. 

Bullies are empowered by the anonymity provided by online platforms, which increases the severity of their effects. California has reported a growing number of cyberbullying occurrences, affecting students in various age groups, according to a survey done by the Cyberbullying Research Center. This demonstrates the pressing need to address the problem and put preventative measures in place. Cyberbullying is a huge concern because that can lead to drug use, and mental illness. 

On cyberbullying.org in 2019 over 35% have been cyberbullied at least once in their lifetime, and in the United States middle school and high school students’ rates are among the highest. The mental health of students suffers significantly as a result of cyberbullying. Victims frequently feel fear, embarrassment, and shame, which lowers their self- esteem and overall well being. People who are constantly subjected to cyberbullying may stop participating in social activities, which will have an effect on their social growth and academic achievement. Because of the bullying’s ability to follow victims anywhere, including within their own homes, the anonymity of the internet makes it difficult for victims to get away from the abuse. 

The California Department of Education’s research finds a worrying link between cyberbullying and rising depression rates among students. Their resilience and coping skills are weakened by the repeated exposure to online abuse, leaving them open to depressed episodes and even suicide ideation. California has put several strategies in place to stop cyberbullying and promote students’ mental health. Legislation that targets cyberbullying in schools and penalizes offenders has been passed by the state, however a huge percentage of cyber bullying still exists. 

Mental health resources like counseling programs and hotlines are being made more available. My daughter Lilah would be one of those to experience cyberbullying along with bullying at school. Lilah and I reported to the principal at her school about some of the racial slurs that students on the school’s Instagram page were saying directly toward her. 

The principal would call me back and let me know that they found the person and that they could not release the name of the person, but disciplinary action will be taken. My daughter being so strong like a soldier she would tell me it was her final year, and she was going to graduate. I knew that Lilah needed support, so I reached out to the African American organization in San Jose California called Ujima. Ujima is a center to help uplift and educate with counseling services for black people. Lilah was granted a counselor to help with the issues she was facing at school. The counselor would come out to her school once a week to give her support. 

With the support, Lilah seemed to be doing very well until one day February 1, 2023. I woke up like any other day to get ready for work. Hearing the maintenance people pushing the garbage bins, and then looking to see how the weather was. I checked my phone, and I had a text message from my daughter. It read “Love you Mom but I’m tired. I just took some pills.” 

The message was at 12:25 AM. I ran to Lilah’s room. Lilah was stiff and hot with clothes everywhere on the floor, a Starbucks cup from the evening before, and a plate of food on her side table. I screamed her name, “Lilah!” She slowly lifted her head, and she told me that she needed to go to the hospital. 

I asked Lilah ‘what is going on!’ Lilah explained that she was tired of being called racial names and tired of being called ugly at school. I asked her what kind of names, and she showed me her phone with the names such as nigger! monkey, and cotton picker, among others. I was speechless and just cried. Being that this was our first time with a suicide attempt and pill overdose, I thought they would pump her stomach out, but that was not the case. 

A mental and psych evaluation was done, and she always remained on watch in her room. Lilah spent four days in the hospital. After being discharged, she was given in-person therapy which was once every two months and middle school therapy through the computer on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

I learnt that bullying, depression, and suicide attempt rates among middle school students are strongly correlated. Bullying that occurs frequently can cause depression to rise, which increases the likelihood of suicidal thoughts and actions (Koyanagi et al, 2019). In order to avoid such effects, bullying needs to be addressed, and mental health help needs to be provided. 

I realized I needed to be off work and be there for my daughter. Lilah and I did not cope well with the attempted suicide, and our mental health was just not doing well. We considered taking a break from everything else and just focusing on ourselves. Mental health is a significant issue, especially in the black community and the young generation now. Many do not want to accept that they may have an issue and just ignore the signs. Like myself, it took me eight years to accept that I have depression. My mother had it and now my daughter is battling with it. 

Though my daughter and I battle with the illness we have good and bad days. We both know life is a journey and at times there will be challenges, but how we respond to the situation will affect our wellbeing. Lilah, my daughter, will be my number one priority. I will continue to fight for equality in the schools regarding race, bullying and cyberbullying because not only has it affected my daughter, but it can affect someone else’s child. I am her voice. For information or help with depression or suicide attempts please call (800)273-8255 or (833)317-4673 Student editor, who promotes good mental health in the Black community. Chinyere Egu, can be reached at www.chindog7@gmail.com.