Should we delete our childhood tormentors from Facebook?

Should we delete our childhood tormentors from Facebook?

- Zoya Patel

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw her. Her name jumped out at me because I rarely saw her updates – we don’t interact often enough for her to meet whatever requirements Facebook’s algorithm have for being worthy of my newsfeed.

She looked remarkably different than I remembered, but that was understandable, considering it has been close to two decades since I last saw her. Back then, we were ‘best friends’, or so I told myself.

But in that moment, frozen on my computer screen, I was suddenly returned to an autumn day in 1995, and her childhood face glaring at me from behind another girls’ shoulder as they both told me, with no hesitation, that I couldn’t play with them that day. There was a rota, in fact. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I could sit with these girls at recess and lunch.

But on the other days, I was on my own. In Year 2 of primary school, this was a tough exclusion to face. And yet, a year later I called her my best friend. How did I forget the bullying? Or did I accept that bullying was the price I paid to have someone to sit next to two days a week during school breaks?

More context will probably make the situation clearer. For now, let’s call this ‘friend’ Bridget. And let’s rewind to when it all started.

Bridget and I grew up together in a regional town in the early '90s, and I do remember sleepovers and birthday parties, and classroom shenanigans with her. But what I conveniently overlooked for almost two decades was that, before we became bosom buddies, Bridget was a ringleader in a group of girls who bullied and ostracised me, because of my cultural background. Bridget, in fact, was a racist bully. How had I decided that this girl was not just my ‘friend’, but my ‘best friend’?

When my family moved to Australia from Fiji, I was a toddler. I learnt English from watching Playschool, and didn’t have a clear idea of our difference from the majority-white community we were thrust into until I started school.

I attended preschool before kindergarten, but was removed from the program after a few months, because I was bullied so horrendously by a few of the other small children for being ‘brown like poo’, that I developed a fear of returning. I remember being ignored in group activities, and repeatedly pushed off the swings during recess by a persistent racist boy who revelled in forcing me back to my natural place in his cultural hierarchy – sprawled on the ground with dirt in my mouth.

By the time I reached primary school, I had forgotten about this incident, and enjoyed one glorious year where I had an actual best friend, who was impervious to the jibes or disinterest I faced from the other kids.

My real problems started when I moved schools to a wealthier suburb, and spent several years unable to make any friends. Not only did I not make friends, but the few girls who would deign to suffer my presence where actively cruel to me.

Bridget and her group of pretty white seven-year-olds would let me play with them for two days every week, but I had to sit alone on the other three days, so they could have a ‘break’ from my offensive, brown presence. On the days where I could hang out with them, Bridget and her cronies would make me entertain them by doing things like kicking over bins and earning detentions, or essentially being the jester in their cruel recess court.

Eventually their bullying mellowed, and we became actual friends. I remember tearfully farewelling them when I moved to Canberra with my family in late primary school.

Now, as an adult, I pondered how I could possibly have repressed the racism and bullying I suffered from Bridget and her gang so completely, that I really thought we were friends, let alone allowed them access to my life again through Facebook?

Having read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s moving memoir, The Hate Race this year, in which she details the cruelty and racism she experienced growing up black in Australia, I was stirred to remember my own experiences, and to question how easily I accepted the discrimination I faced.

The fact is though, as Beneba Clarke so masterfully explores in her memoir, that the outrage and frustration that people of colour feel at the racism they experience usually comes later, long after the fact.

As a young person, trying desperately to fit in, I was pathetically grateful that Bridget even allowed me to sit near her at lunch. I deliberately ignored the pattern of behaviour that led to our eventual genuine friendship, because to confront it felt humiliating, and would force me to also confront my demeaning position in the social hierarchy at that point.

Besides, the racism I experienced from Bridget was fairly mild, compared to the more aggressive racism my siblings and I endured from other peers at school. And by being my friend (eventually) Bridget sheltered me from some of that more persistent bullying I was experiencing from others. Bridget probably didn’t even remember those torturous years of primary school, or if she did, she was unlikely to see the way I was treated as anything other than ‘kids being kids’.

The shame that racism inflicts on people of colour is complex and more insidious than the more obvious impacts of discrimination. The sense that we are less than our peers, and that we don’t deserve to be treated with anything other than disdain is easily absorbed and internalised, and to point it out after the fact feels like forcing ourselves back into some of the worst moments of our lives.

By adding Bridget on Facebook, I felt like I was showing how inconsequential her bullying of me was, how it was just a normal part of childhood rather than an enactment of the systemic racism that filters across so many aspects of Australian culture. I wanted to shrug it off, because it reinforced the notion that it was not that big a deal, and that by association, my cultural difference wasn’t a big deal either.

Now, however, a genuine conversation is emerging in the public sphere about racism as it affects Australians from migrant backgrounds, led by people like Maxine Beneba Clarke, Benjamin Law, and Waleed Aly.

The emergence of this community discussion has forced me to consider how my condoning of racism inflicted on me could be contributing to more young people of colour experiencing discrimination and the shame associated with it, without role models to exemplify how unacceptable it is.

I deleted Bridget from Facebook. I don’t think that Bridget is racist as an adult – I know that children aren’t always aware of the broader implications of the schoolyard hierarchies that dictate their lives. I don’t think Bridget was actively trying to be cruel to me, so much as she didn’t even see that her behaviour was anything other than the normal enacting of cultural systems we took as a given.

Perhaps I should have verbalised my feelings about her childhood bullying more explicitly, or opened a dialogue with her to deal with it more meaningfully, but the first step for me to move on is creating no space in my life for the people who have held me back.

Importantly, it is one of the few ways I can control my contact with people who are linked toe the racism I have experienced, as usually the type of racism I deal with day-to-day is casual, and generally perpetrated by strangers.

As a child, I couldn’t see this, and frankly I didn’t care if my friends were only part-time – half a friend is better than no friend at all.

But now, I think about the way that even as a child, I knew to bury my feelings of humiliation and hurt when faced with racism, if it meant that I could fit in more or find a way to not stand out as much.

I want to stop doing that. I want to remind myself that I don’t owe white people anything, least of all those that have deliberately shamed me. I want to remember that the power structures that allowed those seven-year-old white girls to torment me should not be strengthened by my silent acceptance.

I get to choose who is in my life, however tenuously. And I choose not to provide that access to those who disdained it at first offering.

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