Racelighting: A Prevalent Version of Gaslighting Facing People of Color

Updated Feb 22, 2021

The concept of gaslighting comes from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. In the play, the main character, Bella, lives in London with her husband, Jack. Throughout the play, Bella is manipulated psychologically by Jack, who intentionally causes her to question her own sanity. Once a vibrant woman, Bella becomes emotionally withdrawn. Jack shamelessly flirts with maids in front of her and then denies doing so, leaves the house without explanation for extended periods of time, and hides objects such as pictures, silverware, and penchants, and then accuses Bella of stealing them. When Bella asserts she has not stolen anything, Jack retorts, “You know perfectly well how you imagine things.” Bella starts to believe him. Soon after, Jack hides his watch and then accuses Bella of stealing it. He then gives Bella the silent treatment for denying she stole the watch and refuses to speak to her until Bella cries out, “Hit me, hurt me, but for pity’s sake—speak to me.” Jack largely succeeds in making Bella second guess her own sanity by convincingly and forcefully telling her what she sees, hears, and feels is not reality. He appears to be a devout Christian, even reading the bible and leading household prayer. Given that Bella’s own mother suffered from mental illness, and the insistent manner in which Jack asserts her insanity, Bella comes to doubt herself, even when faced with glaringly obvious truths.

Dr. J. Luke WoodDr. J. Luke Wood

Derived from this play (and subsequent film adaptations like Angel Street), the term gaslight references Bella seeing the gaslight in their home dimmed (meaning Jack was using light elsewhere in the building) but believing him when he said the light was not dimmed and she had only imagined it. Informed by this play, gaslighting occurs when one begins to question their own sanity and reality because they are being manipulated by others. This type of psychological abuse causes people to second guess their experiences, emotions, knowledge, judgment, memories, and ultimately their humanity.

Although gaslighting is devoid of a racial context, similar manipulative tactics (whether intentional or unintentional) impact the daily lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). For example, it is well known that slave masters provided enslaved Africans with heavily redacted versions of the bible that reinforced their state of bondage as indeed ordained by God. Many of the enslaved were convinced to believe that their subjugation was part of a natural order and that their submission to this order represented God’s will. They were manipulated and brutalized into questioning the sanity of their desires for freedom. A more contemporary example of gaslighting occurred when former National Football League player, Colin Kaepernick, was widely criticized and lost his career because he chose to kneel during the national anthem in silent protest against racial injustices experienced by Blacks in the United States. Responses by those who opposed Kaepernick’s silent protest accused him of being “unpatriotic” and “desecrating a national ritual” while completely disregarding the systemic racial oppression that was the impetus of Kaepernick’s protest. Perhaps the most visceral gaslighting response to Kaepernick’s actions came from former U.S. President, Donald Trump, who had this to say during one of his rallies: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**ch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” The pervasiveness and passion with which these claims were made led some Black people to question Kaepernick’s actions. Overall, the tactic of deliberately asserting false information to and about communities of color has been used as a weapon against them—a weapon made even more powerful when they themselves begin to believe them.

Informed by the notion of gaslighting, we offer “racelighting” as a concept to represent a unique type of gaslighting experienced in the daily, normalized realities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Racelighting refers to the process whereby People of Color question their own thoughts and actions due to systematically delivered racialized messages that make them second guess their own lived experiences with racism. When racelighted, People of Color may begin to question their interpretation of reality and begin to wonder if they are being overly sensitive. In our own experiences, racelighting most often occurs when other Black people question our mistreatment. When this mistreatment is called to the attention of the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s passionate delivery of innocence and claims of the victim’s misinterpretation can be incredibly convincing. A common example of this is when a Black student is told, with a sense of surprise, that they are “actually smart.” If this microaggression is brought to the attention of the person who said it, their most common response is to state, with extreme conviction, that the student “misunderstood,” “took their comments out of context,” or is “being too sensitive.” The level of conviction can lead to the student considering if they actually created the problem in this interaction rather than the person who caused the infraction. Whether the goal is to protect themselves from accusations of racism, deliberate lying, or obliviousness, the power of racelighting cannot be

Dr. Frank Harris IIIDr. Frank Harris III

underestimated.    

When experiencing racelighting, People of Color often feel invalidated and become overwhelmed by feelings of inferiority and self-doubt. For example, a Black staff member who has been passed over for a promotion may start to believe it was because they are not “professional” enough. A Black administrator who receives unnecessarily harsh feedback and destructive criticism of their work from colleagues may begin to question their own intelligence and capabilities. A Black professor whose scholarship is viewed as lacking rigor because it focuses on racial equity and social justice may question if they belong in the academy. A Black boy who is suspended from school for a minor action while their White peers are not punished for the same exact behavior may question whether they are actually “bad” or a “troublemaker.”          In all cases, self-doubt can emerge—where Black people begin to internalize racist and stereotypical notions that they are “bad,” “not smart or capable,” “undignified and unrefined,” “overly sensitive,” and ultimately “unworthy of honor” and “deserving of mistreatment.” These messages sow seeds of doubt. The persistence and veracity with which such messages are delivered can make them begin to seem verifiable and reasonable.

Both external and within-group racelighting is why many BIPOC students, educators, and corporate professionals struggle with imposter syndrome and, at times, begin to tacitly accept criminalized messages about their communities, and even start to believe stereotypes that their culture and communities are “lesser than.”  Chester Pierce’s and Derald Wing Sue’s work on racial microaggressions demonstrates the pervasiveness and normality of such messages. Our own research has shown Black students are most commonly affected by assumptions that they are criminal, less intelligent, and come from communities that are undervalued.

Although gaslighting is usually discussed as occurring at the individual level (i.e., one person to another), racelighting is both systemic and experienced individually. For instance, after a Black person is murdered by police officers, it is common for media to victim blame by conveying the person somehow deserved being killed. For example, Trayvon Martin was assumed to be a criminal because he wore a hooded sweatshirt at night, which prompted George Zimmerman to confront and ultimately shoot Trayvon because he defended himself. Some tried to attribute George Floyd’s death to him having small traces of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system rather than the criminal actions of officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s esophagus for nearly 9 minutes and restricted his breathing. Many pointed to Breonna Taylor’s relationship with an assumed drug dealer as the reason why she was shot and killed rather than the actions of the police who recklessly fired gunnshots into her residence while serving a controversial no-knock warrant. Overall, when racelighting occurs, media amplifies past mistakes, suggest they did not fully comply with law enforcement, blame them for their clothing, or cite small infractions. This can even lead to Black people questioning the morality of the Black community and whether these narratives are indeed accurate. The consistency of these victim-blaming messages makes them more believable, even in part.

At the individual level, racelighting could occur after a Black kindergartener is pushed by another child. The child may go to the teacher to tell them they have been pushed. In many cases, the teacher may respond by saying, “What did you do to cause this to occur?” In our research, we often refer to such instances as reverse causality (i.e., victim blaming). Incidents like these may lead a child to question whether they deserved being pushed or brought it upon themselves. The negative effects of these individual-level incidents may also be further intensified by the pervasiveness of similar messages at the societal level. Of course, we know from William A. Smith’s work on racial battle fatigue that the accumulation of these messages has long-term negative impacts on the psychology (i.e., depression, anxiety) and physiology (i.e., fatigue, exhaustion) of Black people.

Dr. J. Luke Wood is vice president of student affairs & campus diversity and Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Education at San Diego State University. 

Dr. Frank Harris III is a professor in the College of Education at San Diego State University.