Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.Frantz Fanon
Racial Gaslighting, micro-aggressions, invalidating behaviours and anti-racism.
A good friend asked me to join her anti-racism session this week. After speaking to an incredibly intelligent, curious and enthusiastic group of trainee teachers, my personal reflections took a new turn. So much fantastic work is being done to improve inclusivity, diversify curriculums and hold conversations that truly matter. However, the historical biases and status quos we face remain as fragile and as resistant as ever. The work may never stop and sometimes we must accept the beneficiaries of our hard work won’t always be us and that is okay. We must take painful strides, collaboratively.
While talking about my lived experiences of racism, which do not elevate to a position of omniscience, the trauma and anxiety remain very much alive. My earliest experience of racism was at age four, where another child openly said, “I don’t like playing with P****.” As I have grown older, racism has not vanished, albeit no longer so overt. It remains a very real part of my existence, my daily experiences, my social media interactions and my sense of self. Racism does exist and has continued to evolve and manifest itself into even the most nuanced micro-interactions we have. Very often this is implicit, unconscious and we are unaware of the significance of our words and even our silence has on those who have faced generations of historical oppression. The purpose of this article is to educate through my own lived experiences of racial gaslighting. In any conversation about social change, we need concrete steps to help us move forwards.
What is racial gaslighting?
People across the world are coming together to condemn racism. National and global events often trigger conversations about the experiences of BAME people. Yet, on the rare occasion where someone who has experienced a micro-aggression or a racist comment to speaks up, it isn’t uncommon for their version of events to be cast into doubt and their experiences to be invalidated. Very real grievances are thrown out and delegitimised through what we would consider as rather banal everyday comments, many of which we will consider later. But what is racial gaslighting?
According to Professor Angelique M. Davis and Dr Rose Ernst, in their award-winning article, Racial Gaslighting (2016), define the phenomena as: “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist. By design, the survival, existence, resilience, and/or success of People of Color is an act of resistence on both macro and micro levels that results in racial gaslighting.”
Racial gaslighting is about casting doubt on the racist experiences faced by others. It is about denying a version of reality belonging to the victim and pursuing the narrative that best ‘fits’ an agenda where no action is pursued against the perpetrator. So, those who must take responsibility don’t have to shift their world views. Ultimately, implicitly or not, racial gaslighting helps maintain a very fragile monopoly of power. This version of gaslighting is rarely individualised, although it can be, but it tends to be systemic and institutional. By dismissing and thus diminishing the experiences of others, this gaslighting largely prevents very legitimate grievances being challenged and addressed. We will be looking at several examples of this.
Five common comments
Although this is not an exhaustive list, these are five comments I have heard countless times. These comments have been accompanied by a lack of action and thus accountability for the perpetrator. I believe many BAME people will be reading this blog and nod along in agreement. The hope is we can change the way our experiences will be dealt with in the future.
“You’re being too sensitive.”
This comment has followed almost like a shadow my entire life. Questioning and scrutinising someone’s emotional intelligence is gaslighting. The fact that I have been racially abused and can’t be feel hurt by it? Racism is incredibly traumatic and there is one experience I will never forget. As a Teacher, a rather innocuous trip to Alton Towers lead to me being racially profiled by the theme park staff. I was racially abused, accused of being “shifty” and told I don’t “look like a teacher.” This happened in front of my students and I was absolutely in tears and horrified. Immediately I was pulled over by the organiser of this trip and told, “you’re being too sensitive” and that may be I misheard what was said to me. This comment of being “too sensitive” is like saying to someone that their battle isn’t worthy. It is still very upsetting and the fact I was questioned to the point of questioning my version of reality, it meant I was “wrong” for being hurt by racism. How does this work? The psychology of it is frightening. How does one go from being a victim for the perpetrator to have excuses being made for them by us? The experience of racism is very unpleasant and evokes such anger and pain. Why am I being accused of being “too sensitive” when clearly someone has upset me on a very personal level? Why would anyone feel the need to cast into doubt the emotional compass of others when they have just gone through a very traumatic ordeal?
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
In terms of questioning one’s reality, this comment is incredibly dangerous and very insensitive. On countless occasions this what I have witnessed and experienced has been scrutinised to the point where I begin to question the reality of it. A few years back I was a TA in a very challenging school. My fellow Muslim colleagues continued to cite racism and even violence from students towards them. The situation was at almost breaking point where several of us refused to work in classes where the levels of hostility were so frightening. No one should feel unsafe or at risk at work. After witnessing a fellow TA being physically pushed to the floor and then being racially abused, I was asked to complete a statement. Within minutes of penning my final lines and handing it back, I was hauled into a meeting where several of us sat there having completed almost identical statements. The very first words were heard were “are you sure that’s what happened?” Beyond this came several really loaded and insidious questions, detailing the time, the colour of chairs and even if we had a personal relationship with the TA who was assaulted and racially abused. Leaving that meeting, I knew immediately nothing would come of it and days later, a similar incident happened again. We need to accept that racism does exist and that the victim gains nothing from falsifying claims of its existence. We are sure that’s what happened, now stop questioning us and help us find a way forwards.
“It’s not a big deal.”
The desensitisation and emotional distancing with this comment is like no other. To someone who has never experienced racism, it might not be a “big deal.” However, for those who face the realities of racism, systemic, institutional or anything in between, it is a big deal. Racism is at the heart of structural inequalities and generation of social exclusion and disadvantage. It is outrageous that someone who has never experienced racism to tell those who have, “it is not a big deal.” This alienates the victim of abuse, telling them that how they feel is invalid and further exacerbates this us vs them feeling. One incident that still leaves me so perplexed is being asked to lead a staff training event on cultural sensitivity, to the next hearing a colleague tell a BAME child “it’s not a big deal” after she was racially abused. The ability to dictate, heat and freeze what matters is a pillar of privilege and supremacy within itself. Racism is a big deal. Belittling others and their pain does not elevate your own message or status. If anything, it is more divisive. Giving others the autonomy and time and space to unpack how they feel should take precedence over forcefully dictating what should and should not be a “big deal.”
“I’m not being funny, but (insert racist comment of choice)”
Gaslighting blurs the boundaries between triviality and reality. So often, racist comments are pre-empted with “I’m not being funny but…” But, what? Why is there a need to even make this comment? It isn’t friendly banter, nor should it be camouflaged as such. This comment is used so commonly before people seek to say something they perceive as “edgy.” From my own experience, I once heard a Senior Leader in a school say, “I’m not being funny, but the Muslims are out of control.” He made no reservations and in fact, looked in my direction as he made this comment. It wasn’t at all funny and rather unapologetically, I left the room. Simply because you did not mean to cause offence doesn’t mean you haven’t. This trivial comment made by someone in a position of authority was normalised because it was not challenged. We must challenge these invalidating behaviours. I’m not being funny but gaslighting is out of control.
“They didn’t mean it that way.”
If we are talking about excusing racism or any form of discrimination, this is the go-to comment. How can you not mean it that way? Racism is racism. On the occasions this phrase has been used as “justification” for racism, the victim is left voiceless. The clearest and obvious example of this was when a friend reported their colleague for making racist remarks towards BAME students on sports day. The member of staff who was allegedly racist was never questioned and several colleagues backed him up by saying, “that how he is” and “they didn’t mean it like that.” When this happens, you begin to allow validation for racism to exist. Instead of challenging the individual, even the accuser begins to begins to cast doubt on events. They may begin to wonder if the perpetrator has had the appropriate training or perhaps there is a generational or regional gap hence their use of certain words. This is wrong. If it is indeed, “that how they are” then we must be challenging the structures that have allowed this to persist. Instead of saying “they didn’t mean it that way”, a conversation should be geared towards, “what was wrong about what they said and how can we change it?” The notion of “they didn’t mean it that way” is not an excuse for any form of discrimination. Creating justification when there isn’t any place for justification, even guilt-tripping them into acceptance of what is wrong, this is gaslighting.
I can imagine many of us are clenched up right now, possibly even at the thought we may have used the rhetoric of racial gaslighting, albeit unintentionally. You see, what we don’t see, we don’t police. But we are all on a journey to improve our understanding of one another and inevitably, we will leave behind those who are not committed to diversity and inclusion. Yet, what can we do to challenge unconscious biases, as clearly we have an issue but without the tools to proactively tackle the problem, the pain is prolonged. There is no magic wand approach, no real reading list as such. This will take reflection and time. And although we might not be the beneficiaries of the painful strides that have been made, our work will still speak for us.
Acceptance is key
When a racist incident happens, solid foundations and expectations are melted into thin air. It creates a real unease and stir. To tackle the issue, we cannot dismiss what has happened. We need to avoid value-laden assumptions and aim to re-educate perpetrators and support victims. Accepting that racism exists and that it is not okay, this is the foundation of trying to support our BAME colleagues, students and members of the community. Acceptance comes through personal reflection and also listening to the experiences of others. Lived experience is so impactful and gaining an insight into the lives of others will only enrich us in our future interactions. I am a big advocate of non-tokenistic collaboration where, for example, BAME educators are given time and space to talk about matters that impact on them. Where they control the narrative and self-regulate conversations as well as share their expertise. Everyone has a story and wants to be heard. Providing others with authentic opportunities to express their experiences, this is how we bridge the disconnect between making assumptions and developing greater awareness.
Stop allowing broken systems to persist.
Broken systems where discrimination is “justified” and excused, they cannot be allowed to persist. Silence and denial are incredible enablers. They must be challenged. Particularly in educational settings. If we relate this to safeguarding or wellbeing, no child or member of staff should be uncomfortable in sharing their experiences or even reporting incidents. We must continue challenging, reflecting and working towards providing everyone with a safe place to express their very real grievances. Systems and people who are broken, unwilling to be part of conversations about diversity and inclusion, we have to leave them and focus on those who are willing to engage with us and our truth.
Our analysis of this notion of racial gaslighting has taken many turns. At the very core, if we are in a position where people want to listen, we must continue holding conversations that matter. Racism still exists in society and whether this is overt or not, challenging the foundations that enable it to prosper begins with us, our micro-interaction and challenging unconscious biases. Ultimately, we need to give people time and space to unpack their experiences and ultimately, this will enrich us all. We should not question the emotional competence or sanity of our BAME colleagues, students or neighbours. As clearly they feel as injustice. Challenge the injustice. We need to continue challenging these broken systems.
Finally, I have also recently heard about the tragic case of Mohamud Hassan who was suffered fatal injuries at the hands of police officers in Cardiff. His family deserve answers and justice. Please see the link at the end of this blog – read, donate and share widely. This reiterates the fact that Black Lives Matter.
Thank you for reading,
Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish) On Race, Identity and Belonging
Angelique Davis & Ernt Rose ‘Racial Gatekeeping’, Politics, Groups, and Identities, 7:4, 761-774
#antismalltalk episode ten with Karl Pupe – https://open.spotify.com/episode/40jYQyVI65jiOfV70Mc4CY?si=v4xyH8rgTn-ve602zhWuIw
Dr Ramani – The Roles of Gaslighting and Narcissism in Racism – https://youtu.be/4aZKNck6LDE
Help Mohamud Hassan get the justice he deserves – https://uk.gofundme.com/f/help-and-serve-justice-for-mohamud-hassan