How gas-lighting harms the progress of disadvantaged groups

by Chloe Kinnahan

“Okoloma looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re a feminist.’

It was not a compliment.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Something that I think about a lot is the variety of perceptions one thing can hold—like feminism; the ideas behind a term, event, or ideology in one person’s head could be completely different from what another sees. It’s okay to have differences and disagreements. We have all been taught that agreeing to disagree is mature and respecting difference of opinion is the adult thing to do. In some cases, this can be true, but in many cases of political and social disagreement in particular, I see this seemingly ethical sentiment used to back what is actually the shut-down of another’s experience. A discussion that started as disagreement turns to disrespect in an instant and ultimate disrespect is far too easily protected as “a disagreement in opinion.” This happens often with discussions about feminism. The line between these two things continuously blurs and we need to talk about this.

Gas-lighting discussions about race, gender, sexuality, religion, and class is an obstacle to societal progression and peace, so why is it so common? Where does it come from and how can we confront it in a productive way? First we should look at exactly what gas-lighting is and how it can deter us. Gas-lighting is a type of emotional abuse in which the abuser manipulates the victim to believe that they’re problems are not real, and their perceptions are invalid. Here is an article which clearly explains what gas-lighting is. What is Gas-Lighting

Everyone is probably guilty of doing this at some point in their lives, whether on an individual level, or in response to more systematic/social problems. It doesn’t mean you’re an abuser per-say, but it does mean that we all owe each other a good self-examination and reevaluation at least. So, it’s important to be aware of what exactly it is so that we can try our best to avoid it.

Women of all intersections experience gaslighting on a regular basis. Rooted in stereotypes of female hysteria, oversensitivity, and irrationality, somehow society is still able to get away with shutting down a human-being via these manipulations.

What Every Woman Needs to Know about Gaslighting

People who are driving harmful sexist and racist stereotypes (intentionally or not), often do so by claiming that the activist group is being too radical. “Feminists are crazy, Black Lives Matter is overreactive and radical; racism is over and women have rights so why are you complaining?” These are all common reactions coming from anti-activist persons. These ideas build upon already existent stereotypes about oppressed groups, and grow into another stereotype, making our fight towards equality sound unreasonable or immature.

Oppressed voices are far too often shoved off as “the result of laziness, overreaction, and self-victimization.” But if there are literal movements, locally, nationally, globally, millions of people voicing the societal abuse they feel they’ve endured… why wouldn’t we in the least listen and validate these problems as real. Where does this automated shutdown of the Other’s experience come from?

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia have all been made into taboo topics and if you’re white, it’s especially easy to feed into that. And if you are a straight white male, it is especially easy to fall into this trap of gaslighting the Other, because well, to be honest… you don’t have the same experience with systematic oppression that PoC, women, LGBTQ+, and other minority groups go through. No matter who you are, you are susceptible to class oppression, and many straight white men do experience that sort of oppression. But, for this articles purposes we are talking about oppression stemming from one’s personal identity, not one’s economic standing. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy, or haven’t gone through hardship, but if you don’t acknowledge that privilege that you do have, you may want to think about doing so.

Being white in America means you don’t really have to confront race or think about racism deeply and this is drilled into white children when they learn phrases like “we don’t see color” and “racism is over.” In terms of gender, we are all wronged by patriarchy, but it is the girls/women of all races that experience the oppressive end of the deal. Women of color are confronted with the gaslighting of their womanhood and on top of that often gaslighted when speaking up about racial issues. All women live under the burden of being called “crazy,” but women of color live with an extra burden of the angry Black Woman trope. But these things are sneaky—these gendered/racialized stereotypes and representations we have learned about human groups without even realizing it, and perhaps have really believed without seeing what was wrong. They wedge themselves into the socially constructed pockets of our brains and even when we don’t want them, they still might be lingering in there. Recognizing the negative ways your brain may react to someone who is different from you is the first step in unlearning harmful stereotypes, but it is difficult for many to admit that they hold these ideas in the first place; as no one wants to be “racist” or “sexist.” In this age, it is especially easy to avoid talking about problems with systematic racism/ sexism because “we have made so much progress.” In large part, I think this is at the root of a lot of gaslighting. It’s really easy to believe that racism is, in fact, over, when you don’t have to be directly confronted with it’s abuse. I’d imagine it’s quite easy for men to look at the fact that women are allowed to have careers outside of the house now, and feel as if that’s enough. If you aren’t experiencing something first-hand, it is harder to understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s “crazy,” “overreactive,” or “too radical.” This is how we were taught, and is not necessarily our fault. But it is our responsibility to examine some of these ideologies and question them.

Many local groups in Pittsburgh offer workshops and various events presenting the opportunity to gather, listen, and learn about one another! Listening, learning, and accepting is the best way to open your mind and AVOID gaslighting others!

On April 29th, 2017 the Global Minds Initiative will be hosting such an event called From Other To Us: Spotlighting Youth Voices. This will showcase youth voices talking about important issues and the change they would like to see in the world. Find info here.

Other such groups in Pittsburgh to keep an eye on for events in this vein are as follows!:

Black Femme Excellence Co.:A Collective Centering the Leadership of Black Femmes 

The Hill House Association: The Hill House Association sustains and enriches the people and places of Pittsburgh’s storied Hill District. 

Repair the World PGH: Repair the World is driven by a deep commitment to offer volunteer opportunities that meet real local needs. 

The Inspire Speakers Series

On a personal level, my experience with gas-lighting comes from a white female perspective; a mixed bag of privilege of disadvantage, but many are gas-lighted from more than one angle. So, no matter who you are, you may not know personally the intersections of another, but you can still commit yourself to respecting and listening and learning about those experiences.