., queer

The Heart Behind Pink Shirt Day


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IMG_4237Two years ago I partook in the celebration of Canada’s national anti-bullying day as I slipped over my pink shirt and zealously celebrated all-things pink. I was in grade 12 and took pride in mobilizing my high school’s pink-shirt day with what I thought was a tangible solution to the complexity of bullying.

At my school, we had every student, teacher, and custodian’s name posted in the front hall in the form of miniature paper pink shirts, creating a hall flooded with the colour pink.

Yet today I look back at myself and wonder if pink-shirt day really made a difference.

Pink-shirt day originated in Nova Scotia when a gay high school teen was bullied because he wore the colour pink to school. In response, his friends encouraged their friends to all wear pink the following day in an act of solidarity, through protesting bullying.

What happened in Nova Scotia is a prime example of what happens on a day-to-day basis in schools – the targeting of boys who transgress hegemonic masculinity. This is rooted in homophobia and misogyny.

One of the things that I reflect upon is whether or not through anti-bullying day we actually challenge these systems of hegemonic masculinity and misogyny, which cause people harm. Yes, it’s great to blatantly frown upon “bullying” – but how do we actually address the systemic issues that underpin bullying? Are we actually engaging our communities to find solutions against the harms caused by misogyny, homophobia, and femmephobia; why is it that every over day of the year it is still awkward for a guy to wear the colour pink? How can we find ways to challenge the continuous persistence of masculinity by critiquing the social disapproval towards deviances from gender norms?

As students and adults embrace anti-bullying day by wearing pink shirts, going on marches on the street, and preaching the rhetoric of kindness and respect, I am concerned that this movement against bullying will become a façade – which we advocate against “oppression” (in the form of bullying) for one day – yet we will overlook the systemic impacts of how oppression actually operationalizes. I am concerned that when students (like myself) wear pink shirts, they go home and give themselves a feel-good pat-on-the back for challenging bullying, but forget where bullying stems from.

We cannot forget that bullying is a systemic issue; not all students (and adults) are equally susceptible to being bullied, bullying targets those who are socially on the margins. Issues of race should be talked about, issues of cultural and ethnic differences, body shapes, fatness, homophobia, transphobia, gender variances, the way certain people smell, the way certain people dress, the way people talk, the lisps certain people have, the eye twitch that one girl has, the way one walks, and the list goes on, are all things people can be bullied for. This is what anti-bullying day really should be about: yes, wearing pink shirts, but also organizing and finding strategies to combat the root causes of bullying and oppression.

When we wear a pink shirt, we should be willing to address issues of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, mental health, religious differences, and body image among the variety of reasons why people are bullied. Otherwise, when we wear a pink shirt to preach anti-bullying and stop there, we are in fact perpetuating bullying by saying we refuse to take further action in dismantling systemic discrimination. Bullying is in fact perpetuated because we convince ourselves we are addressing the issues of bullying, but we are merely masking our own insecurities to take action and speak out against various forms of discrimination ranging from transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, fatphobia, colonialism and classism.

By merely wearing a pink-shirt and convincing yourself that you are not a bully is a myopic measure that silences the reality of bullying on a larger scale. Simply wearing pink carries symbolic power, it visually creates an image of solidarity, but solidarity can be expressed by showing compassion and taking action to fight systemic forms of oppression, too.

We recognize the unacceptable acts of physical aggression and blatant name-calling, which often come to define bullying, but we are gradually becoming numb to the ways that produce bullying in the act of speaking against it.

Pink Shirt Day reminds me of the challenges I face in my journey, as someone who strives to organize against oppression and bullying. There is something liberating about getting excited to mobilize change when your friends, teachers, and co-workers all wear pink (I remember this good feeling), yet I am reminded that for the other 364 days we must not let various forms of oppression go unchecked. Simply, I hope to find ways to take the fun and love of Pink Shirt Day and use that energy to move one step further to build long term goals and cohesive communities that challenge oppression.

I hope we can realize that behind Pink Shirt Day is a very simple and raw act of kindness. Extend your heart, show compassion, and empathy, just like we do on Pink Shirt Day, and in this simple process I believe various forms of oppression can be alleviated. Initiatives to end bullying will require dismantling systemic forms of oppression, but first, love is required, and that love starts with the love you hold in your heart.

-Andy Holmes

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