Gaslighting: How It Affects Marginalized Folx

LGBTQ couple stressed after an argument

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What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting refers to acts of manipulation that are meant to make victims doubt their reality for the benefit of their perpetrators.

While anyone can experience the debilitating mental effects of gaslighting, marginalized folx can experience it in a way that adds additional disproportionate harm.

In fact, gaslighting can act as a tool of oppression against folx marginalized by various aspects of their identity such as race, gender, disability, etc.

The Sociology of Gaslighting

In her research paper published in 2019, Dr. Paige Sweet developed a theory of gaslighting through 18 months of fieldwork, which included archival reviews of feminist activism, interviews, and participant observation.

Sweet explains that gaslighting is established as an interpersonal weapon rooted in power differentials, gender-based biases, systemic oppression, etc.

As an example, Sweet describes how gaslighting presents itself in the case of an older white man and a working-class BIPOC individual in academia, and explains how the perpetrator of such harm may even be in denial.

This study demonstrates "how men’s relative cultural and economic capital, combined with their access to “rationality” and institutional credibility, set the conditions for gaslighting. For victims with intersecting social marginalities related to race, ability, and legal status, these dynamics are especially dangerous."

Misogyny and Gaslighting

While gaslighting can be a tactic of oppression by all genders, it is often used to enact misogyny. In her 2019 paper, Professor Cynthia Stark argues that manipulative gaslighting utilizes such tactics as sidestepping and displacing to make folx doubt their testimony by enacting misogyny.

Stark defines misogyny as an attribute of social systems in which folx who fail to comply with patriarchal expectations are subject to hostility, which disproportionately harms marginalized genders.

Drawing on recent events, Professor Stark outlines 5 ways whereby an accusation against a man may be displaced by manipulative gaslighting:

  1. Denial by insinuating that the victim was confused or misunderstood, as in the case of "President Donald Trump’s imitation of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Judiciary Committee that nominee Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court Justice, had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school."
  2. Dismissal by claiming that the victim lied or is an opportunist, as illustrated by the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, who was convicted of crimes against Black women based on physical evidence, but conservatives resorted to "claiming that his victims were lying, motivated by the prospect of profiting from their accusations."
  3. Minimizing harm to the victim if it cannot be disproven, with replies like "I was only joking, where is your sense of humor?” or “Why are you so uptight?” or “Wow, you sound like a man-hater.”
  4. Victim-blaming by insinuating they brought harm on themselves, with questions like "Why were you at a fraternity house?” “Why were you drinking?” “Why were you wearing a short skirt?” etc.
  5. Himpathy, as men who cause harm receive excessive sympathy, as in the case of Brock Turner, a white student convicted of sexual assault whose "father lamented that the conviction had ruined his son’s appetite and deprived him of his happy-go-lucky demeanor."

Such public examples constitute psychological oppression as collective gaslighting makes marginalized genders doubt their perception of harm at the hands of misogyny, which only reinforces subordination by men.

Given how gaslighting often insinuates that the victim is at fault, it is easy to see how such negative feedback may be internalized by marginalized genders.

Racial Gaslighting

In their 2019 paper, Professor Angelique Davis and Dr. 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" and racial spectacles as "narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state power structure."

An example of this is tone policing, whereby white folx with greater power chastise the communication style of BIPOC folx opposing their oppression.

Using the criminalization of Fred Korematsu, an American citizen who refused to report to a detention center, researchers illustrate how the government engaged in collective gaslighting with such euphemistic language as assembly and relocation centers to obscure the reality of the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

Whistle-Blower Gaslighting

Given how gaslighting operates through the use of power to disproportionately harm marginalized genders and BIPOC folx, it is easy to imagine how this plays out in the workplace, especially in institutions.

Whistle-blower gaslighting is described as "a situation where the whistle-blower doubts her perceptions, competence, and mental state. These outcomes are accomplished when the institution enables reprisals, explains them away, and then pronounces that the whistle-blower is irrationally overreacting to normal everyday interactions. Over time, these strategies trap the whistle-blower in a maze of enforced helplessness."

Folx who are marginalized by gender, race, ability, etc. are at greater risk of adverse mental health outcomes as a result of gaslighting given how power in institutions continues to be monopolized by white cisgender able-bodied individuals.

In a magazine that supports the midwifery profession, advice for coping with gaslighting includes trusting yourself, taking notes of what happened, having witnesses present, and accessing your union.

A Word from Verywell

In a society where there are vast differences in how folx are treated based on the bodies they inhabit, gaslighting becomes a tool of oppression to disproportionately harm the most marginalized. Given how gaslighting can occur on both micro and macro levels, there is always the potential for this, especially with rampant systemic oppression.

You have probably been guilty of gaslighting folx without even realizing the harm you may have caused, which is why you need to regularly assess how power differentials may impact the dynamics in your relationships. To do otherwise, you only manage to maintain the comfort of your cognitive dissonance at the expense of further harm to more marginalized folx.

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Article Sources
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  2. Stark C. Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological OppressionMonist. 2019;102(2):221-235. doi:10.1093/monist/onz007

  3. Manne K. Down Girl. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2019.

  4. Davis A, Ernst R. Racial gaslightingPolitics, Groups, and Identities. 2017;7(4):761-774. doi:10.1080/21565503.2017.1403934

  5. Ahern K. Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting. J Perinat Neonatal Nurs. 2018;32(1):59-65. doi:10.1097/jpn.0000000000000306

  6. Sorby A, Adgie G, Currer E. Bullying, Undermining and GaslightingMidwives. 2019;22:29-31.