How to Recognize and Respond to Racial Gaslighting
The term gaslighting, as you might already know, refers to a particular type of emotional abuse where someone is made to question the validity of their experiences, feelings, and beliefs.
When this form of manipulation is used specifically to undermine or minimize someone’s experiences of racism, it’s called racial gaslighting.
Racial gaslighting mostly affects People of Color, according to Jason Cunningham, LMHC, a therapist at Alma.
One of the earliest mentions of racial gaslighting occurs in a 2016 research paper by Professor Angelique Davis and Dr. Rose Ernst. This study highlighted the ways individual acts of racial gaslighting can contribute to white supremacy at large.
Racial gaslighting can be intentional or unintentional, explains Heather Lyons, a licensed psychologist and owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group. But regardless of whether someone actually intends this manipulation or not, racial gaslighting can still lead to mental and emotional harm.
Learning to identify it can help you deal with it more effectively. How to recognize racial gaslighting and what to do about it are included in this guide.
Racial gaslighting is unfortunately very prevalent, says Dontay Williams, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of The Confess Project. It happens in the education and healthcare systems, at workplaces, and in the mainstream media.
The spectrum of racial gaslighting can range from direct statements like, “Not everything has to be about race” to subtler comments like, “Are you sure that’s what really happened?” explains Krystal Jackson, LPC, founder and clinical director of Simply Being Wellness Counseling.
There are a few examples of racial gaslighting.
If a teacher attempts to undermine the ongoing impact of racism, that can be considered racial gaslighting, says Shontel Cargill, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Regional Clinic Director at Thriveworks.
They might say something like, “Yes, slavery happened, but that\’s in the past” or “We shouldn\’t focus on just the faults of a problematic historical figure.”
In the workplace
Say one of your colleagues calls two Asian American employees by their names.
“When you call out this, your colleague says he doesn’t mean to be rude. It is just because they look alike.”
This response shifts the conversation to your colleague’s intention, not the impact of the microaggression — an indirect or subtle discriminatory slight against members of a marginalized group.
Lyons says that they miss the point that these interactions can have serious consequences.
A co-worker who ignores your experience with racism by saying something like, “Stop playing the race card” is an example that should be considered.
With friends and loved ones
You might confront your partner about a comment they made that was racist, pointing out why it was problematic.
They say that it was a joke. Lyons says that that also counts as racial gaslighting.
According to the company, racial gaslighting can show up in friendship. Maybe you have a friend who says something like, “I don\’t see color.” The people of color face racism, discrimination, and microaggressions on a regular basis.
In law enforcement and society at large
Video footage of George Floyd’s death clearly shows a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes while he pleaded about breathing difficulties, Williams points out. However, officials initially claimed his death was an accident.
Williams says this contradicted what they had watched. It is a clear example of a situation where reality was dismissed in the context of race.
Another example of racial gaslighting? The “All Lives Matter” movement. This racist rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement effectively dismisses the issue of racism, even prompting some Black Lives Matter supporters to reconsider their beliefs.
It can affect your physical and mental health, as well as your sense of identity, safety, and self-worth. It can have a huge impact on your job, school performance, relationships, and other aspects of your life.
There are a few potential consequences.
Self-doubt and eroded self-trust
When it comes to race-related microaggressions,
In one small
Jackson says thatcial gaslighting can be harmful because you need to trust yourself.
It is more difficult to recognize instances of racism in the future because of racial gaslighting.
Mental health symptoms
A 2019 review found that microaggressions may cause feelings of:
- There is confusion.
- It was helplessness.
- There is no hope.
- It was frustrating.
“Racial gaslighting reinforces systemic racism, thus perpetuating racial trauma that often leads to long-term effects on mental health,” says Cargill. “Furthermore, the accumulation of Stress.ors such as racism, discrimination, colorism, microaggressions, intergenerational trauma, and more race-related Stress.ors may lead to post-traumatic Stress. disorder (PTSD).”
Experts have found many other potential impacts.
2014 studyincluding 405 young adults found a link between racial microaggressions and thoughts of suicide, by way of Depression..
- A small
2015 studyfound that Latino adults who experienced racial microaggressions were more likely to experience higher levels of Depression..
- A 2020 study including 3,320 Black Americans found that people who experienced more racial microaggressions tended to experience less general happiness and lower job satisfaction.
Williams notes these effects are particularly problematic, given that People of Color remain notoriously underserved when it comes to mental health resources. This often makes it more difficult to access professional support when coping with experiences of racism, racial gaslighting, or any other mental and emotional health concerns.
If you’re having thoughts of suicide
“If you aren’t sure who to tell, thoughts of suicide can be overwhelming. You are not alone.”
You can get immediate, confidential support for a mental health crisis, thoughts of suicide, or any other emotional diStress. by connecting with a trained crisis counselor.
The crisis helplines offer support at any time of the year. Counselors can talk to you through text and listen to what you are thinking.
Get support now.
- calling 800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- texting “HOME” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line
Physical health symptoms
- high blood pressure.
- The cardiovascular conditions.
- Respiratory conditions can be dangerous.
- There are pain conditions.
“If others don’t believe in and support your experiences of racism, you might feel more diStress.ed or confused, which can make the impact worse.”
Gaslighting keeps victims isolated and entrapped so perpetrators can control them further. Experts say that racial gaslighting is a cause of racism.
Racist gaslighting allows white groups to shirk responsibility while continually blaming those who are most deserving of their privilege. Cunningham says the effect is a rigged inequitable society that calls itself fair and just.
Racist gaslighting can cause deep feelings of self-doubt.
You might, for instance, catch yourself thinking, “No, I must’ve heard that wrong,” or “Maybe I am just too sensitive.” As a result, you might feel less confident in your ability to acknowledge racism when you witness or experience it, and more hesitant when it comes to calling it out.
In the last 5 years, only white people have been promoted to the top job at your company. You may decide not to mention those concerns to your human resources department.
Lyons says that racial gaslighting puts you in a position where you have to argue your point, rather than work together to fight racial injustice.
Gaslighting makes it harder to detect abuse in the future. That is what makes it so damaging.
The first step, then, to coping with the harmful effects of gaslighting involves learning to recognize it.
Experts advise taking some time to check in with yourself after having an experience with racial gaslighting.
Jackson encourages people to trust what their body is telling them.
Write it down
Lyons suggests writing your experience down in a journal and reading it to understand what you saw.
Jackson says it can help to use assertive and definitive statements, like “[Name of person] said this, and then this happened,” rather than, “I’m pretty sure I remember [name of person] saying this, and then I think this happened.”
If you ever plan to report racial gaslighting at your school or workplace, a written record of the incidents can be valuable.
If you feel safe calling someone out
Cunningham advises removing yourself as quickly as possible if the situation feels unsafe.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you can address the racial gaslighting and why it is harmful.
“If you want to avoid putting someone on the defensive, you could start by saying that you feel like you are not being heard. Why do you think you can’t believe what I experienced?”
The approach can be disarming because it forces the person to reflect on their assumptions.
“You are not obligated to correct or fix someone’s racial gaslighting.”
Cunningham says it is up to you to decide if you want to help or educate the person. The privileged group has the power to change.
Even if you don’t feel up to confronting that person, you may want to share your experience of racial gaslighting. Lyons suggests doing so with a trusted friend or family member — someone you know you can rely on for emotional support and validation.
“Process the experience with people who understand and don’t need education,” she says.
Finally, know that racial gaslighting can contribute to emotional diStress..
- sleep issues
“You don’t have to deal with these concerns alone.”
Cargill recommends finding a therapist, particularly another Person of Color who specializes in racism and trauma, who can help you process and move forward from the experience.
Inclusive Therapists offers a database of mental health professionals you can search and filter by:
- Your location?
- For instance, Black, Latinx, or Asian are your identities.
- preferred specialty is racial trauma-informed.
There is more guidance on finding and funding therapy for people of color.
Maybe you have ever been guilty of racial gaslighting yourself?
It’s quite possible — racial gaslighting can stem from beliefs or biases you didn’t know you had, so it often happens unintentionally. It can also be triggered by white fragility. In short, you might end up rejecting someone else’s experience to diminish your own guilt around racism.
Jackson says it is important to first reflect on why you think your opinion is more valuable than another. If you want to avoid racial gaslighting, you need to self-reflect and be corrected. I would encourage you to ask questions that are supportive and take inventory of your own biases.
There are a few additional tips.
Be mindful of your thoughts
It helps to keep an eye on your internal responses. What feelings come up for you when someone tells you about racism?
Lyons suggests getting curious about why the claim is credible if you first find yourself evaluating it.
“Maybe you reject the idea because you don’t want to imagine someone else being hurt or worry about being lumped in with the bad guy.”
Lyons encourages you to shift your attention to listening and being curious.
Do some research
Getting educated on who, what, where, when, and why of racial gaslighting is something that Cargill advises.
The more you know about racial microaggressions and systemic racism, the more likely you are to avoid words or actions that perpetuate racism.
Williams says to stay open minded and willing to learn about all cultures.
Never speak for others
“It is not your place to decide what experiences people have or haven’t had, and how they should or shouldn’t feel about them.”
The lived experiences of people of color are important to promote change.
It may feel very uncomfortable to admit to an act of racial gaslighting, but accountability is key.
Mistakes are human, and most people mess up from time to time. The best thing you can do is acknowledge your behavior, take responsibility for it, and apologize. Then, take steps to learn from what happened so you can avoid it in the future.
It exposes you to new perspectives and solutions when you participate in efforts to address racial inequity and injustice.
One option? You can join a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee at your school.
Many employers offer diversity and inclusion training, which can teach more essential skills for identifying and addressing racial inequalities.
“If your company doesn’t offer this training, you can either seek it out yourself or propose it to your HR department.”
Racist gaslighting denies the racism experienced by people of color. This type of manipulation can lead you to question your feelings and thoughts.
If you feel safe, you can start by asking a question that will prompt them to reflect on their behavior. It is never your job to educate or correct someone, and you should always prioritize your own well-being first.
Take care to give yourself time to process your feelings, remember the facts, and seek out any emotional support and encouragement you need, either from a trusted loved one or a therapist.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based writer who writes about health and fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has appeared in a number of publications.