It’s happened to me my whole life.
Whenever I’ve pushed back when asked the racist question “Where are you from?”, argued against someone who says discussing race perpetuates racism (the opposite is actually true), or contradicted members of my white extended family who insist Eric Garner’s death was his fault, I’m usually told I’m wrong, it’s not that big of a deal, or I’m imagining things.
These kinds of interactions can be categorized as racial gaslighting. This happens when someone discusses racism in general or points out a specific racist act and they’re either told they’re overthinking it or wrong or criticized for how they brought up the issue. Sometimes a person may even be characterized as violent, stupid, or mentally unstable for calling out racism at all, says Angelique Davis, a political science professor at Seattle University. It can also occur when a group of people is blamed for a problem rather than the underlying societal cause.
“It’s a way of flipping things on them… someone has every reason to be mad about racist structures, yet they’re portrayed as this angry Black woman or angry person of color,” explains Davis who, along with her colleague Rose Ernst, extensively researched and defined the term racial gaslighting (Ernst is white and Davis is Black). White people can also be racially gaslighted. But when a white person speaks out against racism and they’re punished for it, white people as a group aren’t deemed “abnormal” or “crazy.” On the other hand, when a person of color is racially gaslighted, their whole race is characterized negatively (remember the angry Black women stereotype).
As a brown woman of Indian descent who grew up in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation at over 94 percent white, I’m used to these manipulations. However it took me a long time to recognize racial gaslighting for what it is: a way to control how a person reacts. Of course, I haven’t faced nearly the amount of discrimination as my darker-skinned twin sisters. They’ve been called the N-word countless times and separately told to “go back to India.” Nor have I experienced anything comparable to what Black people go through on a routine basis.
Davis argues blaming people of color for defaulting on subprime mortgages, a high-interest loan granted to people with lower credit scores, is a prime example of racial gaslighting. Leading up to 2008’s Great Recession, banks targeted Black and Latino people for these loans. As of 2000, “borrowers in upper-income Black neighborhoods were twice as likely as homeowners in low-income white neighborhoods to refinance with a subprime loan,” according to a joint report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury. When families of color defaulted, they were blamed for causing the financial crisis, even though banks decided who qualified for these risky loans.
“There was a lot about the banks being irresponsible but there was also a lot of narrative about people not being able to afford these homes… So using it to flip back on the people who were actually victims of this process and somehow it being something wrong with them,” says Davis.
Racial gaslighting of Black people can also look like something Davis has experienced as a professor: being told you are very articulate and being shot a weird look or receiving a disparaging comment when replying with, “Of course, I am. I wouldn’t have been hired if I wasn’t.”
Racial gaslighting is even evident in the current conversations and headlines around systemic racism and protests against police brutality. Saying protesters should be peaceful, for example, is racial gaslighting because it deems their actions and response to racism as wrong and harshly judges their behavior while ignoring the systemic inequality that motivated that behavior in the first place. And, when media outlets blame Black people for their own deaths at the hands of police and repeat the police’s side of events while ignoring police brutality, that can pave the way for racial gaslighting to occur. The outlets “are complicit in creating narratives that only tell one side of the story,” says Davis.
“These stories hide how the police officer’s actions are part of a systematically racist criminal justice system. This, in turn, allows the racial gaslighting process to take place,” explains Davis.
Once these media reports are crystallized as the final version of events, it’s also much harder for people to contradict them. Witnesses to police killings can feel racially gaslighted when reading these media accounts as they know there’s more to the story, adds Davis.
It’s worth recognizing racial gaslighting when it occurs both in the media, and if it happens to you. You can then make the choice to respond to it or just recognize the problem isn’t on your end. And with all of the examples below, if you have the emotional energy to respond, Davis suggests calling out the incident and then carrying on with your original message.
Like racism, it also doesn’t matter if racial gaslighting is intentional or not, according to Davis. The person engaged in racial gaslighting doesn’t need to be aware of their wrongdoing for it to be harmful.
Mashable spoke with Davis to learn about some of racial gaslighting’s tell-tale signs.
1. You sense something is wrong
For most of my life, I didn’t know why people were reacting adversely when I would correct them on their biased perceptions of people of color or respond to a racist comment about myself or my sisters with an edge in my voice. As a kid and young adult, I definitely didn’t know about racial gaslighting. But I had the nagging sense that I wasn’t in the wrong. It took me a long time to confidently own that.
Davis says if you feel something is off about a person’s reaction to your response, that’s often the first indication you’re being racially gaslighted. Though, if you want to further investigate the situation to confirm you’re being racially gaslighted, you can check in with your friends or allies to see what they think.
“If you feel the need to have the ‘Am I crazy?’ conversation, you definitely know this [racial gaslighting] is happening,” says Davis.
2. They blame the victim
When someone changes the focus from what they said or did to your actions or perceived behavior, you are being racially gaslighted.
“They’re trying to switch the perspective from it being about an issue with them… to an issue with you or people of color,” explains Davis.
For example, white people have told Davis that she’s the “prettiest Black woman” they know. Davis suspects this happens because she has very fair skin and hazel eyes. If Davis asks why they would say that and she, in turn, is made to feel like her adverse reaction was wrong, that’s gaslighting.
In an instance like this, racial gaslighting is essentially blaming the victim and a form of social control, Davis says.
What’s more, responding to the gaslighting takes time and energy away from dismantling white supremacy and, instead, redirects it to defending oneself and one’s responses to racism.
“It fundamentally undermines and diverts our energy in organizing and coalescing around these issues,” says Davis.
A prime example is the “All Lives Matter” slogan, which was created in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In their paper, Davis and Ernst describe it as a racial spectacle — a narrative that hides the existence of white supremacy. Davis says it’s also a form of racial gaslighting because it perverts Black Lives Matter’s message by implying Black people only care about themselves.
“They’re trying to say, ‘well, if you’re not saying all lives matter then you don’t care about all lives’… that’s the gaslighting component,” explains Davis. In reality, Black Lives Matter is trying to shine a light on the constant dehumanization of Black people.
3. They police your tone
Unfortunately, people have tried to control Davis’ reaction. During a meeting, after Davis pointed out a racist act, a colleague told her they didn’t appreciate Davis’ tone and said she should apologize to them. Instead of focusing on the racism at hand, her co-worker diverted the attention to how they thought Davis should respond.
In this instance, Davis didn’t let the racial gaslighting go unnoticed. She said she didn’t think she had anything to be sorry for and said point blank, “It seems to me you’re trying to racially gaslight me.” Davis then went back to the original point she had been making.
“So I didn’t give them air time,” Davis explains.
But whether you choose to respond to racist incidents or not, in this time of renewed attention on systemic racism and the specific pervasiveness of anti-Black racism in every American institution, it’s important to recognize racial gaslighting when it occurs, explains Davis.
“The importance of our message and not having it sidetracked or lost, is of crucial import right now,” she says. “For this not to be another moment in history, where people end up going back to the status quo.”
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