Increasingly forced to question your history
A few weeks ago Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a fiery response to new Florida secondary schools guidelines for Black history study. She specifically pointed out a section in the new curriculum that suggested that slaves benefited from the skills they learned and were able to somehow transfer this know-how into viable work once freed.
“They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not stand for it,” Harris said. “Our most basic rights and freedoms, fact versus fiction, fundamental principles about what it means to be a democracy.”
The term “gaslight” stood out in her comments, subsequently igniting a firestorm of controversy regarding truth versus lies when it comes to Black history. Gaslighting (or in this case “racelighting”) is defined as manipulating someone into thinking they’re wrong even when they’re right. The medical profession has used the term for decades in signaling a form of emotional abuse.
Second-guessing experiences with racism
Racelighting refers to the systematic delivery of inauthentic racialized messages to a community. A key component of racelighting is that the inauthentic messages can cause African-Americans to second-guess their actual experiences of racism within the larger public.
Popular culture traces the term back to the 1944 film “Gaslight” in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s slowly sliding into insanity. He methodically manipulates situations in order to make her question her sanity, specifically doing or saying things to deliberately twist her perception of her identity. Further back, the subject was illustrated in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” where, again, a husband tried to make his spouse believe she was losing her mind.
Hundreds of years ago, Black persons were told that Scripture itself endorses slavery by virtue of the passage “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). Other examples include the perceived abolition of slavery (even though it continued until June of 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation), school integration, affirmative action, welfare, redline housing and predatory lending. In each instance, African-Americans have been re-victimized all while being told that American society is “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
Myth of the ‘unbreakable’ Black woman
Black women have experienced this stereotype for many generations in the expectation that they must be “strong” and “unbreakable” but end up feeling like they can’t reach out for help. That’s the finding of Sophie Williams, author of the 2021 book “Millennial Black.” She rejects the image of the “strong Black woman” who can’t be broken and “doesn’t need help.” She explains why the stereotype is so harmful and can make it more difficult–for both African-American men and women–to challenge structural racism.
“Racial gaslighting makes us feel like we’re unreliable narrators of our own lives,” Williams said. “Imagine the toll it takes on you, to go through something and then be told it’s not true and having it dismissed. It’s deeply unfair and unacceptable. Racelighting 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 insists it is fair and just.”
“Racelighting” is the process whereby people of color question their own thoughts and actions due to systemically delivered racialized messages that make them second-guess their own lived experiences. Racelighting is distinguished from gaslighting when the messages used to invalidate the victim are racialized in nature. Ultimately, these messages lead African-Americans–and all people of color–to second-guess their actual experiences of racism. One might, for instance, catch yourself thinking “No, I must have heard that wrong” or “maybe I’m being too sensitive.” As a result, the individual may feel less confident in their ability to acknowledge racism when it is witnessed or experienced, therefore making some more hesitant to call it out.
Reinforcing ugly stereotypes
“In active racelighting, the perpetrator has malicious intent and is purposefully attempting to make the victim question their own sanity,” Williams explained. “The perpetrator is intent on sowing doubt and disinformation in the person they are victimizing. Most often, racelighting includes messages that reinforce stereotypes that people of color are academically inferior, have lower capabilities and are of lesser worth.”
Williams elaborated that “passive racelighting,” in turn, occurs through implicit bias and the accumulation of microaggressions that “shape the experience” of people of color. “It suggests that people of color are academically interior, come from communities that are ‘lesser-than,’ and are more prone to criminalized behavior,” she said.
Considerable research has taken place to gain more insight into racelighting. It tends to maintain a pro-White/anti-Black balance in society. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in 2020 of more than 10,000 US adults on whether they thought race equality had progressed enough in the nation. For Black Americans, 86% said not enough progress had been made (up from 78% the previous year), compared to 39% of White respondents (increasing from 37% in 2019) who agreed with them. Almost four-fifths of Blacks participating in the poll (compared to two-fifths of Whites) said that it was important to educate themselves about the history of racial inequality. The majority of Black respondents (65%) said they paid a lot of attention to issues of racial equality, while 39% of Whites said they keep close tabs on the subject.
“Racial gaslighting is unfortunately very prevalent," said Dontay Williams, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of the Confess Project whose mission is to build awareness and break stigmas of mental illness within the Black community. “It happens in the education and healthcare systems, at workplaces and in the mainstream media.” Williams explained that the spectrum of racelighting can range from direct statements as in, “Not everything is about race” to more subtle comments like “Are you sure that’s what really happened?”
“If a teacher attempts to undermine the ongoing impact of racism, that can be considered radelighting,” he said. “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.”
If an educational institution issues statements that it “respects the values” of those with different identities–or even cites examples of programs in place that offer existing support–the experience of racelighting can lead to confusion among those of different identities. In order to promote a more positive experience for students of color, Dontay Williams suggested that proposing truly meaningful and sustainable ongoing initiatives–while providing specific details–students will be better served.
“In the learning environment, it is imperative that statements about Black history be authentic and sincere, otherwise these lessons may engender a sense of disappointment or betrayal of the community under discussion,” Williams said. “Students should receive the full measure of their history. Anything else would cast doubt and could lead to feelings of inadequacy and confusion about what their ancestors contributed to society in general.”
The seduction of ‘All Lives Matter’
While not within the classroom structure, the All Lives Matter movement is a good example of racelighting. The rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement effectively dismisses the issue of racism, even prompting some Black Lives Matter supporters to reconsider their beliefs. The utterance of “All Lives Matter” assumes, of course, the best intent that one values all human life equally. It can also mean that a person fails to see the ways American society and systems fail the lives, livelihoods and well-being of African-Americans.
While African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, as late as 2020 they represented 24% of total deaths in police custody—25% of persons who were later confirmed to be unarmed. Further data from Mapping Police Violence revealed that in 2020 Black people were nearly twice as likely to be killed during a police interaction than a Latino person and nearly three times more likely than a White person. The National Safety Council found that Black men have a 1 in 1,000 chance of dying at the hands of police at some point in their lifetime. The cries of “All Lives Matter” can be akin to telling somebody whose house is on fire that your house “matters too.”
Racelighting can negatively affect physical and mental health, not to mention a person’s sense of identity, safety and self-worth. As a result, it can have a far-reaching impact on job and school performance, relationships and other aspects of a person’s life. The effects of racelighting can be profound but, with careful attention to repair and healing, institutions can make sincere efforts to encourage a more honest and sincere portrait of American history.
This article is a part of a series of articles for Our Weekly's #StopTheHate campaign and is supported in whole or part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library. #NoPlaceForHateCA,