We’ve seen gaslighting in the context of relationships, parenting and even the workplace. But one form of this subert manipulation tactic can be even more challenging to recognize: racial gaslighting. And, unfortunately, it’s even more common than most people realize. For instance, if you’ve ever been accused of playing the “race card” or told to “lighten up” over a racist remark, then chances are you’re experiencing racial gaslighting. But before we explore the term further, let’s start with the basics.
Racial Gaslighting Is Real, and for BIPOC Women, It’s Thoroughly Toxic
1. What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation, where a person’s statements can cause you to second guess your own memories and perceptions of reality. In its milder forms, gaslighting can lead to an unequal power dynamic that’s often too subtle to notice, but at worst, this toxic behavior can escalate to mind-control and psychological abuse. For example, when you call your partner out for saying hurtful things to you, they might deny that thing was ever even said. They may even rattle you more by adding that you’re the crazy one because it’s you who said the hurtful things. If left unchecked, the long-term effects of gaslighting can take a major toll on your mental and emotional health, like anxiety, depression and more.
2. Ok, So What Is Racial Gaslighting?
Michelle Rodriguez, LinkedIn’s Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, defines it as "a form of emotional abuse that hinges on making a victim doubt their own sanity and reality as is particularly related to their race or the issue of racism." So in other words, it's a unique kind of gaslighting that causes people of color to question their own experiences with racism.
Meanwhile, researchers Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst took this meaning a step further and concluded that the main purpose is to normalize white supremacy by manipulating those who seek to combat the issue. This in turn causes people to wonder if they’re overreacting or misinterpreting things.
In their paper for Politics, Groups, and Identities, they described racial gaslighting as “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.”
3. What Are Some Examples Of Racial Gaslighting?
We’ve seen it play out on several occasions. For instance, there’s the “All Lives Matter” movement, a weaponizing phrase that's meant to dismiss the issue of racism and make Black Lives Matter supporters question their stance. Then there’s Piers Morgan’s criticism of Meghan Markle after her tell-all Oprah interview. Not only did he publicly call her a liar and dismiss her experiences with racism, but also, he accused her of causing damage to the British monarchy, suggesting that she is the problem and not the victim.
When it comes to everyday experiences, however, it can be tricky to recognize when you’re being racially gaslit—especially when it’s more subtle. Here are some concrete examples of what that might sound like:
- "I'm sure it was just a joke."
- “It’s not that serious, you're overreacting.”
- “Are you sure that’s what happened?”
- "I don't see color."
- "Racism no longer exists."
- "That sounds like reverse racism."
- "Not everything is about race."
- "What I said wasn't racist."
- “I’m not racist, but…”
- "Stop playing the race card."
This isn’t an all-encompassing list, but as a general rule of thumb, if someone’s comment makes you doubt the legitimacy of your own expectations with racism, you’re probably experiencing racial gaslighting.
4. Why Is Racial Gaslighting Especially Damaging To Bipoc Women?
Throughout history, women of color have had to deal with racial and gender discrimination. Not only that, but there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence to back up this fact—and BIPOC women continue to feel its ripple effects. For example, one Harvard study led by Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology, found that Black women who lived under Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial discrimination up to the mid-1960s, led to negative health effects decades later. She said, "My research shows [Jim Crow laws are] still being reckoned with in the bodies of people who lived through that time." And now, Black women continue to face health risks due to discrimination.
Also, studies show that racism and sexism negatively impact BIPOC women in their work environment. Future Forum recently conducted s survey and found that only 3 percent of Black workers want to return to the office full-time following the pandemic, compared to 21 percent of white workers in the U.S—thanks to negative experiences unique to people (particularly women) of color.
“Things like having your hair touched or people commenting on your body, or asking ‘Oh what are you eating? It smells weird.’ This is why we don’t all want to go back into the office,” said Courtney McCluney, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell’s ILR School to The New York Times.
Rodriguez also noted that trying to respond appropriately in these situations can add another layer of stress and anxiety. She told us, "As a woman of color, oftentimes you weigh the cost/benefit analysis of addressing them. If you decide to confront your colleague, will they acknowledge their impact on you and the harm? Will you end up needing to take care of their emotions? What impact will the conversation have on your working relationship, your working environment or even your job?"
She continued, "On the flipside, remaining silent also results in an emotional tax, reinforcing that you are not safe from this type of impact at work."
So one can only imagine how frustrating it is when a gaslighter belittles the experiences of BIPOC women by suggesting that they’re making these things up. Not only could this wreak havoc on their mental health, but also, it could distract them from the more important issues that still exist.
As writer and actor Taylor-Dior Rumble once told Metro UK, “When you’ve been discriminated against throughout your entire life, you can recognize it in an instant. It’s like a sixth sense. So, when people turn around and ask you to prove your reality, it’s truly maddening.”
5. What Can You Do If You’re Being Racially Gaslighted?
Experiencing racial gaslighting is exhausting and sometimes even traumatizing. But fortunately, there are effective ways to combat this. Here’s how you can stop racial gaslighting in its tracks.
Do Your Research
A big part of what makes gaslighting so effective is the simple fact that victims aren’t aware of when it’s happening. But being able to recognize that you are not the problem is crucial to how you respond. Fortunately, the internet provides more than enough resources to help you understand and recognize this behavior, from Psychology Today articles to research studies about racial gaslighting. Once you’ve done your homework and familiarize yourself with this tactic, you’ll be better prepared to respond and regain control of the situation.
Call Them Out On Their Toxic/racist Behavior
A good follow-up to studying this form of manipulation and learning all the tell-tale signs is to take action. Rodriguez said, "As you consider your response, be discerning. Your mental well-being and protecting your energy is most important. How important is the relationship to you? How significant is the issue raised? If either of these two questions are meaningful to you, then consider addressing the situation."
So, if you feel comfortable doing so, call the gaslighter out on their behavior. For example, you can start with something like, "I see you have a different perspective, but I am not imagining things." If they persist, a good response could be, “I feel like I’m not being heard. I’m stepping away from this conversation.”
This will most likely catch them off guard or cause them to reconsider you as a target. But it’s worth noting that you should always confront the person calmly and politely. Keeping your cool helps you handle the situation with confidence, and it prevents you from engaging in a heated argument that could potentially escalate.
Also, if it turns out that the gaslighter had no intention of causing harm, Rodriguez recommends turning the response into a deeper conversation. She said, "Talk to them using 'I' statements to help the person understand the impact on you in a clear and straightforward way. Then listen. Ask them to share the impact on them of understanding the harm."
She continued, "They may want more understanding and learning on the topic, which will need to be owned by them. If you’re willing, you can explain further or you may direct them to own their own learning journey."
Document The Evidence
Per My CWA, a nonprofit org that helps victims of domestic abuse, journaling can help you keep a record of what happened—and this can be extremely useful for anyone who suspects a gaslighter is trying to mess with their heads. The site reads, “If gaslighting has eaten away at your self-esteem and made you feel confused and disorientated, keeping a journal can help you take back some control. You can keep checking your version of events and confirm that things actually happened the way you remember, even if your abuser is telling you something different.”
Turn To Family And Friends For Support
Gaslighters thrive on keeping their victims isolated, because it gives them free reign to distort the truth without having to deal with conflicting accounts from an unbiased third person. This is why it’s so important to have trustworthy people you can confide in. They’re the ones who can support you and help get you back on track if you feel like you’re losing your grip on reality.
Advocate For Others
If you see that racial gaslighting is happening to someone else, your immediate instinct might be to jump in and defend the victim. But even before you get to that step, Rodriguez recommends offering your support and seeking to understand how they feel. This way, you'll know which response feels most authentic to them.
Rodriguez said, "If you're a person with privilege and there’s an opportunity for you to lead, then do it. Seek to understand the experiences of others and believe your colleagues when they choose to share their experiences."
She added, "Assess where you may have been complicit in producing inequity."
Go To Therapy
If you suspect racial gaslighting is happening or if it's gotten abusive, seeking professional help is the way to go. Talking to a therapist or counselor can help you process what’s happening and better equip you to move forward with useful advice and resources.
But while there are a variety of therapists who specialize in this area, it might be harder to discuss issues like microaggression and racism with someone who hasn’t experienced it before. This is why Jor-El Caraballo, founder of Viva Wellness, recommends going to a BIPOC professional.
Caraballo said, "The largest benefit of having a therapist who reflects your identity is that there may be a greater understanding based on some shared experiences. While every person’s experiences are different, there is no mistaking that walking in the world with darker skin informs your perspective. Sharing that identity has been well-demonstrated to create a deeper sense of trust between therapists and clients and that’s incredibly important when you’re sharing intimate details of your life."