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Gaslighting

What Is Racelighting?

How gaslighting affects Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

Key points

  • Racelighting is distinguished from gaslighting when the messages used to invalidate the victim are racial.
  • Racelighting reinforces stereotypes that People of Color have lower capabilities, are morally destitute, and worth less.
  • Passive racelighting often occurs through implicit bias and microaggressions that shape the experiences of People of Color.

Tatiana is a recently hired administrative assistant at a law firm. She has always been a strong writer, is highly organized, and is dependable. At first, most members of the firm seem very welcoming and excited to have more help with the intense workload. However, one lawyer named Charles is unwelcoming to Tatiana. During their first encounter, he makes a remark about there being other “more qualified candidates,” insinuating Tatiana only received the job because she is a Black woman. He points out that she is the only person of color in the firm, which is true. Tatiana later learns Charles’s close friend applied and did not get the position. As more time passes, Charles’s negative comments to Tatiana increase. Whenever she writes letters and memos, he harshly criticizes her writing. Her confidence in her writing starts to wane as his critiques become more visceral and public.

Charles is often disorganized and misplaces papers. He regularly blames Tatiana when this occurs, even when he knows it couldn’t have been her. He even makes snide comments about the length of Tatiana’s breaks, even though she rarely takes a break and often works through them. These characterizations make others mistrust her, a dynamic that has led her to become the only employee who is not given a key to the office suite. Whenever she asks questions, even minor ones, he exclaims, “You don’t know this?!” and “I’m worried about your ability to catch up.” He doesn’t do this with the other administrative assistants. Charles purposefully undermines Tatiana, asking her to present information at the last minute and provide information on constantly changing deadlines. His intent? Ensuring she looks incompetent. The accumulation of these issues over several months changes Tatiana, and she begins to second guess her own experiences, memory, and perceptions. Tatiana begins to say to herself, “Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought I was. Maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was. Maybe I don’t belong here.” She is filled with an overwhelming sense of doubt.

The story of Tatiana and Charles depicts how gaslighting can be racial. Gaslighting is a term that refers to a type of psychological abuse where a perpetrator intentionally feeds their victim false information to make them question their sanity, memories, and reality.

The term emanates from the play Gaslight, written by Patrick Hamilton. In the play, Jack and Bella, a married couple, move into an affluent neighborhood. Jack is intent on making Bella feel as if she is losing her mind. He purposely hides cutlery and a picture on the wall and accuses Bella of stealing them. He does the same with pictures on the wall. He enters a part of the house of which Bella is unaware and bangs around looking for jewels. Bella hears the noises, and when she brings this up to Jack, he suggests she is imagining things. The play is called Gaslight because whenever he lights the gas-fueled light in the hidden part of the house, it makes the other lights in the house dim. Whenever Bella notices this, he again reinforces that she is imagining things. Jack is successful in making Bella doubt her memory, her morality, and her sanity.

Traditionally, gaslighting is discussed as occurring in a relationship where a man (the perpetrator) intentionally feeds false information to a woman (the victim), making her question her sanity. Gaslighting, however, can also be experienced by other minoritized groups, like individuals with disabilities, the LGBT community, and People of Color. When gaslighting is racial, it is referred to as racelighting.

Racelighting is “the process whereby people of color question their own thoughts and actions due to systematically delivered racialized messages that make them second-guess their own lived experiences and realities with racism.” Racelighting is distinguished from gaslighting when the messages used to invalidate the victim are racialized in nature. Ultimately, these messages lead Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to question themselves.

Most often, racelighting includes messages that reinforce stereotypes that people of color are academically inferior, have lower capabilities, are morally destitute, and are of lesser worth; however, unlike gaslighting, where the messages are intentional, racelighting messages can be intentional and unintentional, depending on the perpetrator(s) (Wood & Harris III, 2021).

Let’s look at three main types of racelighting to see how these differ.

Active racelighting

Active racelighting is most similar to the play Gaslight and to the opening story of Tatiana and Charles. In active racelighting, the perpetrator has malicious intent and is purposefully attempting to make the victim question their own sanity and reality. The perpetrator is intent on sowing doubt and disorientation in the person they are victimizing.

In the case of Tatiana and Charles, we see that Tatiana was hired instead of Charles’s friend. As a result, Charles is out to undermine Tatiana. Charles played on stereotypes that Black people are less academically capable. This occurred when Charles repeatedly exclaimed, “You don’t know this?!” and “I’m worried about your ability to catch up.” Charles also played on assumptions of criminality, which convey Black people are more likely to be criminal, dangerous, or troublemakers. As a result, Tatiana is the only employee in her company not to receive a key to the office suite. The accumulation of these experiences leads Tatiana to question herself.

Active racelighters often frame the actions and intentions of their victims—to the victim and to others—through stereotyped messages. In contrast, passive and defensive racelighting often occur without intent. To describe these forms of racelighting, we continue our story with Charles and Tatiana.

Passive racelighting

Although Charles’s actions are consciously directed toward Tatiana, she is also the regular recipient of racial microaggressions from her colleagues. Racial microaggressions are brief and subtle forms of racism that encapsulate the daily lives and realities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Primarily, her colleagues communicate that she is academically incapable to succeed in the role and someone who should not be trusted. These messages come from the company leadership, lawyers, and support staff. For example, when Tatiana writes a memo, her colleagues extol her writing ability with a sense of surprise, saying, “Wow, you wrote this?!” or “I didn’t expect you had drafted that memo?!” These messages make Tatiana begin to question why people are surprised at her intelligence. The rest of the administrative staff also makes jokes about not having a key. This then leads to more serious conversations about whether she should have a key and access to purchasing cards. Rumors about Tatiana growing up in the “hood” and having family members in “gangs” start to run rampant. When Tatiana begins publicly addressing her concerns about the jokes and different levels of access, company employees begin avoiding her. When they do engage Tatiana, they do so in a very guarded fashion, as if they feel threatened by her or worried to be seen with her.

Passive racelighting is the most common form of racelighting experienced by People of Color. Although active racelighters are intent on sowing doubt or disorientation in the target individual, passive racelighting can occur without intent.

Passive racelighting often occurs through implicit bias and the accumulation of microaggressions that shape the experiences of People of Color. These messages are routine and widespread, shaping the daily lives and realities of People of Color through the lifespan, beginning as young children. Racial microaggressions often suggest People of Color are academically inferior, come from communities that are lesser-than, and are more prone to criminalized behavior. These messages are interwoven in ways that intensify experiences with racial stress. The accumulation of these messages can lead People of Color to second guess themselves.

Although active racelighting occurs between one perpetrator and a recipient (like in gaslighting), in passive racelighting, the messages can come from an individual or a group of people within a given department, office, or social setting. They can be reinforced by environmental messages within society in general and from the media.

Defensive racelighting

When Tatiana asks her supervisor, Dave, why she doesn't have a key, he makes a joke to her about making sure nothing was stolen. Fed up with the constant putdowns, Tatiana tells Dave he is being “racist” by making her always sound like a criminal. Dave replies saying that Tatiana’s comments are “aggressive” and that she is “blowing the issue out of proportion.” He then says he is “tired of being attacked” by Tatiana and so is “everyone else.” Dave knows what he is saying isn't true, but he is concerned about his reputation. Tatiana defends her actions but deep down begins to question whether she indeed is being overly sensitive.

Defensive racelighting occurs when the recipient of the racelighting message addresses the concern with others. In this case, Tatiana raised her concerns to Dave. Rather than acknowledging her perspective, Dave doubles down and blames Tatiana. His blaming could serve to further disorient Tatiana and make her second guess her perspectives and experiences. She may begin to wonder whether she is being too sensitive or overly attributing her mistreatment to race and racism.

Although Dave’s efforts were intentional, defensive racelighting can be unintentional, as perpetrators can often believe they are making sound decisions and are acting appropriately in “good conscience” (Sue, 2010). Defensive racelighting is a type of what Sue (2010) described as a denial of individual racism. In this type of microaggression, White people deny their racial biases, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously.

Ultimately, racelighting serves as a routine pattern in the daily experiences and realities of People of Color. When one experiences racelighting, they begin to feel disoriented and feel a sense of doubt. Regardless of whether the racelighting experience is active, passive, or defensive, they ultimately serve to amplify negative racial experiences that have occurred throughout one’s life.

References

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons.

Wood, J. L., & Harris III, F. (2021). Racelighting in the normal realities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color: A scholar brief. San Diego, CA: Community College Equity Assessment Lab.

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