The term gaslighting, as you might already know, refers to a particular type of emotional abuse where someone is made to question the validity of their experiences, feelings, and beliefs.
One of the earliest mentions of racial gaslighting occurs in a 2016 research paper by Professor Angelique Davis and Dr. Rose Ernst. This study highlighted the ways individual acts of racial gaslighting can contribute to white supremacy at large.
Racial gaslighting can be intentional or unintentional, explains Heather Lyons, a licensed psychologist and owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group. But regardless of whether someone actually intends this manipulation or not, racial gaslighting can still lead to mental and emotional harm.
Learning to identify it when it happens can help you handle it more effectively. Here’s how to recognize racial gaslighting and what to do about it.
Racial gaslighting is unfortunately very prevalent, says Dontay Williams, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of The Confess Project. It happens in the education and healthcare systems, at workplaces, and in the mainstream media.
The spectrum of racial gaslighting can range from direct statements like, “Not everything has to be about race” to subtler comments like, “Are you sure that’s what really happened?” explains Krystal Jackson, LPC, founder and clinical director of Simply Being Wellness Counseling.
A few examples of racial gaslighting in various contexts:
If a teacher attempts to undermine the ongoing impact of racism, that can be considered racial gaslighting, says Shontel Cargill, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Regional Clinic Director at Thriveworks.
For example, they might say something like, “Yes, slavery happened, but that’s in the past,” or “We shouldn’t focus on just the faults of [problematic historical figure].”
In the workplace
Say one of your colleagues repeatedly calls two Asian American employees by each other’s names.
When you call this out, your colleague says, “I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just because they look so much alike, you know?”
This response shifts the conversation to your colleague’s intention, not the impact of the microaggression — an indirect or subtle discriminatory slight against members of a marginalized group.
In short, Lyons says, they miss the point that these interactions can have severe emotional and professional consequences.
Cargill offers another example to consider: A co-worker who dismisses your experience with racism by saying something like, “Stop playing the race card.”
With friends and loved ones
Maybe your partner makes a racially insensitive comment and you confront them about it, pointing out why the remark is problematic.
They say, “Don’t be so sensitive — it was just a joke.” That also counts as racial gaslighting, Lyons says.
Racial gaslighting can also show up in friendships, according to Cargill. Maybe you have a friend who says things like, “I don’t see color.” This misguided attitude minimizes and dismisses the racism, discrimination, and microaggressions People of Color face on a regular basis.
In law enforcement and society at large
Video footage of George Floyd’s death clearly shows a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes while he pleaded about breathing difficulties, Williams points out. However, officials initially claimed his death was an accident.
“This contradicted what we had watched,” says Williams. “It’s a clear example of a situation where reality was dismissed in the context of race.”
Another example of racial gaslighting? The “All Lives Matter” movement. This racist rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement effectively dismisses the issue of racism, even prompting some Black Lives Matter supporters to reconsider their beliefs.
Racial gaslighting can negatively affect your physical and mental health, not to mention your sense of identity, safety, and self-worth. As a result, it can have a far-reaching impact on your job and school performance, relationships, and other aspects of your life.
A few of the potential consequences include:
Self-doubt and eroded self-trust
When it comes to race-related microaggressions,
In one small
“Racial gaslighting can be harmful because you need to trust yourself to feel safe,” says Jackson.
As a result of racial gaslighting, you might find it more difficult to recognize instances of racism in the future.
Mental health symptoms
A 2019 review found that microaggressions may cause feelings of:
“Racial gaslighting reinforces systemic racism, thus perpetuating racial trauma that often leads to long-term effects on mental health,” says Cargill. “Furthermore, the accumulation of stressors such as racism, discrimination, colorism, microaggressions, intergenerational trauma, and more race-related stressors may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
But experts have found plenty of other potential impacts:
2014 studyincluding 405 young adults found a link between racial microaggressions and thoughts of suicide, by way of depression.
- A small
2015 studyfound that Latino adults who experienced racial microaggressions were more likely to experience higher levels of depression.
- A 2020 study including 3,320 Black Americans found that people who experienced more racial microaggressions tended to experience less general happiness and lower job satisfaction.
Williams notes these effects are particularly problematic, given that People of Color remain notoriously underserved when it comes to mental health resources. This often makes it more difficult to access professional support when coping with experiences of racism, racial gaslighting, or any other mental and emotional health concerns.
If you’re having thoughts of suicide
Thoughts of suicide can feel overwhelming, especially if you aren’t sure who to tell. But you’re not alone.
You can get immediate, confidential support for a mental health crisis, thoughts of suicide, or any other emotional distress by connecting with a trained crisis counselor.
Crisis helplines offer support 365 days a year, at any time of day or night. Counselors can listen to what’s on your mind and talk (or text) you through in-the-moment coping strategies.
Get support now by:
- calling 800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- texting “HOME” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line
Physical health symptoms
If others fail to believe and validate your experiences of racism, you might feel even more distressed or disoriented as a result, which can worsen the potential physical impact.
Gaslighting, in general, effectively keeps victims isolated and entrapped so perpetrators can control them further. Experts say racial gaslighting similarly fuels racism.
“Racial gaslighting allows white groups to assuage their guilt and shirk responsibility while continually laying blame at the feet of those their privilege harms the most. The effect is a rigged inequitable society that calls itself fair and just,” Cunningham says.
Racial gaslighting reinforces systemic racism, in part, because it can trigger deep feelings of self-doubt.
You might, for instance, catch yourself thinking, “No, I must’ve heard that wrong,” or “Maybe I am just too sensitive.” As a result, you might feel less confident in your ability to acknowledge racism when you witness or experience it, and more hesitant when it comes to calling it out.
Perhaps a co-worker uses racial gaslighting to shut down your observations that in the last 5 years, only white people have received promotions at your company. Consequently, you may decide not to mention those concerns to your human resources department.
“It’s a denial of systems of oppression that turns the conversation from creating change to creating exhaustion,” says Lyons, explaining that racial gaslighting puts you in a position where you have to argue your point, rather than work together to fight racial injustice.
Gaslighting decreases your ability to detect abuse in the future, which allows the behavior to continue. In a nutshell, that’s what makes it so psychologically damaging.
The first step, then, to coping with the harmful effects of gaslighting involves learning to recognize it.
After having an experience with racial gaslighting, experts advise taking some time to check in with yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“Trust what your body is telling you,” Jackson emphasizes.
Write it down
Lyons recommends writing your experience down in a journal to ground yourself in the facts of what you observed.
Jackson says it can help to use assertive and definitive statements, like “[Name of person] said this, and then this happened,” rather than, “I’m pretty sure I remember [name of person] saying this, and then I think this happened.”
A written record of racial gaslighting incidents can also prove valuable if you ever plan to report experiences at your school or workplace.
If you feel safe calling someone out
If the situation feels unsafe, Cunningham advises removing yourself as quickly as possible without engaging any further.
But if you feel comfortable doing so, you can feel free to address the racial gaslighting and why it’s harmful, Cargill says.
Rather than making an accusation that might put someone on the defensive, you could start by saying, “I feel like I’m not being heard when you say things like that. Why do you think you have trouble believing what I experienced and felt?”
This approach can be disarming because it forces the person to reflect on their unconscious assumptions and instincts.
Just remember, you’re in no way obligated to correct or fix someone’s racial gaslighting.
“It’s up to you to decide if you want to assist the person or educate them,” says Cunningham. “It’s up to the privileged group to change.”
Even if you don’t feel up to confronting that person, you may want to share your experience of racial gaslighting. Lyons suggests doing so with a trusted friend or family member — someone you know you can rely on for emotional support and validation.
“Process the experience with people who understand and don’t need education,” she says.
Finally, know that racial gaslighting could contribute to emotional distress or other symptoms, including:
- sleep issues
But you don’t have to deal with these concerns alone.
Inclusive Therapists offers a database of mental health professionals you can search and filter by:
- your location
- your identity — for instance, Black, Latinx, or Asian
- preferred specialty — for instance, racial trauma-informed
Maybe you’re wondering whether you’ve ever been guilty of racial gaslighting yourself.
It’s quite possible — racial gaslighting can stem from beliefs or biases you didn’t know you had, so it often happens unintentionally. It can also be triggered by white fragility. In short, you might end up rejecting someone else’s experience to diminish your own guilt around racism.
“It’s important to first reflect on why you believe your opinion is more valuable than another’s,” says Jackson. “Self-reflection and the ability to be corrected are important if you want to avoid racial gaslighting. I would encourage you to be in a space of learning and observation, ask questions that are supportive, and take inventory of your own biases.”
A few additional tips:
Be mindful of your thoughts
It also helps to maintain some awareness of your internal responses. When someone tells you about racism they experienced, what thoughts or feelings come up for you?
If you first find yourself evaluating the credibility of the claim, Lyons recommends getting curious about why that is.
Maybe you reject the idea because you find it too painful to imagine someone else being hurt, or worry about being lumped in with the “bad guy.”
“Shift your attention to listening and getting curious,” Lyons encourages.
Do some research
Cargill advises getting educated on the who, what, where, when, and why of racial gaslighting, as well as its effects.
The more you know about racial microaggressions and systemic racism, the greater your chances of avoiding words or actions that perpetuate racism — or at the very least, recognizing when you’ve made a mistake.
“Also, stay open-minded and willing to learn about all communities and cultures,” adds Williams.
Never speak for others
Remember, it’s not your place to decide what experiences people have or haven’t had, and how they should or shouldn’t feel about them — especially when you can never fully relate to that group’s experiences.
A crucial first step to promoting change is taking the lived experiences of People of Color at face value.
It may feel very uncomfortable to accept and admit to an act of racial gaslighting, but Cargill says accountability is key.
Mistakes are human, and most people mess up from time to time. The best thing you can do is acknowledge your behavior, take responsibility for it, and apologize. Then, take steps to learn from what happened so you can avoid it in the future.
Participating in efforts to address racial inequity and injustice can help you on your quest to educate yourself and unpack your own potential biases, in large part because it exposes you to new perspectives and solutions.
One option Cargill suggests? Joining a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee or council at your school or workplace.
Many employers offer diversity and inclusion training, which can teach more essential skills for identifying and addressing racial inequities and injustices like racial gaslighting.
If your company doesn’t offer this training, you can seek it out on your own, or consider proposing it to your HR department.
Racial gaslighting downplays or outright denies the racism experienced by People of Color. This type of manipulation can reinforce systemic racism by leading you to question your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
If you feel safe calling it out, you can try starting with an “I” statement about how their words made you feel or asking a question that prompts them to reflect on their behavior. Just know it’s never your job to educate or correct someone, and you should always prioritize your own well-being first.
After experiencing racial gaslighting, take care to give yourself space to process your feelings, remind yourself of the facts, and seek out whatever emotional support and encouragement you need — either from trusted loved ones or a therapist.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.