How to Spot the Hidden Signs Someone Is Gaslighting

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.

When this form of manipulation is used specifically to undermine or minimize someone’s experiences of racism, it’s called racial gaslighting.

Racial gaslighting mostly affects People of Color, according to Jason Cunningham, LMHC, a therapist at Alma.

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.

Examples of racial gaslighting
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:

At school
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.

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