You may have heard of the term “gaslighting” before. It refers to “a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and to ultimately lose their own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth,” according to Psychology Today. An example could be if you are upset with your friend’s actions, and they reply, “It’s really not that big of a deal. You’re overreacting,” as they are invalidating and minimizing your reaction to an issue.

One form of gaslighting pertains to race. Therapist Taylor Nolan told Cosmopolitan that racial gaslighting “is specific to that person's experience as a BIPOC person [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color]." The article goes on to say that racial gaslighting recasts BIPOC individuals as “unreliable narrators of their own lives.” The BBC states that it helps maintain a “pro-white/anti-Black balance in society by labelling those that challenge acts of racism as psychologically abnormal.”

Racial gaslighting can take form in several ways, including tone policing, which is invalidating someone’s words because of the way in which they deliver them; stereotyping; belittling instances of lived racism; twisting the narrative against a BIPOC; among others.

Some key examples of racial gaslighting come from the past several years. Last summer, during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the general public and news coverage often unfairly painted certain protests as being violent and disruptive, even when that only represented a small subgroup of protesters. By misrepresenting the events, twisting the story into something more shocking and attention-grabbing, and criticizing the methods in which they protested, these groups are engaging in racial gaslighting.

A similar example was when athletes such as Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, something that a veteran advised him to do. Public figures, the media, and other people openly criticized Kaepernick and others, calling them “unpatriotic” and “disrespectful,” yet another example of focusing on the method of protest, rather than the message.

And considering September 2020 data from the Pew Research Center, this makes sense. While 86% of surveyed Black Americans believed racial equality has “not gone far enough,” only 39% of white Americans said the same.

Racial gaslighting has a serious psychological impact on BIPOC individuals. Nolan tells Cosmopolitan that “it can essentially be trauma, as one is not only made to question their sanity but their identity and place in the world. It can cause tremendous self-doubt and decrease self-esteem and confidence. It can increase anxiety, and in some cases lead to depression." It leaves people thinking that they don’t know what they’re talking about, their experiences are not as they believed them to be, and they are being irrational, which can inform how they approach future conversations, disagreements, and other interactions.

A BBC article details five things that people, especially white people, can do to prevent racial gaslighting. The first is to actively listen to BIPOC’s experiences with racism and recognize how they’re feeling. The second, which can be applied to anti-racism in general, is to educate yourself on white privilege and issues surrounding BIPOC and racism. The third is to be fully supportive and understanding of how the person is feeling, and not invalidating the person’s experiences. The fourth is to recognize and address “internal defensive responses to racism.” The fifth step to avoiding racial gaslighting is to be a true ally to BIPOC and those who have experienced racial gaslighting, and address it as soon as you recognize it happening to others.

Whether consciously or not, many people have likely engaged in some form of gaslighting, racial or otherwise. It is crucial to recognize what it is and what to do when it happens in order to continue making much-needed progress in terms of racial equality.