Racial gaslighting denies people their experience of racism
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a tactic whereby a person tries to throw another’s reality into doubt. The term originated from a 1928 play in which a husband tried to manipulate his wife into thinking she was mad. (Gaslighting was also a great movie made in 1944 starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman). Who knew that the term would become popular almost 80 years later to describe a process of systematically denying oppressive or abusive experiences associated with racism.
Why do People Engage in Gaslighting?
One of the reasons people engage in such behavior when it comes to racism is because they don’t believe it exists. This might happen if a person is privileged not to have experienced discrimination. For some people of color, this is hard to believe. Some of them live in daily fear of everyday activities such as shopping or jogging that others take for granted. The neighborhoods they live in might be battle zones or they fear being arrested at random on account of mistaken identity or because of harassment.
Discussions of Race are Uncomfortable
Another reason that people may gaslight another’s experience with racism is to avoid talking about it. They may believe that it exists, but dialogue about race-based issues is difficult for some people to engage in because it’s hard to talk about race without also discussing power, privilege, oppression and abuse from norms that may harm some and benefit others. Guilt may keep some people invested in not discussing race or racism.
It might also be difficult to discuss racism because of uncertainty around such a topic. Not talking about racial trauma is as about as damaging as not discussing other traumas with which people may be more familiar such as domestic violence, child abuse, death or severe injuries.
Not discussing issues associated with strong emotions is a recipe for dysfunctional behavior, stress and a host of other issues that may limit resilience and create hardship in relationships. Microaggressions are statements or behaviors that may not appear to be intentionally harmful, but that inflict some mental injury.
Racial microaggressions are brief interactions, (but can also be environmental), that communicate insults or negative slights towards people of color. Not talking about microaggressions and other incidents of racism is also a catalyst for resentment and cumulative stress.
Racial microaggressions are experienced as assaults to one’s racial identity. The fact that they might not be intentional can sometimes make it harder to prepare oneself against such attacks or to resolve them later.
Microaggressions can take the form of microassaults, microinsults or microinvalidation. They can manifest as rude behavior or superficial compliments that result in demeaning a person’s racial identity or communicating that they are not important. They can also be environmental. Microaggressions and racial gaslighting often go hand in hand. Some examples of racial gaslighting are:
*“It was a joke.”
*“I’m not a racist. You’re a racist for calling me a racist.”
- “Are we hurting the black community by acknowledging things as racist that maybe are not”
- “We are simply playing into the patient’s narrative”
- “Do we create a pattern of increasing the perception of racism?”
Therapists are not there to judge the validity of your feelings, experiences or impose upon you their personal or political beliefs. Essential to therapy is the ability to empathize with the client’s pain. If you have empathy you can experience that pain. We do not create pathology by helping our clients feel seen and understood. This is a defining quality of healthy relationships.
You can find other soundbites related to well-being, self-compassion and healing here.