What is Gaslighting? Am I doing it? Why is it Bad?
And what it has to do with conversations about Racial Justice.
Do I do it? Why is it bad?
In my role as a facilitator, panelist, and writer, on issues of racial justice, I’ve been witness to some of the dysfunctions, personal and institutional, at the front lines of this work. Most of the time, my focus is on white and privileged communities. I share observations and critiques, when invited, with the marginalized communities to which I consider myself an ally, but let’s face it, a lot of the work and change required for racial justice remains to be done with people of “pallor” like myself.
One of the more nebulous terms I get asked about is “gaslighting.” Mostly in context of white people pulling me aside and asking sotto voce, “What does it mean?” Often, they have just heard it used by a speaker, a friend, or a colleague of color. While there are enough context clues for them to recognize that gaslighting is somehow BAD, they’re still not sure exactly what it is. Their anxiety is heightened by the sneaking suspicion they might be guilty of it.
They probably are. Because we’ve all done it.
I’m actually glad when folks feel vulnerable and open enough to admit they don’t know something. It means they are listening and that is the first step to learning.
So, “gaslighting,” what is it?
Here is how Wikipedia defines it:
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes including low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs. Instances can range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents occurred, to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term originated from the British play Gas Light (1938) and its 1940 and 1944 film adaptations (both titled Gaslight). The term has been used in clinical psychological literature, as well as in political commentary and philosophy (“Gaslighting,” 2020, paras. #1–3).
The trouble with the term is, the word itself does not provide too many hints as to what it means (unless you are a movie buff). But gaslighting basically amounts to one person (the abuser/oppressor) telling a person (the victim) that their, very accurate, perception of reality is incorrect. It can be incredibly psychologically damaging. Oftentimes, as above, it is cited in the context of an abusive relationship. A most pernicious example might be, “I beat you, honey, because I love you.” In case there is any doubt, physical violence does not equal love. The abused probably knows this, or thought they knew this, but the abuser tells them they are wrong. The abused then goes on not only to tolerate the abuse, but also to internalize the fallacy that they deserve it and that it is truly a demonstration of love.
A more subtle example might be, a wife discovering texts from her cheating husband’s mistress on his phone, only for him to tell his wife that she is misinterpreting the messages; that they are harmless — nothing to see here. The manipulation on the cheating husband’s part might run even deeper as he adds, “Why don’t you trust me?” “Why are you so paranoid?” He might even take the additional step of casting himself as the victim. “Why are you so suspicious of me, I’m a good husband!” and so on.
All the wife’s instincts might be telling her, No, my husband is having an affair, but out of a misplaced desire to be a “good wife” (or social pressure), she might drop it. Depending on her own life experience, and/or her levels of self-esteem, she might internalize some of this doubt as well. Why am I so paranoid? Why am I so distrustful of my ‘trustworthy’ husband? I must be a bad wife.
What Does Gaslighting have to do with Race?
Although the days of widespread, overt indoctrination of people of color with messages that they are “inferior” and need their benevolent white overlords to “uplift them” are mostly behind us, there are covert ways these messages are still relayed. The dynamic of abuser and victim is salient here.
I’ll share some examples moving from blatant to subtle.
While facilitating a workshop for Christian men confronting race, I was repeatedly challenged by a white man in his sixties who identified himself as an evangelical Christian. We’ll call him Dan. Because Dan regularly participated in a prison ministry wherein he taught predominantly men of color, he deputized himself to be an expert on race.
What Dan insisted to the class was that there simply was not such thing as “whiteness.” He shared the demonstration he would use with his incarcerated students of color: he would put a blank piece of paper up on the wall and ask the students what color it was. They would say “white.” Then he would put his own hand up against it, and ask them if his hand was “white” or not.
Since Dan was not a carrier of any genes for albinism and didn’t suffer from any form of skin condition like vitiligo, the “color” of his hand was not quite as white as the paper. The students would say as much. Therefore, Dan concluded for his students of color, that whiteness does not exist. “I’m just like you!” he lectured them.
I’m not even sure where to start unpacking Dan’s flawed understanding. If I am being gracious, I would give him credit for trying to build a sense of solidarity, that “we’re all equal and part of the human race.”
But mostly I find his approach boneheaded. It’s gaslighting because it says to those black, brown, indigenous men that “there is no structural racism,” “there is no racial injustice,” “there is no difference in my experience as a white man, with how I am perceived, than yours.” “Your experience of being profiled, discriminated against, it’s all in your head. So you better let white people like me off the hook.”
If this were true (and we know it’s not), George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Michelle Cusseaux, Janisha Fonville and too many others would all be alive.
But it serves Dan’s interests to pretend this isn’t the case, and that is a key to understanding why gaslighting continues and the biggest gaslighting lie of all (that racism doesn’t exist) still gets traction in corners of the United States.
Let’s face it, if any of those men in Dan’s class, when paroled, began to act with the same assertiveness as Dan might with police officers, we know the results could turn lethal for them in a way they never would for Dan with his complexion protection.
Dan’s gaslighting also blithely ignores (and refuses to question) the optics of the room: why it just happens that the person of authority in that prison classroom, the source of knowledge, is white and his (literally) captive audience is mostly people of color.
Nope, nothing to see here.
Yes, You’re Probably Doing it.
Dan’s example is egregious and I use it for illustrative purposes. But we’re all guilty of gaslighting. If you’re white, ask yourself: when a friend or colleague of color has disclosed to you an experience of being discriminated against, have you replied with the following:
· I’m sure that is not what they meant . . .
· Maybe you are being too sensitive . . .
· I can’t believe you’re upset about this . . .
· That is not what they meant . . .
· It was just a joke . . .
· That’s not racist . . .
If you have, you’ve just pulled a Dan. Perhaps you had the best of intentions, maybe you wanted to be a peacemaker, or console your friend. But just like Dan, if you’re from a privileged background, you’re probably not the best person to recognize and define what the experience of racism is. Nor are you a disinterested party, since the privileges of whiteness accrue to you, not to people of color; questioning the bias of the system only threatens you.
As white people, we get deluded into thinking we’re experts on everything. We’re not. Privilege, comfort, and complacency lull us into believing in the illusion of our own authority, our own competency. Privilege presents its own form of handicaps. I would even say privilege is poison for the soul, as it makes us blind and blunts our empathy, disconnecting us from others. I certainly doubt Dan has ever been followed in a store or harassed by cops. As a result, he’s dumb and ignorant of a reality facing, literally, billions of people each day.
Like Dan, like an abusive partner, if you have used the phrases I listed above, you’ve just misdirected the attention from the offending party’s role and responsibility. You’ve shifted culpability from yourself, or people who look like you, to the victim. Leading the victim to self-doubt, self-recrimination, even self-loathing.
Don’t be a Dan. Don’t be dumb. Don’t perpetuate abuse.
What About Times When I’m Right?
Ok, yes there are those occasions when a person might claim being hurt or discriminated against when it actually isn’t happening. When I was a waiter, a Black couple I was waiting on one night felt that I was giving them inadequate service because they were Black. They pulled aside one of the Black waitresses, Tatyana, and said as much. I was forever grateful to Tatyana that she explained the situation — we were down a server — we all were providing less than stellar service that night because of that. You could say our poor service was equal opportunity that night.
But here is the thing, Tatyana was a better informed more credible “authority” as a Black woman on the issue of race than I could ever be. When you are on the receiving end of discrimination, like my customers had been in countless previous experiences, you quickly learn it’s safer (psychologically and physically) to assume it is because of racism rather than not. It the worst of situations, it can be a matter of life or death. So I don’t blame my customers for thinking I was a racist server.
As a white person, the best, least harmful stance is (1) don’t try to school a person of color on what is and what isn’t discrimination; (2) if you are accused of saying or doing a racist thing, NEVER say “What, me? I am not biased/racist!” That is likely a dead giveaway that, yeah, you probably are; and (3) try curiosity instead of defensiveness. If accused of doing something racist, a reaction such as, “Why do you feel that way,” and “Tell me more,” will keep you from being a Dan.
I can’t say I would have reacted well had that couple confronted me directly. Actually, I know I would not have. So, I was lucky Tatyana was there.
Wait, Can People of Color “Gaslight?”
For argument’s sake, do Black people ever deceive, manipulate white people into thinking something untrue? Yes, they do. We see it when Black media figures reassure racist whites that they are not, actually racist. It happens when people like Candace Owens or Kanye West make claims that systemic racism does not exist or that slavery was a choice.
But this does not count as “gaslighting.” The power dynamic is all wrong. This is an instance of members of the oppressed community telling the oppressors they are NOT actually oppressors. If anything, sadly, what we’re seeing is the long-term effects of members of the oppressed community who have internalized the pernicious message from oppressors that the problem is them (see: the sunken place/internalized racism). This is the longtime victim of domestic violence reassuring her husband that, even though he has given her a concussion and bruises all over her body, he is in fact a good husband, and she “deserves” the treatment. We see the feedback loop close when the abusive husband or (on a societal level) groups of white protesters, touting guns, bibles, and Confederate flags, claim they are being oppressed, their rights trampled, that they are actually the victims.
What is the Antidote?
If we don’t short circuit the cycle, the abuse continues and the victims continue to assure the oppressors that “it’s all OK.” This comes at the costs of the hearts, minds, spirits, even bodies of our brothers and sisters of color. Bear that in mind the next time your reflex response is any of the defensive, self-protective phrases above. Because each time we are guilty of it, we’re giving that flywheel just a bit more momentum.
On the other hand, if you can take that two-second pause, catch yourself, and try something different, even that small action can impart a bit of energy towards empathy and understanding. You can be part of the solution, rather than the problem. You can be an ally, not a Dan.
 I say mostly, but I’m sad to say it does not take a keen observer to see how there are still people who, despite social progress, hold to these ideas, whether they admit so or not.
Ted Neill, MPH, is a writer based in Seattle. He has written extensively on HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Greatest Generation. His recent novel, Reaper Moon, examines the intersection of faith, politics, and racism during a global viral pandemic. His YA novel, Zombies, Frat Boys, Monster Flash Mobs does the same . . . except with zombies, frat boys, nerds, and ninjas — something for everyone, right?