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Invited Commentary
July 23, 2021

Exploration of Identity-Based Bullying by Race/Ethnicity and Other Marginalized Identities Among Adolescents

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Education, University of California, Los Angeles
JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(7):e2117827. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.17827

The study by Gálan et al1 on identity based bullying (IBB) in multiracial/multiethnic adolescents in urban schools is both timely and important. Experiences of IBB in school are part of everyday life for many youth from racially/ethnically minoritized populations, such as Black and Latinx youth, and those experiences can take their toll on the mental and physical health of these youth. We know that youth from racially/ethnically minoritized populations who experience racial/ethnic IBB often report feeling depressed and anxious in school. Gálan et al1 extend these findings particularly for Black and Latinx high school students who identified with sexual minority groups. When experiencing harassment owing to their race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, these youth were more likely to engage in nonsuicidal self-injury and suicide ideation and to reduce seeking health care.

This is a critical time to be studying consequences of IBB among multiple racial/ethnic groups, given the rise in hate crimes associated with COVID-19. Even preceding the pandemic, the US was already confronting a deep-seated political divide that has created new fears, threats, and feelings of discomfort among those who might be the targets of racist, ethnic, classist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions. Some studies have documented an increase in biased-based bullying in kindergarten through 12th grade schools in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a 2019 study by Huang and Cornell.2 We are indeed living in challenging times.

Against this backdrop—the data used in the study by Gálan et al1 were collected in 2019—this study raises a number of important issues that may be useful to researchers with a health focus studying IBB in school contexts. In this context, there are 3 issues worth further consideration: multiple stigmatized identities, the school context, and the developmental perspective. In these contexts, I focus is on individuals who experience IBB rather than those who perpetrate IBB or those who both experience and perpetrate IBB. I think that the mental and physical health correlates of experiencing and enacting IBB are quite different; adequately addressing those differences is beyond the scope of this commentary.

Multiple Stigmatized Identities

One strength of the study by Gálan et al1 is that it addresses multiple social identities. In the discrimination literature, IBB for race/ethnicity is conceptualized as a social identity that is devalued in the eyes of others. There are other social identities possessed by youth that may be devalued in some contexts, including those examined in this study: religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, and immigration status. Each of these social stigmas, when linked to unfair treatment, is associated with negative mental health consequences, although these identities tend to be studied independently of one another as separate empirical literatures.

But what if the individual being targeted by racial/ethnic IBB is also the target of gender and religious discrimination? Consider, for example, the sexual minority Latina who also reports harassment from peers owing to her immigrant status; in other words, she experiences IBB owing to 3 devalued identities (ie, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and immigrant history). Are her negative experiences exacerbated 3-fold? Or are some types of IBB particularly challenging, independent of the presence of other social stigmas? In this example, just focusing on 1 stigmatized identity (race/ethnicity) ignores the fact that Latinas may confront the added challenges of sexual orientation and immigration status.

The study by Gálan et al1 takes this multiple identities approach with an additive modeling approach: the more stigmatized identities reported, the greater the negative consequences. These findings are consistent with the notion that people who possess multiple stigmatized identities are multiply disadvantaged. While this approach is an improvement over the single-identity perspective, it still does not fully address the intersection of particular identities that are targeted by IBB. For example, we do not know whether some identities that may be targeted by IBB cooccur in particular identity groups, or whether some patterns map on to particular mental or physical health consequences. Based on the data reported in the study by Gálan et al,1 I suspect that any stigmatized identity that cooccurs with racial/ethnic IBB will be most challenging, such that it is not so much the sheer number of stigmatized identities that matters as much the particular patterns of cooccurrence. Achieving this kind of nuance will require person-centered approaches in addition to the variable-centered approach reported in the study by Gálan et al,1 such as those used in a 2020 study by Ghavami et al.3

The School Context

The study by Gálan et al1 sampled a large number of multiracial/multiethnic students from 13 urban high schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The analytic approach controlled for possible differences among schools rather than systematically examining them. But from the previous literature on bullying, we know that there are important school-level differences that both shape the likelihood that youth will report IBB and the particular consequences associated with IBB. One significant variable is the overall racial/ethnic diversity of a school. Research suggests that adolescents feel less at risk of experiencing IBB when they attend schools that are racially and ethnically diverse. Building on the work of Olweus,4 who highlights the role of imbalance of power in bullying, the argument is that in schools with multiple racial/ethnic groups of relatively equal size (the hallmark of diversity), there is a greater numerical balance of power among these different groups. Although the balance of power hypothesis focuses on racial/ethnic diversity, I suspect that it can be examined in schools that vary in their representation of other potentially stigmatizing identities (eg, how diverse are schools on dimensions of social class, religious affiliation, immigrant history). I encourage Gálan et al1 to think about how their findings might be different if school diversity had been modeled in the analysis.

A second important school factor is the source of IBB. For example, does it make a difference if IBB is perpetrated by teachers vs peers at school? In the race/ethnicity literature, Benner and Graham5 found that unfair treatment from teachers (eg, receiving a lower grade than deserved) was associated with academic disengagement, whereas unfair treatment from peers (eg, being excluded from the group) was associated with socioemotional challenges. It is likely IBB from peers may be particularly potent for socioemotional well-being, given the importance of peer acceptance during adolescence. In contrast, IBB from teachers may have a stronger impact on achievement because of the status and power of teachers to shape students’ academic outcomes. Teachers as the perceived source of IBB may be particularly associated with the health care outcomes examined by Gálan et al1 because these outcomes are conditioned on perceived support and trust of authority figures in powerful systems (medical vs educational). Given the focus in Gálan et al1 on disparities in access to health care, a useful next step is to examine the sources of IBB.

A Developmental Perspective

The participants in Gálan et al1 were 9th to 12th graders. Missing from the approach was attention to the developmental context. Ninth graders are transitioning to high school, a developmental period with many unique challenges because of the mismatch between the developmental needs of early adolescents and the demands of the school context.6 By 12th grade, youth have entered into late adolescence and they are the oldest (and possibly most influential) students in the school. It could well be that IBB shifts, possibly even decreases, from the beginning to the end of high school or that some stigmatizing identities are more potent for different age groups.

The findings of Gálan et al1 contribute new insights into the evolving literature on IBB. They also stimulate researchers to think about ways to better unpackage the complexity of the phenomena examined here. I suggest more attention to intersectional identities, the school context, and a developmental analysis. This is a critical time for taking research in IBB in promising new directions.

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Article Information

Published: July 23, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.17827

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Graham S. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Sandra Graham, PhD, Department of Education, University of California, Los Angeles, California, 405 Hilgard Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90095 (shgraham@ucla.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Galán  CA, Stokes  LR, Szoko  N, Abebe  KZ, Culyba  AJ.  Exploration of experiences and perpetration of identity-based bullying among adolescents by race/ethnicity and other marginalized identities.   JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(7):e2116364. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.16364Google Scholar
Huang  F, Cornell  D.  School teasing and bullying after the presidential election.   Educ Res. 2019;48:69-83. doi:10.3102/0013189X18820291Google ScholarCrossref
Ghavami  N, Kogachi  K, Graham  S.  How racial/ethnic diversity in urban schools shapes intergroup relations and well-being: unpacking intersectionality and multiple identities perspectives.   Front Psychol. Published online November 24, 2020. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.503846PubMedGoogle Scholar
Olweus  D.  Bullying at School. Blackwell Publishers; 1993.
Benner  AD, Graham  S.  The antecedents and consequences of racial/ethnic discrimination during adolescence: does the source of discrimination matter?   Dev Psychol. 2013;49(8):1602-1613. doi:10.1037/a0030557PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Eccles  JS, Roeser  RW. Schools, academic motivation, and stage-environment fit. In: Lerner  RM, Steinberg  L, eds.  Handbook of Adolescent Psychology: Individual Bases Of Adolescent Development. 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons; 2009:404-434.
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