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November 29, 2021

Racial Gaslighting: What it is & Why it Sucks.

When the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict was announced on November 19th, I have to admit, I did not know too much about the details.

I did, however, know a few things: in a society where we have an overabundance of fatal incidents involving police and unarmed Black men (and boys…girls…and women), it is entirely possible for a white man to show up at a protest with a semi-automatic rifle, receive water and a thank you from police, shoot a few people, and go home and fall asleep in front of the TV.

These are not opinions. These are documented facts.

Because of this, I was selective about what I posted on social media about this current event. I was not of a mind or even qualified to have an opinion about the political or judicial merit of this case—it was only my intention to point out the clear and obvious differences of what life is like in this country for white people and Black people.

Well, as luck would have it, of course, one of my “friends” on Facebook felt like it was his duty to treat me to the canned conservative narrative that accompanied this travesty. It could very well have been Tucker Carlson himself who wrote the comments. As it goes with these sorts of things, social media gives people the luxury of living in their own ideological echo chamber, which tends to fool most into believing that they are experiencing their own thoughts and not what they are being exposed to 24 hours a day.

Much of this person’s argument employed one of the most obnoxious and hideous tools in the conservative, white American toolbox: racial gaslighting. For those who don’t know, gaslighting is when a person manipulates information for the express purpose of making the victim question their own “experience, memory, or reality.”

If you are not entirely sure what racial gaslighting is, I have provided a few clear examples so you know when you are definitely in the presence of it:

>> “If they were protesting peacefully, more people would take them seriously.”

This was the common refrain last year when people of color and conscientious whites finally had enough following the George Floyd murder. Protests and violence broke out first in the United States, and then all over the world as a result. I guess my only reply to this conservative chorus of untruth would be, “People would take you seriously if Colin Kaepernick still played for the NFL.”

>> “Racism doesn’t exist anymore.”

This is truly something only a person who enjoys the privilege of being white in a predominantly white country could think. There are so many double standards that are accepted as “the way it is” in this country, it grows difficult to name them all. Black people in America make up roughly 14 percent of the population, yet are 33 percent of the prison population. Black people are five times more likely to be stopped without just cause. Black workers statistically make less money. They are woefully underrepresented in government. All in all, it’s difficult to find any evidence to back up the so-called non-existence of racism.

>> “What I said was not racist.”

Saying things to a person of color such as, “You’re actually really smart,” or, “You don’t sound Black at all,” or, “You are so professional…” is definitely, without any doubt, racist. If you are looking to be an ally, saying nothing and listening more is always a fantastic option.

>> “It was a joke! Calm down.”

Just yesterday, there was a report in Newsweek about a high school baseball coach who was asking one of his players why he also ran track. When the student answered that “it never hurts to gain speed,” the coach told him he’s fast enough from all the practice he’s had “running from the police.” Here, in 2021, a child still has to hear things like this from the faculty at his school. These are not jokes. The cumulative effects of being surrounded by this sort of societal abuse absolutely takes a toll—and the thought of a child having to endure this is crushing.

>> “Why does everything always have to be about race?”

If memory serves, this was how my Facebook detractor began his tirade. “This Rittenhouse thing was about self-defense…” This person has a bit of a point, if you ignore the very minor fact that the protest Rittenhouse felt emboldened to attend with an AK-15 and a box of Band-Aids was for the shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, on August 23, 2020. Whether you agree with the shooting or not, two things are clear: it always seems to involve unarmed Black men and much of the country has had enough.

>> “In my opinion, I don’t think they were being racist. They were just stating the fact that…”

As I mentioned, most white people are woefully unaware of what the Black experience in this country is like. A majority of white people have never been the only white person in a supermarket, at a beach, in a doctor’s office, at work, in the bounce house with their children, at the movies or the amusement park—not even once. The fact that they are able to have an opinion about people who live this every single day is ludicrous.

>> “Are you sure that’s what was happening?”

This is, of course, the granddaddy of all racial gaslighting. Let’s review: gaslighting is when a person manipulates information for the express purpose of making the victim question their own “experience, memory, or reality.” The term was coined when the movie “Gaslight” was first released in 1944 and showed an evil Charles Boyer trying to convince his lover, Ingrid Bergman, that what she was experiencing wasn’t really happening—including the gaslight dimming and getting brighter (hence the name). Don’t want to be an evil Charles Boyer? How about letting the person who knows racism much better than you ever will own what they are experiencing. It seems the very least one can do.

As I said, if you want to be an ally, be an ally. Open your heart. Hold space for people of different races. There is nothing wrong with giving explicit trust to their experiences. Anything less is gaslighting.

~

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