Dear White America — Can we please stop gaslighting our black friends and family??

As a general disclaimer; I know that I view the world with a lens of privilege. It took me some time to learn and acknowledge my privileges, especially during periods of my life when it felt as though I had zero privileges. Therefore, I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be a person of color in our country, but from my perspective as a survivor of domestic violence the way the media, the general public, and miscellaneous pockets of people treat our black community members looks eerily similar to an abusive relationship.

Some Social Context and Framework about Domestic Violence.

There is a common misconception that an abusive person has an anger management problem. In reality, a batterer knows precisely when to turn on and off their rage. Typically, in an abusive relationship, the abuser is seeking power and control. The batterer is alpha and does not want to share his (or her) power. The abuser seeks to have their way irrespective of those around them, assuming that their way is “best,” “right,” or simply most convenient for them. Ironically, many people who emotionally abuse do so because they themselves are scared of being controlled. (Source)

Gaslighting as a form of control

Gaslighting is a sophisticated manipulation tactic which certain types of personalities use to create doubt in the minds of others. The term “gaslighting” comes from “Gas Light” a 1938 play by the British dramatist Patrick Hamilton. The play depicts a manipulative husband who tries to make the wife he wishes to get rid of think she is losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly and steadily dimming the flame on a gas lamp. The play (and its film adaptations) gave rise to the term gaslighting with the meaning “a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making him/her doubt his/her own memory and perception”. (source)

Effective gaslighting is accomplished in several ways. One method of gaslighting is when an abuser asserts something with such intensity of conviction that his partner begins to doubt her perspective. (Side note — I will be using he/she pronouns interchangeably. Domestic violence happens fairly equally to both genders regardless of he/she, she/he he/he or she/she) Using a mask of confidence, assertiveness, and fake compassion the abuser will convince his prey to believe that she has it all wrong. This will cause the abused party to doubt herself and eventually believe the abuser’s version of past events. Another method of gaslighting is achieved when an abuser brings up historical facts that are mostly accurate but contain minute, hard-to-prove distortions and uses them to “prove” the correctness of his position . Gaslighting is particularly effective when coupled with other tactics such as shaming and guilting, which aid in convincing the abused party to doubt her judgment and back down.

Blocking and diverting are gaslighting techniques with which the abuser changes the conversation from the subject matter to questioning the victim’s thoughts and controlling the conversation. Gaslighting examples of this include:

  • “I’m not going through that again.”
  • “Where did you get a crazy idea like that?”
  • “Quit bitching.”
  • “You’re hurting me on purpose.”

Changing the subject (or Countering) is a gaslighting technique where an abuser will vehemently call into question a victim’s memory in spite of the victim having remembered things correctly.The gaslighter may divert the topic by asking another question, or making a statement usually directed at the abused’s thoughts.

  • “You imagine things — that never happened!”
  • “No, you’re wrong, you didn’t remember right.”
  • “Is that another crazy idea you got from your (family member/friend)?”
  • “Think about when you didn’t remember things correctly last time.”
  • “You thought that last time and you were wrong.”

Trivializing and Minimizing are other ways of gaslighting. It involves making the victim believe his or her thoughts or needs are not important, such as:

  • “You’re going to let something like that come between us?”
  • “Why are you so sensitive?”
  • “You don’t need to get angry over a little thing like that!”
  • “I was just joking around, why are you taking things so seriously?”

Denial, avoidance, and forgetting can also be forms of gaslighting. In this technique, the abuser pretends to forget things that have occurred; the abuser may also deny things like promises that have been made that are important to the victim. By refusing to acknowledge the abused party’s feelings and thoughts, the gaslighter causes the abused to doubt him or herself. An abuser might say,

  • “What are you talking about?”
  • “I don’t have to take this.”
  • “You’re making that up.”
  • “You’re lying, I never said that.”
  • “I don’t know what you’re talking about; you’re changing the subject.”

Twisting and reframing happens when the gaslighter confidently and subtly twists and reframes what was said or done, causing one to second-guess his or herself — especially when paired with fake compassion, making the abused party feel as though she is For example;

  • “I didn’t say that, I said _____”
  • “I didn’t beat you up Johnny, I just gave you a smack around the head.”
  • “If you remember correctly, I was trying to help you.”

(sources- here and here)

Social Context and Historical Framework about Racial Inequality

The United States of America would not exist if it were not for the twin crimes of the genocidal dispossession of Native Americans, and the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans. Our nation was built on the back of white supremacy and black oppression. This is an essential and undeniable truth that is often suppressed, blurred over, and distorted.

Slavery fueled the foundation and rise of not just capitalism, but the United States. The argument that capitalism was dependent on slavery is, of course, not new. In 1944, Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery, argued this point. In 1968, the historian Lorenzo Greene wrote that slavery “formed the basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.”

Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut, some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slave lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses. Fathers who “made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages” left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments” and donated to build libraries, lecture halls, universities and botanical gardens. (Source)

A new form of slavery

The 13th amendment is often thought to have abolished slavery and one might think that with a statement as clear as the below, that would have been the case:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Unfortunately White supremacy merely took on a new form after the civil war (1865).This new framework for slavery lead to the incarceration of black men who were arrested by Southern sheriffs on the flimsiest of charges and sold as slave labor. Black codes and pig laws were used as a framework to justify the criminality of black men.

Black codes laws that allowed African Americans some rights, such as legalized marriage, ownership of property, and limited access to the courts, but denied them the rights to testify against whites, to serve on juries or in state militias, vote, or start a job without the approval of the previous employer. Meanwhile, pig laws were created to penalized poor Black Americans for crimes such as stealing a farm animal, or vagrancy statutes that made it a crime to be unemployed. These misdemeanors and trivial offenses were treated as felonies, with harsh sentences and fines. The Pig Laws stayed on the books for decades, and were expanded with even more discriminatory laws once the Jim Crow era began.

Enabled by Jim Crow Laws, Black people were refused the subsidies that white people received to buy houses, and even when Blacks had the money they were prevented, either by unspoken agreements, government policy, or straight-up violence by white mobs and/or vigilantes (usually assisted by the police), from buying homes in “white” neighborhoods.

Criminalization of Black Americans through Colorblindness

Black codes, the precursor to segregationist Jim Crow, operated as both a shield and a sword, while new rights (ie the right to marry) were granted laws were enacted that undercut these protections. For example, vagrancy laws allowed a blacks person to be arrested for the “crime” of unemployment. Yet, these very same laws made it difficult for a black person to become, or stay employed. Licensing requirements were imposed for most jobs — court approval and fees become mandatory to become a mechanic, artisan or shopkeeper. Laws criminalized gun possession, voting, desertion and assembly after sunset. (Source)

The 1964 Civil Rights Act along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act officially made America colorblind — at least on paper. These new bills ushered in the beginning of the war on drugs, which was a direct attempt to further emphasize the criminality of black people, a historical throwback to the black code and pig laws.

Direct evidence of this can be seen in the diary of one of Nixon’s top assistants. In 1969 H.R. Haldeman’s damningly wrote in his diary that “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman states:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black [people], but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities; We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (source)

While President Nixon initiated the war on drugs; President Ronald Reagan escalated it during the 1980s. President Reagan followed in President Nixon’s faux colorblind footsteps though the council of a top aide Lee Atwater who said the following in a 1981 interview.

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, “N****, n****, n****.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n****.”

The war on drugs was, and arguably still is,viewed as a strategic decision by the ruling class to keep inner-city black youth in desolate hyper-segregated neighborhoods which lack jobs. (source)

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow expands;

The drug war has been brutal — complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods — but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth. Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

Federal sentencing only compounded the disparity between white and black communities. Rules for the possession and sale of cocaine distinguish between powder cocaine (which tends to be more expensive and is usually solid in wealthy, white neighborhoods) and crack cocaine (which is usually sold in predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods). A person sentenced for possession with intent to distribute a given amount of crack cocaine receives the same sentence as someone who possessed one hundred times as much powder cocaine. The disparity in sentencing for use of what is essentially the same drug is obvious and smacks of racial prejudice.

Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested.Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted. Once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. African-American males are 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males and six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males. Only one in every seventeen white males can expect to go to prison.

African Americans make up 57% of the people in state prisons for drug offenses. In the United States, white Americans use drugs more than black Americans, but black Americans are arrested over three times more often than white Americans for drug possession. Black Americans also receive 20% longer prison sentences than white Americans who commit similar crimes. (source)

John A. Powell, legal scholar, stated “The slick thing about whiteness is that you can reap the benefits of a racist society without personally being racist.

The Parallel between White Supremacy and Domestic Violence

Applying this logic to our institutionalized white supremacy and race relations. White America has been gaslighting black Americans since our country was founded. The same convoluted structures of power and control manifested through gaslighting abuse tactics are being used regularly against our black friends and family.

Blocking and diverting — When we gaslight our African Americans we often do so by trying to change the subject and instead of discussing the matter at hand.

  • “Uggghhh. I am so sick of talking about slavery”
  • “When will they stop playing the race card”
  • “Don’t they know that racism is dead” *insert Morgan Freeman Meme*
  • “Why can’t I say All Lives Matter or White Lives Matter — that is proof that BlackLivesMatter is racist”

Changing the subject (or countering) — When we gaslight Black Americans we often refuse to acknowledge their personal experiences that they are sharing with us.

  • “But what about Black Privilege?”
  • “Affirmative action is really hurting white people”
  • “Why do African Americans all have this victim mindset? Obama, Oprah and Denzel made it” *insert viral video featuring a black person discussing how all black people have a victim mindset*
  • “But what about the white people who have been shot, I guess they better get a refund on white privilege”

Trivializing and minimizing — instead of addressing the issues of racial inequality we try to pretend that racism doesn’t exist anymore.

  • “How dare you complain about racial inequality, don’t you know that millions of white people died in the civil war to make slaves free”
  • “If black lives matter, why don’t you do something about black-on-black crime”
  • “Slavery is ancient history, you have the same rights as everyone else”

Denial, avoidance, and forgetting can also be forms of gaslighting. In this technique, the abuser pretends to forget things that have really occurred; the abuser may also deny things like promises that have been made that are important to the victim. By refusing to acknowledge your feelings and thoughts, the gaslighter causes one to doubt him or herself more and more. An abuser might say,

  • “You know that Africans were the ones that SOLD slaves right?”
  • “Black Wallstreet?? Never heard of it”
  • “I refuse to listen. BLM is a hate group”

Twisting and reframing — An unfortunate amount of times, when Black Leaders discuss their struggles with oppression and inequality

  • “If black lives matter then why are they burning down their own city.”
  • “It is not that hard to just follow orders. Black men wouldn’t get shot by police if they just listened to orders”
  • “They are just anti-cop. Look here at this video of a BLM leader shouting ‘fry em like bacon“
  • “Who cares if that guy wore a monkey suit and threw bananas at the protesters, why do we have to be so politically correct. Stop perpetuating victim mindset”

It is the battered, not the batterer who loses emotional control

As previously mentioned, there is a funny misconception, that abusers do not know how to control their anger and fly out of control when they get mad. However, as previously mentioned, the abuser is always in control. \ The batterer wants the battered to lose emotional control because when that happens the batterer is able to control the conversation.

Let’s think about how the media and white supremacist attitudes perpetuates the parallel misconception of the angry black man or the loud black woman. You are damn right they are angry. They have every right to be. White America is the batterer in this situation. Beginning with physical violence that is now manifested in psychological violence.

Gaslighting does not require deliberate plotting. Gaslighting only requires a belief that it is acceptable to overwrite another person’s reality.

It is time to stop the mind games and start listening.

We have to stop pretending that white america is the victim, white people have had the control and power in this country since it’s inception. We are not the victims now, and we never have been. It is easy to take our privileges for granted and when we have to learn to share privilege it is easy to start seeing that as oppression, but it is not. We must learn to acknowledge this.

We must learn to listen and accept personal experiences that our friends of color are describing to us — their feelings are important. We must be careful not to discount, dismiss, or discredit their personal experiences

When it comes to dismantling systemic racism and institutionalized white supremacy we need to pay attention to the requests our friends of color are making — we need to let them lead this conversation and echo their concerns.

Sources & Further Reading: