‘Racial gaslighting’ is a form of psychological abuse that forces people of colour to question their judgment, perception, or memory of a race-based issue. This form of abuse forces black people to doubt their own understanding of racism. This also includes racist attacks and interactions they have experienced. (More about racism)
What is Gaslighting?
In recent years, the word ‘gaslighting’ has skyrocketed up the list of commonly used terms. But what does it mean?
Gaslighting is a psychological technique that is used to manipulate people into second-guessing their own opinion/stance in a discussion or argument. The term is named after a film, Gaslight 1944, that shows a male protagonist convincing his wife that she is losing her mind.
This form of abuse is all about gaining the upper hand and securing superiority over another person/group. As a result, gaslighting is closely tied to misogynistic, emotional abuse (typically directed at a woman/girl). Although, gaslighting doesn’t only occur within private relationships.
What Is Racial Gaslighting?
‘Racial gaslighting’ is a form of psychological abuse that forces people of colour to question their judgment, perception, or memory of a race-based issue. This form of abuse forces black people to doubt their own understanding of what racism is. This includes racist attacks and interactions they have experienced.
Racial gaslighting is a structurally enforced way of maintaining the dominant anti-black sentiment that fuels white supremacy. Those that challenge racism are labelled as unreliable and unrepresentative.
‘Structural gaslighting’ describes gaslighting on a mass scale. This involves the psychological abuse of entire social classes (i.e. black people). Racial gaslighting is a social-interactional form of racial oppression that can appear in many settings (public and private). As a structural issue, racial gaslighting works through the systems of white supremacy, white privilege, and racial hierarchies.
So how does – or how can – racial gaslighting happen? What does it look like and how do you know if you’re being gaslit? What are some examples of racial gaslighting?
What Is Tone Policing?
Gaslighting takes many forms. As a black woman, one of the most common forms of gaslighting I experience is ‘tone policing’. Tone policing involves criticizing a person for expressing emotion. This tactic is often used against women (whom society has dubbed “too emotional”). This derails a discussion about someone’s concerns by making their point of view seem overexaggerated, unreliable, and altogether incorrect – simply because they are passionate or emotionally connected to the issue in some way.
My blackness is used to make me seem aggressive and my womanhood is used to make me seem unnecessarily emotional. If my voice isn’t monotone and my hands aren’t by my sides at all times, I’m immediately perceived as hostile, unprofessional, and unhinged. Tone policing is something that black women experience constantly.
However, it’s not something we experience exclusively from white people. A lot of the time it’s actually black men that are problematic. Black men often socially enforce the stereotypes forced on black women.
This form of racial gaslighting is so severely emotionally draining that I, and other women such as myself, may avoid conversations about race or any discussion where we are not allowed to express ourselves fully.
In an article about racial gaslighting in the workplace, Meganne Franks states ‘racial gaslighting has kept me silent and complicit in perpetuating systemic racism throughout my whole career’. Black women are forced to remain constantly aware of how we speak and how we address others while in discussions about issues that directly affect us!
“Racial gaslighting has kept me silent and complicit in perpetuating systemic racism throughout my whole career.”Meganne Franks
Racism hurts black women. It literally kills us and yet we’re supposed to smile through these discussions to accommodate the discomfort of white people. The slightest change in tone and my entire perspective is instantly invalid. This becomes even more significant in conversations where the opinion of one is seen as representing an entire group of people. In these situations, the perspective of an entire group gets invalidated.
What Is Victim-Blaming?
‘Victim-blaming’ is another common form of gaslighting. Victim-blaming is as it sounds. The victim in the scenario is claimed to be at fault for an attack that was directed at them or any form of harm that was brought to them. This is a conversational tactic that distracts from the main issue and refuses to place blame where it truly belongs.
We often see victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault. Far too many ignorant a**holes take it upon themselves to interrogate the victim with questions such as: ‘What were you wearing?’; ‘Why didn’t you film it or something?’; ‘Why were you out so late?’; ‘Did you fight back?’.
Victim blaming puts the responsibility for a harmful act onto the victim of that act, rather than the person that did it. When it comes to racial gaslighting, black people constantly run into victim-blaming in many scenarios but most often, in cases of police brutality.
“He was resisting arrest.”
“If he did what they [police] said…”
“He was a drug addict though.”
“He had like 3 previous convictions.”
During June 2020, victim-blaming (among many other forms of racial gaslighting) hit the black community like a storm after George Floyd, an African-American man, was brutally murdered by a US police officer. In many discussions with white people about this specific example of police brutality, the focus was almost always on George. The topics people discussed were always what he was doing, why he was under arrest, his history, and whether he was resisting arrest. To these people, Derek Chauvin (the man who murdered George Floyd) was not the problem, nor were the other officers who stood by and watched.
Those that I called my friends and those whom I thought supported the black community – our basic human rights – stood by Chauvin and the police’s so-called “right” to murder people. I remember one conversation I had with a white male who claimed it was acceptable for George Floyd to die because of an alleged assault he was involved in over 10 years ago. My response was that even if that were true, Chauvin had no right or responsibility to murder him.
His response: “So you think it’s OK to assault people? He deserved to die.” This is one of many conversations that I’ve had with white people about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s death. These conversations show exactly how society is designed to uphold white supremacy and anti-blackness. We draw attention as far away from the real problem as possible. We scrutinized Floyd’s history but paid no attention to Chauvin, who has multiple complaints filed against him for multiple cases of misconduct.
This example introduces us to the ‘perfect victim’ complex. In cases like this, it’s not uncommon for people to deflect attention onto the victim. This forces black people to jump through hoops attempting to prove that the victim was a good person. They might not have been, but they definitely didn’t deserve to die. This perspective holds black people to an extremely high standard. It’s as if black people do deserve to die unless they’re a saint who has devoted their entire life to being kind and helping others.
Victim blaming maintains and perpetuates severe social issues because the first step in solving the problem is to find the source… to place the blame. This cannot be done when the victim is interrogated and the murderer is ignored.
What Is Casual Racism?
As the protests then ensued, casual racism was normalized by white people and racial gaslighting became even more prevalent. There were plenty of comments along the lines of: “well if you protested peacefully, more people would listen”; “I agree with the protests but only when they’re peaceful” and “how do you even know it’s about skin colour?”. The most aggravating part about the people who say these things is that they refuse to acknowledge that they’re racist. When they’re told that they are racist it’s always…
“I don’t see colour.”
“I don’t care if your black, brown, purple, green, blue or whatever.”
“Why do you make everything about race?”
In a more recent discussion that I had with a white male about systemic racism, he tried to convince me that it isn’t an issue because “black people are the ones who are segregating themselves from white people and white people just want to move on”. In the same breath, he then said to me “white privilege doesn’t exist because there’s no difference between us other than the fact that I’m white and your black”. I still don’t know what he was trying to say.
Racism and racial gaslighting can be unintentional but that doesn’t mean it’s any less harmful to the black community. Arguably, this level of ignorance is even more harmful than conscious racism.
How Does This Affect BIPOC?
Racial gaslighting strengthens white supremacy. Those that challenge racism and white supremacy are often torn down by racial gaslighting. Sophie Williams, author of Millennial Black (read here), describes how “it makes us feel like unreliable narrators of our own lives”. The psychological impact of gaslighting forces us to question our own pro-black anti-racism stance.
“It makes us feel like unreliable narrators of our own lives.”Sophie Williams
As a result of the social hierarchy, BIPOC are largely disenfranchised. Racial gaslighting largely comes from people in positions of power (e.g., politicians or financial elites), such as white people. White people: the socially superior race, who control the majority of the wealth and political power. Black people are being denied access to their rights by those that took them in the first place simply because they refuse to acknowledge the severity of white supremacy – or even that it exists.
Dr Pragya Agarwal, author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (read here), claims that “racial gaslighting is a way of ensuring that accusations of racism lose credibility”. Racial gaslighting forces the accuser to question their accusation, rather than the racism itself. As a result, minorities question their own experiences rather than the structures of oppression within society.
“Racial gaslighting is a way of ensuring that accusations of racism lose credibility.”Dr Pragya Agarwal
One of the major impacts of racial gaslighting is that it socially drains marginalized communities. Many interactional forms of racism are designed to fatigue marginalized communities. It discourages us from entering these discussions or presenting accusations. We are constantly having to go back to the basics with white people to simply prove that institutionalized racism exists and that white privilege is also a thing! This intensely slows down the pace of progress and our ability for real social change.
What Can We Do to Stop Racial Gaslighting?
One of the main and most important things a person can do in any case of social inequality is to educate. Educating yourself on the issues BIPOC face and the realities and manifestations of white supremacy is highly significant in bringing about true and conclusive social change. Take it even further: educate others. Make sure that when expanding your own knowledge, you pass on that information and educate those around you (friends, family, strangers, etc – even your teachers).
Call it out
When you educate yourself, you can then call out racism where and when you see it. Stand by and support marginalized communities when their tone is being policed or when they are interrogated after suffering a hate crime. Whatever the situation may be, intervene and call it out.
Recognize your own attitude
Call it out in yourself too. Recognize your own internal responses to racism and your own prejudices and behaviours in certain situations. How do you respond when you hear a story about a racist attack? How should you respond? Empathize with the victims of racial gaslighting. Listen to BIPOC stories about their own experiences. Don’t question them. Don’t doubt them. We all have multiple stories to tell on racism and you must acknowledge that every single one is valid.
Stick to your guns
If you are ever being gaslit, try and make sure you provide facts and evidence of your claim/accusation. This could be emails, videos, statistics, quotes, etc. Don’t let the conversation be derailed entirely and fall on another topic altogether.
Take care of yourself
Also, as a person of color, always be aware of your own psychological and mental wellbeing. It is utterly draining having to constantly deal with racism in so many forms and from so many directions. Try not to engage in emotionally exhausting environments and surround yourself with growth-minded people.