As a domestic abuse practitioner, I learned early in my career that an abusive act should be measured by the impact it has on a person. When we apply that framework to racism, an examination of the potential short and long-term effects on a person’s wellbeing encourages us to view racist interactions as indicative of wider patterns of abuse.
Often, in overtly discriminative exchanges, the victim and the perpetrator roles are clearly identifiable: one person is being racist to another person. With microaggressions, however, the act subtly subscribes to socially acceptable behaviour and challenging racism becomes more complex.
A microaggression is an everyday behaviour which intentionally or unintentionally communicates hostility, discrimination or prejudice towards an individual and community. For Black people, naming the term simply articulates that familiar feeling which arises when you are subliminally targeted. There are degrees of intensity within microaggressions, from microinvalidations (subtle denials of a person’s feelings, experiences or thoughts) to microinsults (verbal and non-verbal comments which demean or discredit) and microassaults (explicit verbal or non-verbal attacks).
Microaggressions can be difficult to confront: their innocence serves as a protective shield for the perpetrator, who is often perceived as being unjustly victimised. Often Black people are told that we are overreacting, being too sensitive, or that we are the abusers.
This is racial gaslighting: a form of emotional abuse, an insidious tool used to manipulate a person by psychological means into doubting their own sanity and reality, in order to maintain power and control. Gaslighting minimises and undermines a person’s experiences, thoughts and feelings through methods of denial, aversion and role reversals.
Racial gaslighting often sounds like "I’m not racist, but…", "Reverse racism exists", "I was only joking" and "I don’t see colour". Other common examples include "Racism doesn’t exist anymore" or "Not everything’s about race". Microaggressions I frequently hear as an educator include "Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion", "To play devil’s advocate" or "More people would listen to you if you were less aggressive". Common phrases you may have heard recently in response to anti-racism are predominantly "All lives matter", "Don’t fight hate with hate" and "We shouldn’t focus on the flaws of [insert problematic figure]".
"I don’t see colour" is a particularly widespread example. To not see race erases an entire community’s history and immediately dismisses, invalidates and silences individuals’ experiences. It positions the perpetrator as moral, while the victim is crying wolf.
At a societal level, there is no bigger facilitator of racial gaslighting than news outlets. This was seen most recently in the way that London riots led by white supremacists were depicted as "scuffles" while rioters, who attacked police, chanted racist slurs and performed Nazi salutes, were mildly labelled "counter-protesters" by some media platforms. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters were branded "mindless thugs" for exerting their right to protest. The media’s influence normalises this narrative of unequal power dynamics, white supremacy and racial inequality.
The impact of this narrative on a Black individual’s mental health can be severely damaging. Dr Roberta Babb, clinical psychologist at Third Eye Psychology, says that the effects of racial gaslighting can include "feeling alienated, disenfranchised and disconnected from their community of heritage, and having distrust toward authority figures." The long-term effects should not be underestimated, she warns. "It overtly and covertly erodes a person’s sense of self, self-worth, agency and confidence. It can be emotionally distressing and confusing and generate feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, guilt and anger. It can also leave someone feeling out of control and feeling helplessness and hopeless."
In worst-case scenarios, Dr Babb says that the person experiencing racial gaslighting can find it difficult to trust their reality, their personal experience and knowledge, because it is being externally countered. "People cannot express their emotions outwardly and have them recognised and validated. They often turn the feelings inward and internalise the critical, negative and racial thoughts." She continues: "Internalisation is one way of gaining a sense of control but it can be self-destructive, as people lose all sense of stability and certainty."
Responding to racial gaslighting puts Black people in difficult and often dangerous positions. Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah, a social wellness designer, argues: "It is important that we do not betray ourselves to honour someone else’s feelings. This means clearly stating what happened, explaining how it was harmful and sharing how we would like the behaviour to change." She suggests "calling out: publicly pointing out the person’s harmful behaviour" and "calling in: scheduling a one-on-one with the person to discuss their behaviour." She also suggests "removing yourself from the conversation to preserve your energy and peace of mind, writing down exactly what happened so that you can refer back to it if you find yourself questioning your truth, or sending the person educational resources and establishing boundaries around the person who racially gaslighted you to limit your interactions with them."
Josh MacNab, counselling therapist at Black Minds Matter and Roots Counselling, urges people to safeguard their mental health by applying important cognitive actions such as "recognising when gaslighting is happening to you — gaslighting works more effectively when you aren’t aware of it so recognising that you are not the problem is key." He argues that "acknowledging your feelings are valid, understanding that the only control you have is over your behaviour and reaction, recognising your strengths, courage, reactions and triggers" empowers us to negotiate difficult relationships. "It may mean thinking hard on your social circle, gaslighting is about the perpetrator. It is their sense of ego, narcissism and control that the victim is on the receiving end of."
Discussing white responsibility here is imperative in order to relieve Black people of the burden of negotiating racial gaslighting. If, as a white person, you are reading this and can identify yourself in these examples, this is the time for radical self-reflection, committing to challenging your internalised biases and how they influence your interactions, and challenging the racially abusive behaviour within your social circles. As in an abusive relationship, it is not the victim’s responsibility to change their abuser or withstand the abuse. We are not obliged to remain in situations which harm us; rather, it is your responsibility to ensure that you are safe for us.
If you are struggling with your mental health as a Black person, please check out this list of resources dedicated to Black mental health and reach out.