Turn the Gaslight Off

Consider the following statements:

“In the United States, anyone can succeed, regardless of race– they just need to be willing to put in the work.”

“We want our workplace to be more diverse at all levels, but there just aren’t any Black candidates who meet our criteria.”

“This is a women’s march. We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women’?”

The above statements– one of them a quote from NY Times coverage of the Women’s March– are all examples of today’s topic: racial gaslighting.

You may have heard of gaslighting before, a term from psychology that refers to the manipulation of another’s perceptions, with the end goal of undermining that individual’s sense of reality. Gaslighting can occur in social contexts at any scale: individual relationships, group dynamics, and in society at large.

In this excellent 2017 article, Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst provide a thorough description of how gaslighting functions in white supremacist society, giving this definition:

Racial gaslighting (v): The political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.

Racial gaslighting can also be found at many scales. Person-to-person examples might include questioning someone’s experience of racial violence (e.g. “but are you sure they meant it that way? That person is just socially awkward, they treat everyone like that.”), or “tone policing”, where someone diverts the attention away from the content of a message to focus on its delivery (“You know, people would pay more attention to their points if they weren’t so rude”). On a somewhat larger scale, racial gaslighting appears in media coverage– for example, including unflattering (or even seemingly incriminating) photos of Black victims of police violence, rather than images that convey their humanity, accomplishments, and potential (e.g. with their families and friends, or at a significant life event, or even just smiling).

Even larger in scope, entire social narratives– which Davis and Ernst call racial spectacles— can be created to gaslight people of color.

Racial spectacle (n): a narrative that obfuscates the existence of a white supremacist state power structure.

Davis and Ernst provide a number of illustrative examples in their article, and we strongly encourage you to read their entire analysis– as a case in point:

“One example of a narrative that is not a racial spectacle is the Black Lives Matter movement, emerging in response to the historical and ongoing dehumanization of Black lives in the United States. While this movement’s narrative is not a racial spectacle, the colorblind-narrative in response – All Lives Matter – is. The Black Lives Matter narrative illuminates the dehumanization of Black lives and is in no way suggesting other lives do not matter – instead, it shifts the focus away from whiteness by the assertion that Black lives matter, too. The Black Lives Matter movement exposes the white supremacist state power structure and how it dehumanizes Black life in the United States. The All Lives Matter colorblind-narrative is a racial spectacle, however, because it disguises the prioritizing of white lives. The All Lives Matter movement achieves three core tasks: first, it co-opts Black social justice intellectual work; second, it pushes Black communities further to the margins of society by insisting that all lives in the United States are valued equally and treated as such. Consequently, it erases the centuries of brutalization and dehumanization of Black bodies. Finally, it obfuscates the role of the white supremacist state power structure by eliding over the specific targeting of Black lives by state institutions and actors, such as prisons and police.”

Your actions going forward:

  1. Begin by thinking about the three statements at the beginning of this post. Write in your notebook about how exactly each of these are examples of racial gaslighting.
  2. Pick somewhere you turn to for news and discussion (this could be a newspaper, TV, social media, or elsewhere). What examples of racial spectacles do you observe?
  3. What actions can you take against racial gaslighting? (If you’re stuck, see if you can find inspiration from yesterday’s principles of bystander intervention!)

If you are working with friends, compare notes, or feel free to post your thoughts in the comments! 

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