A Short Lesson in Bullying

I used to tell my elementary schoolers: If you make a joke about him and you’re both laughing, then it’s a joke. If you’re the only one laughing, then it’s bullying.


I’d see one little boy crying and the other laughing at him. I’d go up to them and ask what was happening. The laughing boy, sensing peril, would jump to explain. He’d made a simple joke, it was supposed to be funny. He didn’t know why the other boy was crying. The other boy would admit to being hurt by the joke.

Upon further inspection, I’d find out the joke was at the crying boy’s expense. It was about some shortcoming found in his looks or the way he spoke or the shoes he was wearing. And after the boy expressed his hurt, the laughing boy would insist that the offense wasn’t warranted. Crying Boy shouldn’t be hurt. Laughing Boy might pile on to the joke to prove a point, or tell him to stop crying, or get angry that the boy was hurt, or all those things at once.

So, maybe LB never meant it to be offensive. Never meant to make CB cry. But it was, and he did. A better and dignifying response? “I’m sorry that it hurt you. I didn’t mean it that way. I’ll be more aware next time.”

Because any attempt at explaining why CB shouldn’t feel what he’s feeling sounds dismissive. That conversation should come at a later time.

I say all of this because of the olympics being held in Brazil. I’ve gotten so tired at jokes made about my country’s shortcomings by Americans. I’m not laughing.

Another lesson in bullying: If you’re joking down (looking at someone you’re “superior” to and calling out their shortcomings to be funny), then it’s no longer joking. It’s mocking. If you’re American making jokes about Rio being poor? Or about how we have a Zika epidemic affecting a generation of babies? How would you feel if I replied with: Our waters may be dirty, but I bet they’re better than Flint‘s? No, right? Just no.

I can make fun of Phelps’s ears all I want. It won’t matter. He’s basically the son of Poseidon.

So, you see, joking up is different.

As the Olympics continue in Rio, I’m not asking you to do research on the economic disparities of my country. I don’t want you to inform yourself on the tense political climate with a president facing impeachment and an interim president making too many big decisions. Don’t look up what favelas are. I don’t even want you to hold back celebration of USA’s remarkable performance this year.

Just, when I say a joke you made about my country’s shortcomings was hurtful, just say sorry and don’t try to tell me why I shouldn’t be upset.

Rafaela Silva, from Cidade de Deus (City of God favela made famous by the movie), wins the first gold medal for Brazil in 2016 Olympics.

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