According to Medium, the term Gaslighting refers to an individual who begins to question their reality due to psychological manipulation by another person. Gaslighting can make you question your judgement, and make you second guess how you reacted to a situation or scenario. It can shift the power of a discussion, or manipulate a conversation in a particular direction. It’s damaging and disruptive…so what has it got to do with racism? 

Sheila Wise Rowe, author of Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience explains that “Racial gaslighting describes the ways individuals or institutions try to manipulate or question people of colour’s sense of reality, often to assert or maintain control, superiority or power.”

When confronted on a racial comment, many white folks tend to get defensive and come out with phrases such as “You’re overreacting”, “I was only joking” or “You’re too sensitive”, making the observer suddenly question their rationale. Denying someone’s experience can be extremely harmful and undermining. Journalist Diya writes in her article entitled Dear White People, Stop Gaslighting Us, We didn’t “Imagine” Racism, “Stop treating racism like it’s an arbitrary construct and not our lived experience.” 

In June 2020, Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah, a 26-year-old user experience designer based on the East Coast shared a post to her 115k followers about identifying racial gaslighting. Her post was picked up and quickly went viral. “I have noticed that in general, people are able to acknowledge abusive behaviours such as narcissism, manipulation, and gaslighting. However, it is difficult for people to see how these forms of abuse are ever-present in conversations about racism”. In an article published by Buzzfeed, Ogorchukwu Iyamah explains that “When BIPOC share their experience with racism or confront someone about their racist behaviour, the immediate reaction of the perpetrator is to question the victim’s experience, memory, or reality.”

Activities to try in your team

In your next team meeting or all-hands. Ask folks to reflect on when they were first made aware of racial gaslighting. How did it make them act and feel? Did it shift their judgement or understanding?

Re-framing constructive feedback through the lens of bias. Consider asking yourself these questions next time someone in your team or you comment on someone’s experiences: Have I ever been the subject of racism? How can I claim that something wasn’t racist when I have never been a subject of racism? How can I know something that I have never experienced?

Think about your last 1:1. Ask yourself if you ever dismissed someone’s commentary on an experience which you encountered differently and if so, why did you feel the need to undermine them? Challenge yourself to answer given what you now know about gaslighting.

New habits to make a difference

Each time you read a news story – start to question whether racial gaslighting has reinforced any racist undertones there. How would the story be reported differently from the perspective of an underrepresented individual?

Consider removing phrases like “you’re too sensitive”, “lighten up” or “stop overreacting” from your team’s vocabulary. They are limiting comments that don’t provide a helpful way to move the conversation forward. Rather, they make the conversation feel adversarial.

Encourage over communication and challenge a dismissive comment if you feel it just. Take note of who is part of the conversation, and question their experiences on the subject matter.

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