Racial Gaslighting – What the Meghan Markle debate reveals about racism in the UK.

Ooof. Where to start. Right, let’s start at the beginning.

Gaslighting is “the action or process of manipulating a person by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.”

The term comes from the 1944 George Cukor film, Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman’s character, Paula, is manipulated into questioning her own lived experiences by an abusive husband who dismisses them as exaggerations and imaginations.

Hmmm. Now, if only this could serve as some sort of powerful metaphor for people of colour who, every time they bring up racism, have their lived expeiriences dismissed as exaggerations and imagina….. waaaaaaaait a minute!

“I see no letter”
“It’s right here in my hand, I’m looking right at….

The media response to the whole Meghan Markle racism situation that came up in early 2020 was Racial Gaslighting at its finest.

Every time. Every time there’s any hint of racism that garners public attention – Meghan Markle, Stormzy, Raheem Sterling – a bloat of white men host their television and radio shows, bleating “I see no racism!” as if their definition and understanding of the topic is the unquestionable truth.

Black and brown people are wheeled out to comment, while our national treasures(?) dutifully act as proxy for the viewing public by asking for more examples, for clarification, for explanation. “But is it reeeeeally racist though?” they ask with faux concern and body language that they think looks open to hearing and learning (reader, it does not).

Then – if the funny tinged ones are actually allowed to get a fucking word in edgeways – they are met with some combination of defensiveness, anger, disbelief, and mockery.

Let’s not mince our words here, this is a form of abuse.

Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality… it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders.”

– Psychology Today

Angelique Davis and Rose Ernst define Racial Gaslighting as “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.” In other words, exactly the process I’ve just described and that you’ve seen happen time and time again.

The frustrating thing is that bringing these instances of racism into focus could spark something meaningful. We could be having a nuanced discussion about racism in the UK, about privilege and power. But instead, with all the inevitability of a Spiderman reboot, it descends into a shouting match, as those with the power that they deny they have, direct and dominate the conversation.

“You’re the one with the problem here. You’re always crying racism when it’s not there. Why do you always have to play the race card? If anything, you’re the one who’s being racist.”

It’s a scene that plays out over and over again – as formulaic as Alien Covenant was. Honestly, look out for it (not Alien Covenant, that’s a shit-awful film). Next time there’s any sort of discussion about racism in the media, just watch what happens. Brown people are brought in to explain racism to white people who argue the toss instead of just fucking listening. I guarantee you, this is what you’ll see every single time.

Siri, show me skepticism.

One tactic that you can look out for is the switching of narrative from one about race to one in which class becomes the predominant issue (this is used a lot in discussions about privilege). Another related example might be switching the narrative to one in which white, privileged men (because it’s always men) are the ones who are so fucking hard done by.

“It’s so hard being a straight, white man. These days, you can’t say anything racist without being accused of racism.”

These switches serve only to conceal structures of white privilege and white supremacy – thus ensuring that they remain firmly in place. And this is what underpins Racial Gaslighting.

If the conversation becomes one about whether or not it’s racist to call someone ‘a privileged white man’ (and I’ll give you a clue here- it is fucking not), then we’re no longer talking about what actually matters.

“You’re the one with the problem here. You’re always crying racism when it’s not there. Why do you always have to play the race card? If anything, you’re the one who’s being racist.”

Instead of talking about structural racism, we’re forced to spend time, effort, and emotional labour defending ourselves against these accusations. Or, like Bergman’s character, we start to question and doubt ourselves, and eventually just go completely fucking insane. This is what people mean when they say racism is a mental health issue.

And it’s why racism and talking about racism is so fucking tiring for people of colour – well, one of the many, many reasons anyway. Imagine trying to tell people something important, something that maybe even your life depended on. Yet not only do those people refuse to believe you, but they also belittle your experience and perspective at every turn.

Exaggerations and imaginations.

Well. Yes. That.


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