Gaslighting describes a tactic of psychological manipulation where one person causes another to question their own sanity and reality. This form of abuse causes the victim to second guess their perspectives, experiences, memories, and judgment. The term gaslight comes from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. The play focuses on an affluent couple, Jack and Bella Manningham. Throughout the play, Jack intentionally abuses Bella by making her question her own sanity by hiding objects (e.g., pictures, silverware, penchants) and then accusing Bella of stealing them. He also brazenly flirts with their housekeeper in front of Bella and then argues she has imagined it. Given that Bella’s own mother suffered from mental illness and Jack’s insistence that Bella is imagining things, Bella doubts herself. Bella believes she may be going insane, even when faced with glaringly obvious truths that Jack is a liar.
Similar to gaslighting, 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 and realities with racism.” As an outgrowth of racial microaggressions, racelighting is experienced in the daily and normal lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Akin to the relationship between microagressions (individual-level) and macroaggressions (societal-level), racelighting occurs at the individual level while racial gaslighting occurs at the macro-level.
Racelighting often occurs when BIPOC challenge and raise concerns about being mistreated on the basis of race. For example, let’s say a Black woman employee named Keisha is passed over for a promotion and questions her supervisors about why she was passed over despite being both qualified having consistently received excellent performance evaluations in her current position. The response from her supervisors may be to point to trivial concerns about her performance that had not been previously noted or question her professionalism. The veracity of her superiors’ conviction and explanation may lead Keisha to wonder if she was as effective in her current role as she may have thought and question her readiness for a higher position in the organization. Keisha may think to herself, “maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought,” “maybe I’m being too sensitive,” “maybe I’m not as good as the others,” or “maybe I’m misunderstanding the situation.” Regardless of whether or not her supervisor’s intentions were to be deliberately manipulative or are simply oblivious to the impact of their actions, they have diminished Keisha’s sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy—both of which can have significant implications on her future performance.
Racelighting sits at the nexus of racial microaggressions and racial battle fatigue. As coined by Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s, racial microaggressions are the subtle ways racism manifests in the lives of BIPOC and their communities. These ways include verbal and nonverbal slights, insults, and invalidations (see the work of Dr. Derald Wing Sue). For example, saying to a Latinx person with a sense of surprise that they are “articulate,” crossing the street to avoid walking by a Black person, or overlooking a Native American standing at a counter and serving the person behind them are all examples of common and well-documented microaggressions. Microaggressions are often expressed subtly, which sometimes makes it more difficult to interpret and respond to them. This lack of clarity is referred to as attribution ambiguity). The consistency of these messages can lead BIPOC to question if they are deserving of mistreatment or has done something to justify the microaggressors’ actions.
Ultimately, the effect of racelighting may lead to racial battle fatigue, a term created by psychologist Dr. William A. Smith. Racial battle fatigue is a framework that makes sense of the effects of explicit and implicit racism on one’s cognition, psychology, and physiology. Smith’s research consistently identifies a host of psychological and physiology consequences that are associated with racial battle fatigue, notably: tension headaches, elevated heartbeats, clinching one’s jaw at night, extreme fatigue, and loss of appetite. It can also lead to feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, an inability to sleep, loss of confidence, frustration, and social withdrawal.
Unlike gaslighting, which is often experienced at a more interpersonal context, racelighting occurs at the interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels. For instance, messages that suggest that Black people are not intelligent and incapable of mastering tasks that require critical thinking are conveyed in the media (e.g., news programs, television shows, and films), reinforced by organizations that have a lack of diversity in their leadership ranks, and conveyed interpersonally most often through racial stereotypes, microaggressions, and other racialized discourse. Interpersonal racelighting is often amplified and legitimized in organizations that foster policies and practices that are rooted in racism, White supremacy, and the marginalization of BIPOC. For example, universities have traditionally created, and sustained tenure and promotion polices that make it acceptable to question or devalue research and scholarship that challenges systemic oppression.
Scholarship on systemic oppression is often difficult to publish in “mainstream” research journals and is not easily funded through federal grants regardless of its rigor and quality. Yet, publications in mainstream research journals and amassing federal grant funding are typically held in the highest regard in most university tenure and promotion processes. Consequently, when a dean or department chair raises questions about the quality and impact of a scholar’s work when it is focused on systemic oppression and use these arbitrary indicators of quality as justification, one could easily agree with them strictly on the basis of the tenure and promotion policy.
Given the aforementioned discussion about racelighting, racial microaggressions, and racial battle fatigue, it is important for racially conscious educators to have an understanding of the strategies that are often used by racelighters to target BIPOC.
Racelighters Weaponize Your Voice Against You
Racelighting can be most intense when a victim raises concern about their mistreatment. Let’s take, for example, a Native American student employee has a manager who constantly mistreats them. The student, in conversation with another employee, asks where they can get additional monies to support them in attending college. Overhearing the exchange, the manager interjects and makes a joke about all Native Americans getting “that casino money.” Rightfully offended, the student raises this comment. The response of the manager is to assert, with conviction, that the student is “verbally attacking them,” “engaging in character assassination,” or “unduly targeting them.” Racelighters use this strategy to disorient their victims and make them second guess their actions.
Racelighters Weaponize Your Passions Against You
As noted by Sarkis (2017), gaslighters often use what is of personal importance to the victim as a weapon against them. This occurs with racelighters as well. For example, a Black faculty member who researches and publishes on issues facing Black communities or spends ample time mentoring Black students can have these actions weaponized against them. This is especially the case when such efforts are tied to one’s core identity. Racelighters will convey that a person of color’s work is “less scholarly,” “not publishable in quality journals,” or “having a research agenda that is too narrow.” Racelighters may also openly raise concern that the faculty member spends excessive time on service and is not committed to their scholarly pursuits.
Ultimately, this can take the inherent joy away from activities that are held dearly by the racelightee.
Racelighters Weaponize Your Insecurities Against You
It is not uncommon for People of Color to struggle with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome refers to an individual doubting their own abilities, achievements, and talents in tandem with concern that others will deem them “fake” or “a fraud.” Whether a victim’s lack of confidence is with their own writing ability, speaking ability, knowledge, professional experience, or vernacular, racelighters intentionally weaponize these insecurities. Racelighters use these insecurities to oppress their victims by magnifying their failures and missteps. They also create doubt around positive successes by verbally undervaluing their success, pinpointing holes in their success, or questioning the legitimacy of their success.
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.