Racial gaslighting makes people question their own experiences. It can also perpetuate racism and affect both a person’s mental and physical health.
The term “gaslighting” refers to an individual causing someone else to doubt themselves or question their own sanity.
Racial gaslighting mostly involves people of color. It occurs when others make them question their own experiences of racism. This can be either intentional or unintentional.
Racial gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that can have various and lasting effects.
This article discusses racial gaslighting. It gives examples in various situations and discusses how it can affect a person. It also explains ways a person can respond to racial gaslighting and ways to avoid it.
This article includes personal stories about experiences with racial gaslighting from Ananda Lima, an author of novels that discuss the immigrant experience, and Raquel Rodriguez, a relationship expert and co-founder of Nomadrs.
One of the earliest mentions of the term “racial gaslighting” is in a 2016 research paper. It discusses how individual acts of racial gaslighting can contribute to white supremacy as a whole.
Ananda and Raquel’s stories: A bit of background
Ananda: “I am a Brazilian woman living in Chicago. I am the author of ‘Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil’ and ‘Mother/land.’ Both books deal with the immigrant experience as a woman of color. Some of the gaslighting, the uncertainty of those experiences and of our times, contributed to the surreal mood of ‘Craft’ and the fact that I have characters and stories that often question their realities.
I have been lucky in my experiences here, but every once in a while, I experience racial gaslighting. It mostly comes in the form of white people (who may be strangers or well-intentioned friends) telling you that something that happened to you has nothing to do with race. Sometimes, that is said with confidence, as if their opinion had more weight than mine, even though they have no special expertise or experience.”
Raquel: “I’m from Mexico and have experienced racial gaslighting in various aspects of my life. This experience has both challenged and shaped my understanding of identity and belonging.
My Mexican heritage is a big part of who I am. But it’s been tough when people hint that my background is just a checkmark for diversity rather than the real reason for my success. It’s like they’re saying I didn’t earn my place.
And when I’ve faced real discrimination, I’ve had friends brush it off. I even remember one of them explicitly saying that perhaps I was reading too much into things. This made me second-guess if it was all in my head. These moments made me wonder if my feelings were even real.”
The University of Cincinnati lists definitions of racial gaslighting, including:
- a type of psychological manipulation that causes people of color to question their own experiences with racism
- a social, economic, and political process that perpetuates and normalizes white supremacy by pathologizing those who resist it
People can experience racial gaslighting in all aspects of their lives. Some places may include work or school, in society, and with friends and loved ones.
Ananda’s story: Examples of racial gaslighting
“I feel like it is very hard to pinpoint it at the moment when it happens. Sometimes it comes later when I think, ‘Why me?’ and then think through things: ‘I was the only person of color. Interestingly, this person decided to do something unpleasant only with me and not with anyone else there.’
Often, the situation is untraceable, but if my friends are telling me they know it is 100% not related to race, they are (even if unintentionally) gaslighting me: They are making me feel like I am paranoid for wondering, even when there is a real possibility that something was race related. An example of this:
A white woman cuts in line right past me and a Black woman in line for the ready-food section at a grocery store (not the first time). I told my white friends, and they said, ‘Some people are just jerks and cut lines in general.’ I ask if it has happened to them. They think hard and say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Examples of racial gaslighting may include the following phrases:
- “I don’t see color.”
- “You cannot take a joke.”
- “You are being too sensitive.”
- “I cannot be racist because…”
- “You think everything is racism.”
Racial gaslighting can also include wider societal and institutional denials of racism. This may be despite evidence of inequality among racial groups.
Raquel’s story: Examples of racial gaslighting
“At work, there were times when comments explicitly suggested that my success was more about filling a diversity quota than my actual skills. This often came in the form of backhanded compliments or jokes that subtly undermined my professional achievements.
I even remember that once my ex-colleague commented something like, ‘You’re lucky to be here. Companies need diversity.’ Of course, it made me feel bad because it undermined my qualifications and hard work.
In social settings, I got used to racist remarks — people do it even without realizing it. But what’s worse, responses such as, ‘Are you sure they meant it that way?’ make me question my own perceptions and experiences.”
Racism and racial gaslighting can affect a person in various ways. These include their mental health and self-esteem. It can also have physical effects.
According to a 2019 research article, racial microaggressions, such as racial gaslighting, can cause various mental health effects. These may include:
There are many other ways racism and racial gaslighting can affect a person’s mental health. These include:
- Depression: A small study from 2015 that included 113 Latino adults found that those who had experienced racial microaggressions showed higher levels of depression.
- Unhappiness: A study from 2020 that included 3,320 African Americans found that those who experienced racial microaggressions showed decreased levels of overall happiness and job satisfaction.
- Thoughts of suicide: A
2014 studywith 405 young adults of color found that there were increased levels of thoughts of suicide as a depression symptom due to racial microaggressions.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
One definition of racial gaslighting is that it culturally, politically, and socially perpetuates white supremacy by pathologizing those who resist it.
This very definition perpetuates racism. Gaslighting in and of itself is a form of manipulation to make someone question their own experiences.
Therefore, racial gaslighting is a way for people and society to make those who have experienced racism doubt their own memories and experiences, thus perpetuating racism.
Thoughts from a professional
Dr. Menije Boduryan-Turner is a licensed psychologist and founder of Embracing You Therapy in California.
Dr. Menije expanded on the ways racial gaslighting can affect an individual:
“Racial gaslighting can have a very serious impact on one’s mental health, leading to an increase in depressed mood, anxiety, anger, and/or paranoia.
Racial gaslighting can cause one to isolate due to a lack of trust and safety, or it can make them more reactive and impulsive due to anger and frustration coming from being invalidated. For some, they may turn to substances to cope with these mental struggles, hence linking racial gaslighting to addiction. At its worst, we may see some struggling with suicide due to racial gaslighting.
It will most definitely perpetuate racism as it minimizes the existence of racism and at some level reinforce those who engage in racial gaslighting to continue their inappropriate and toxic behaviors.”
Some people may find the best way to respond to racial gaslighting is not to and let it go. Others may feel they have to respond.
Each individual must decide for themselves what is best for them and their situation.
There are ways to respond to racial gaslighting that may be more effective under various circumstances.
Dr. Menije shared some advice on this:
“When you experience racial gaslighting, given how upsetting the experience is, you may need to utilize a combination of tools to address it. First, it’s important to know the signs of racial gaslighting so that you can call it out when exposed to it. Sometimes racial gaslighting can be very subtle or come from someone you least expect it, making it less obvious or clear.
Once identified, while speaking up about it is important, I would ask that you pause and check in with yourself on what you want your next step to be. When you decide to advocate for yourself, it can feel overwhelming, so consider seeking support beforehand or while addressing it.
Lastly, if and when racial gaslighting triggers mental health symptoms such as anxiety or depression, you might want to utilize therapy to manage them.”
Ananda and Raquel’s stories: Responding
Ananda: “I tend to be very trusting and open to being wrong about things, so often I don’t realize the gaslighting is happening straight away. I also tend not to fully process it on the spot and only later think of what I could have said. I suspect that sometimes the not fully processing it and responding is a way to avoid uncomfortable confrontation and not wanting to add on top of the discomfort of the gaslighting too.”
Raquel: “Most of the time in the past, I just didn’t respond, as I was second-guessing myself. But now I’m more confident and understand the importance of speaking up (not only for myself but for everyone who faces the same challenges). Therefore, I address such comments directly, explaining why they’re inappropriate and how they impact me.”
It is possible for a person to participate in racial gaslighting and not know they are doing it.
However, being aware of racial gaslighting can help a person avoid being a part of it. Being open about it can bring others this awareness and help them see the signs of it.
Ananda and Raquel’s stories: Avoiding racial gaslighting
Ananda: “If you don’t want to unintentionally gaslight someone, avoid reflexively playing devil’s advocate and offering a non-race-related explanation just because it makes you uncomfortable. Pause before you say anything, and listen. If you think it is not racially related, think through the situation: What makes you so sure? Spend some time thinking about the situation from various angles before dismissing the other person.
If you are being gaslit, give yourself time to process and untangle the situation (it can be confusing). Remember, you are not paranoid for thinking something could be related to race. Give yourself time to think through the situation.
Your friends might be well intentioned and at the same time be wrong. Listen to the discomfort telling you something is off about what the other person is saying, and take your time unpacking it. You can process it later, too. You don’t necessarily have to respond on the spot or educate the other person. Though you can, it is not always your job.”
Raquel: “Trust your feelings and experiences. If something makes you feel bad, don’t wait for the right moment to speak up. People need to know about your boundaries from the beginning, so be ready to express them.”
“It starts with acknowledging that it happens, most likely every day. It can be easy to deny or minimize the occurrences of racial gaslighting not because you are a bad person but because you are wholeheartedly against it,” Dr. Menije said.
Dr. Menije also gives the following advice on how a person can avoid racial gaslighting:
- The first step is recognizing it and then talking about it.
- Researching and reading about it are important ways of understanding it. But one can research it at home and think to themselves, “Now I know more,” and not do anything else.
- Converse about it. Ask people around you at work, at school, and in social gatherings if they have experienced it. I think we often participate in it by being silent about it. So, the more we converse about it, the more we will be able to offer support, uncover our own blind spots, and ultimately create healing.
Racial gaslighting occurs when individuals or society makes someone second-guess their own experiences with racism.
People can experience racial gaslighting in nearly every aspect of their life. It can occur at work or school, in society, and with friends and loved ones. It can have various effects on an individual, some of them serious.
Racial gaslighting can affect a person’s mental health, leading to depression, unhappiness, and thoughts of suicide. It can also affect an individual physically in various ways, such as chronic pain and cardiovascular issues.
Responding to racial gaslighting can involve calling others out on their behavior and making them aware of how it affects them.
Individuals can also avoid racial gaslighting by being aware of it, knowing the signs, and talking about it.