Bullying & lateral violence

Almost every youth has experienced violence from their peers—called lateral violence. Read how a life-time of oppression affects Aboriginal people.

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Selected statistics

Percentage of young people who have witnessed lateral violence and bullying at home
Percentage of surveyed Aboriginal academics and professional staff who have experienced lateral violence in their workplace
Percentage of bullying that occurs among Aboriginal people themselves .

What is lateral violence?

Definition: Lateral violence

Lateral violence is a term that describes the way people in positions of powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful than themselves.

The dark outline of a woman sitting by herself at the shore of a lake.
Victims of bullying and lateral violence feel depressed and alone. Violence must not be physical, subtle violence can cause just as much damage.

Lateral violence is believed to occur worldwide in minorities and particularly Aboriginal peoples.

It is also "a form of bullying that includes gossip, shaming and blaming others, backstabbing and attempts to socially isolate others" , and for Aboriginal people in particular, talk of blood quantum - 'you're half-blood'. Victims of lateral violence do these "organised, harmful behaviours" to each other collectively as part of an oppressed group, within their families, within their organisations and within their communities" .

"Lateral violence is the expression of rage and anger, fear and terror that can only be safely vented upon those closest to us when we are being oppressed." In other words, people who are victims of a situation of dominance turn on each other instead of confronting the system that oppresses them. The oppressed become the oppressors.

Lateral violence is directed sideways ('lateral') meaning the aggressors are your peers, often people in powerless positions. It is your own (Aboriginal) peers who bully you.

Other terms include "work place bullying", "horizontal violence", "intra-racial conflict" and "internalised colonialism" .

Research suggests that as many as 95% of bullying occurs amongst Aboriginal people themselves .

Lateral violence happens in organisations everywhere--;people gossiping and backstabbing--but within Aboriginal communities, it's particularly sharp and particularly acute.

— Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Cyber-bullying through texting and social networking is also an emerging problem among Aboriginal people .

Causes of lateral violence

The roots of lateral violence lie in colonisation, oppression, intergenerational trauma, powerlessness and ongoing experiences of racism and discrimination, factors mainstream bullying programs do not take into account .

These kinds of trauma can also cause adolescent violence and turn young children into violent offenders later in life .

Diminishing traditional roles, structures and knowledge, attacks on Aboriginal culture, and conflict about Aboriginal identity are further causes . Notions of who is 'a real Aboriginal person' are powerful weapons in lateral violence. Negative stereotypes create low self-esteem or a victim mentality, which in turn reinforces feelings of powerlessness and makes people lash out in lateral violence.

[Lateral violence] comes from being colonised, invaded. It comes from being told you are worthless and treated as being worthless for a long period of time. Naturally you don't want to be at the bottom of the pecking order, so you turn on your own.

— Richard J. Frankland, Aboriginal singer/songwriter, author and film maker

Governments can (inadvertently or deliberately) create the environment for lateral violence through a lack of recognition and engagement, and by pitting groups against each other.

One such example is the native title process where Aboriginal people have to prove their identity over and over again. In some states Aboriginal groups have a say in who belongs to a particular land and who doesn't, a right which can stir lateral violence when native title claimants are not sure of their Aboriginal identity and communities become fragmented. The native title process can also lead to feelings of dispossession.

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, says that "although native title provides a unique opportunity for many of our communities to overcome disadvantage, these outcomes are often not fully realised because lateral violence fragments our communities as we navigate structures such as the native title system." .

Who speaks for a community and whom governments choose to listen to can alienate those who miss out and let them feel powerless.

Governments contribute to a feeling of powerlessness by taking a deficit-based approach--addressing the 'Aboriginal problem'--rather than focusing on capabilities and resilience of Aboriginal people .

Story: "Lateral violence extends beyond the skin"

Jane Delaney-John has experienced lateral violence first-hand. Here she analyses its causes .

"I am seeing an increasing and disturbing trend towards lateral violence and discrimination within communities. Unresolved trauma, identity, land, cultural and social struggle, all impact on the way individuals, families and groups are treating each other. It very sad to see and very destructive.

"There are few programs and initiatives concentrating on healing. In some of the communities I am working in... we are exploring ways in which we can embed healing into programs to strengthen communities as the lateral violence in some is at a critical flash point.

"One of the other positives is that communities are starting to talk about the jealousies, lateral violence, scuttlebutt and distress and trauma this is causing. Once we are able to bring these issues to the circle (with respect dignity and cultural safety) we can start to look for solutions and healing approaches.

"I have found once ‘unpacked’, the community themselves have a wealth of solutions to work towards addressing the distress and experiences.

"In my experience I have found that lateral violence extends beyond merely the skin tone of Aboriginal people--unresolved trauma, dispossession, poverty, limited opportunities, impact of continuing inability to access land water, share resource wealth, impact on flora and fauna, totemic and cultural and spiritual practise within homelands and the struggle to recognise and feel comfortable with the different dimensions of contemporary Aboriginality cumulatively add pressures to communities and families. The historic legacy of oppression pervades some aspects of our communities today."

Effects of lateral violence and bullying

Effects of lateral violence and bullying include reduced (mental) health and well-being and lower self-confidence. Organisations function less and experience high staff turnover with less Aboriginal people taking positions.

"I met a lady once," recalls Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. "When we explained lateral violence, she broke down and cried and said 'that's what caused my husband to kill himself!'."

With lateral violence the oppressed become the oppressors. We've internalised the pain of colonisation and our oppression and we've taken it into our communities in the factionalisation and in the gossip and talk of blood quantum, "you're half-blood" etc.

— Allen Benson, CEO Native Counselling Services of Alberta, Canada

Allen Benson goes on to explain that "as oppressed people, we want to say we have that little bit of power over somebody and we've just dragged ourselves down as a society instead of supporting each other in the community. As long as we internalise the pain and don't forgive people, we'll carry it with us forever."

Violence is normalised and children grow up expected to behave like everyone else and copy the bullying.

Forms of lateral violence

Frequent forms of lateral violence are:

  • non-verbal innuendo like raising eyebrows, face-making or making obscene gestures;
  • bullying, for example bullying people for having a lighter or darker skin tone and for not looking Aboriginal;
  • malicious gossip including spreading rumours or gossip about a subject’s cultural identity;
  • imposition of derogatory labels;
  • verbal affront which can be overt or covert and include snide remarks, lack of openness, abrupt responses, gossiping, name calling;
  • shaming;
  • undermining activities (turning away, not being available, social exclusion);
  • withholding information;
  • sabotage (deliberately setting up a negative situation);
  • infighting, for example bickering, family feuds, racially-motivated teasing, taunting, froshing (an initiation usually involving pain or embarrassment), and threats;
  • scapegoating;
  • backstabbing (complaining to peers and not confronting the individual);
  • failure to respect privacy;
  • broken confidences;
  • organisational conflict;
  • social exclusion like isolating someone from their friends or peer group;
  • physical violence, for example attacking new people coming into the community;
  • cyber-bullying: using the Internet, instant messaging, and social networking sites to intimidate, put-down, spread rumours, make fun of, threaten, or exclude someone because of their actual or perceived cultural identity.

95% of a group of young people had witnessed lateral violence at home .

Those most at risk of lateral violence in its raw physical form are family members and, in the main, the most vulnerable members of the family: old people, women and children. Especially the children.

— Marcia Langton, Aboriginal writer

Story: "Wake up, bitch!"

Here's what happened to an Aboriginal woman in a fast food restaurant .

"As I was standing waiting to place my order a mob of my own [Aboriginal] people started to berate me about wearing an Aboriginal-designed bangle when I was 'not Aboriginal' and indicating that I was ripping them off by wearing it.

The young girl abused me and told me to 'wake up, bitch' and then said to her friends, 'Well does she look Aboriginal to us? I don't think so.' ...

I would like to say that I am a proud Wadi Wadi woman and I was disgusted by the behaviour of the people in the restaurant."

Much later, the woman told me how the story continued for her:

"I was absolutely devastated when I wrote to the Koori Mail about this incident but something really positive actually came out of it. Soon after this happened my colleague and I put together a workshop called 'The Black Poppy Syndrome: Aboriginal People and Lateral Violence'. So... there was a silver lining!"

Resolving lateral violence

Governments are not likely to fix the issue. Instead, the solution must come from within Aboriginal communities, from Aboriginal people taking control and addressing the issue themselves.

Self-determination can stifle the toxicity of victimhood and powerlessness and enables communities to make their own decisions with respect to resolving disputes, defining acceptable behaviour and taking responsibility of the well-being of the community.

Naming lateral violence is the first step towards exerting control over it, and an action of prevention . It gives Aboriginal communities

  • the language to name laterally violent behaviour,
  • the space to discuss its impact, and
  • the tools to start developing solutions.

To tackle lateral violence Richard J. Frankland suggests that you "out it. Name it for what it is, a destroyer of Indigenous culture and life. Publicly admit it is happening and then take steps and measures to deal with it... Find ways to deal with it, end it, eradicate it from our lives and communities." .

Others suggest to apply traditional ways of resolving disputes, such as learning and healing circles and shared care .

Addressing lateral violence will require courage, goodwill and determination.

— Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

The Solid Kids, Solid Schools, Solid Families website provides information about bullying with pages written directly for children, parents and schools.

Watch a video where Denise Findlay and Tereasa Golka talk about lateral violence in Canadian Aboriginal communities and their workshop The Crab In The Bucket which tries to find solutions.

Diva Chat

Snide remarks and innuendo
Running rampant in our town
They say it's in the name of fun
To run somebody down

But it's not that funny to those out there
Who constantly put up with the crap
To have to wear your unkind remarks
When you sink as low as that

That diva chat they say it's great
And it's really cheap as well
They get on there and go to town
their stories they love to tell

But do you people realise
You're hurting someone out there
With your unkind words and trash talk
Do you give a dam, do you care

I don't know if you know this
But to be on diva chat
You have to be 18 years old
Did any of you know that

All it starts is trouble
In the end the fights will start
So how about you stop and think
Before you play your part.

Poem by Nola Gregory, an Aboriginal youth worker .


View article sources (13)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] [1e] 'A frank discussion on tackling black lateral violence', NIT 14/5/2009 p.21
[2] 'Uni racism finding in new report', Koori Mail 515 p.26
[3] [3a] [3b] [3c] 'Expert warns over bullying', Koori Mail 475 p.38
[4] 'Communities warned of 'lateral violence'', Koori Mail 503 p.12
[5] 'One's identity is for the individual to determine', SMH 25/11/2011
[6] [6a] [6b] [6c] 'Laws 'feeding' violence: Gooda', Koori Mail 513 p.13
[7] 'Lateral violence', Koori Mail 395 p.9
[8] [8a] [8b] [8c] '2011 Social Justice and Native Title Reports - A Community Guide', Mick Gooda
[9] [9a] 'Violence an issue we must address: Gooda', Koori Mail 515 p.11
[10] 'Are we becoming are [sic] own oppressors', LinkedIn, Australian Aboriginal Network 23/9/2011
[11] 'Lateral violence', Koori Mail, 28/2/2007
[12] 'Hostages to men's business', The Australian, 8/11/2008
[13] 'Feeling let down', readers letter, Koori Mail 511 p.25

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Bullying & lateral violence, <>, retrieved 19 June 2024

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