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How racial gaslighting invalidates my experience as a Black woman

Sophie Williams
·7-min read
Photo credit: Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Alice Cowling

From Cosmopolitan

Photo credit: Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Alice Cowling

"And here is our diversity," the project lead said, gesturing towards me as I walked into the meeting room, the last to arrive. I was working as a Producer for a London advertising agency, about to partake in a big client meeting that I'd spent weeks preparing for. I was last into the room because, although I wasn't the most junior person in the meeting (not by far), I had been asked to ‘pop out’ beforehand to do some last minute photocopying for the Managing Partner. Absolutely not my job, but absolutely the type of thing I found landing on my plate regularly, as the only Black woman in a very white, very male, agency.

As I entered the room, clutching a warm pile of papers, it was clear that the introductions had started and finished without me. I caught the eye of the client I worked most closely with, and to my relief she gestured to me. But just as I thought she was going to formally introduce me to the group, she dropped the clanger - "and here is our diversity" - and swiftly returned to her conversation and her croissant.

That was my sole introduction. No name, no title. I felt myself burn up, embarrassment prickling on my skin like heavy drops of rain.

When the meeting was over and the clients had left, I tearfully spoke to three senior representatives in the business (including HR) about what had happened. Not one of them could accept that anything untoward had happened. "I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that," one remarked. "That sounds like it was just a joke," dismissed another. "Oh, I heard that, I mean, it really wasn’t a big deal," said the third. And so that was the end of it; as far as they were concerned I had misunderstood, and was merely overreacting. Nothing would be done, I would simply have to move on.

View this post on Instagram

Some recent questions about the ‘team’ who runs @officialmillennialblack have made me think it’s time I came to say hello again and to reintroduce myself to any new people. Hi! My name is Sophie (@sophiewilliamsofficial ) and I run this account, with no wider team. I write all of the Millennial Black branded posts, all of the captions, and reply to (most of) your messages. I post all of the stories to amplify the voices of the other accounts out here doing the work. I try to share the stories of the injustices you should know about - and wats you can help. Every week, on Sundays, I ask you all what you've done int he last 7 days to keep up the anti-racist momentum. I am an author of two upcoming books, the first book I started writing is Millennial Black, which looks at the issues that Black women face in the workplace and what business leaders need to do to not only hire more inclusively, but to also create welcoming and equitable working environments. But, the first book of mine that you'll see is Anti-Racist Ally which addresses allyship and is a bitesized guide for anyone who wants to either begin their anti-racist allyship journey, or deepen their knowledge of ways that they can use their privileges to make meaningful change. They’re both published by @harpercollinsuk @harpercollins @hqstories We all have privileges, two of mine are that I'm a very light-skinned Black woman, so I have a higher proximity to whiteness which is an advantage in not only a racist but colourist society, and I suddenly have a large platform - so I try to use both of those things to inform that work that I do to try fight for those more marginlaised then myself. It’s good to meet you, we’ve got work to do ✊🏽

A post shared by Sophie W - Millennial Black (@officialmillennialblack) on Sep 15, 2020 at 1:45am PDT

My experience of having people downplay, or deny, a racially insensitive incident was upsetting - but it's far from unique. It’s an example of racial gaslighting, and it’s something I think we, as a society, need to start talking about.

Over the past few months, many white people have started to come to terms with the racism that's embedded in much of Western society. People who have never considered race before have started buying books, sharing posts, and engaging in conversations that they had shied away from up to now. Conversations about systemic racism, tone policing and microaggressions have found their place in mainstream conversation in a way that I never would have imagined this time last year. But one thing we still need a better grasp of is racial gaslighting.

"Gaslighting," therapist Taylor Nolan tells me, "is defined as the manipulation of a person by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. Racial gaslighting occurs when the gaslighting is specific to that person's experience as a BIPOC person [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour]."

Racial gaslighting is taking someone’s lived experience and telling them they’ve imagined it, or that they’re overemphasising something that, really, isn’t such a big deal. In doing this, we belittle their experiences, and re-cast them as unreliable narrators of their own lives.

The impact of racial gaslighting can be huge, and exhausting, and it can happen in all areas of our lives, no matter how old or young we are. "The psychological and emotional impacts for those who encounter racial gaslighting can be life-long," Nolan continues. "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."

When Tiffany Williams, 39, moved to a new area for a job, she didn’t find the transition as smooth as she had hoped. "Immediately upon enrolling my kids in school the racism started. It started with microaggressions and then transitioned to full-blown racism," she recalls. But, keen for her daughter to give her new school, and classmates a chance, Tiffany found herself making excuses for their behaviour, against her better judgement. "She would tell me stuff she thought may be racist, and I would tell her maybe it's nothing, or just a misunderstanding. I was the gaslight!" she admits.

As time went on, the racism Tiffany's daughter was experiencing only became more undeniable; from being called racial slurs, to being forced to give up her seat on the school bus for a white child. When Tiffany escalated these issues to the school, she was consistently told she was overreacting, misinterpreting, or that she had somehow got it wrong. "People tried to make me feel like I was crazy. Initially, I doubted myself, and at times I doubted my daughter's experience."

The impact of this experience has been long lasting for both Williams and her daughter. "That period was the worst experience of my life and it left my daughter completely traumatised and changed forever. Four years later, we are still trying to repair the damage," she says sadly.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

People can be quick to dismiss gaslighting as being small and insignificant - simply a difference of opinion between two people. But therapist Nolan believes the roots of racial gaslighting go far deeper.

"Racial gaslighting doesn't just happen on a person to person basis, it's ingrained in our structural systems. From how we are taught black history, to the way interactions between BIPOC and non BIPOC are played out on TV and in movies," she explains. "Our entire society and system has been made with racial gaslighting subtly interwoven throughout, which has conditioned non BIPOC folks to do it without even noticing it because it is actually the norm."

Social media has played a big part in driving forward the anti-racism conversation in 2020, but the Black women who use their platforms to speak about issues of race are often also facing racial gaslighting from those who comment and send messages. This is something that Zaharan Sofi, founder of the account @TakingCircleLondon has had to deal with. "I decided to focus on racism issues in the UK for my platform knowing that most of my audience are white. This triggered racial gaslighting, especially from white men. Many downplayed the issues we highlighted on the platform, accusing me of manipulating data, being one-sided, exaggerating information, and some even argued that racism in Britain only occurs from ‘a few skin-heads’. Some of the comments were vile, saying I was aggressive or divisive with some even calling me racist."

Whether online or offline, the mental toll racial gaslighting can take is enormous. "Emotionally, racial gaslighting makes me feel exhausted," says 31-year-old Nikki Bracy, another woman who is well-versed in having her experiences denied. "I feel exhausted having to defend myself, defend Black people as a whole, and legitimise my very real feelings and experiences." But it has also made Nicky feel isolated and largely unsafe. "When a racist incident occurs, I am reluctant to address it head on for fear of being dismissed, being deemed dramatic," she shares.

Nicky is not alone in this feeling of fatigue. Having personally experienced racial gaslighting herself, Taylor Nolan feels strongly about the wasted time and energy it creates. "So much effort is put into defending whiteness rather than listening to black experiences and accepting them as truth. Emotionally, it takes a toll. The amount of energy BIPOC have to put in just to be valid in their experience is incredibly draining, and white folks have the privilege of never having to do so because their experiences are the default," she points out.

In order to make change, all of the women I spoke to for this article are taking harder stances on calling out racism and gaslighting when they experience it. "I now spend less time judging myself and my own thoughts, and more time calling out questionable behaviour and naming it," says Tiffany.

Denial of a lived experience means marginalised groups are hurt twice; firstly in the initial incident, and secondly in having to push or fight to prove the validity of their ordeal. This takes up valuable time and energy, and can stop us from doing the more pressing work at hand. As Sofi says: "Racial gaslighting is another distraction from racism. We can’t tackle racism if we keep having to prove it exists."

Follow Sophie on Instagram.

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