Last Monday, I woke up and was in a great mood. I was starting a new work contract and was pretty excited about the opportunity. Because of this, I decided to dress a tad nicer than normal. I wanted to look as good as I felt. I decided on a navy blue blazer, dark jeans, crisp white shirt, and my brand new black boots. Wearing a tie crossed my mind, but in the end, having my neck free won out. Feeling great, I decided to put an extra oomph to my look by adding a pocket square and wearing my custom brown messenger bag that was given to me as payment for modeling eons ago. As I was walking down the street listening to Thundercat’s “Drunk”, I spotted a white couple walking side by side who had all the earmarks of “tourist” – backpack, endless head turning, that lost look of amazement, cargo shorts, and just not seeming like they are from San Francisco. As I was walking within 10 feet of them, the male saw me and immediately started to zip up his lady’s bag and walk directly behind her. As I realized this, I stopped and leaned on a store window. Pissed off and hurt, I was honestly going to break down and cry. Normally these bouts of racism don’t bother me. I face them in one way or another every day. This is a look inside of what it means to be Black: No matter how soft you speak, how straight you walk, or how nice you are dressed, you are a menace.
Hours later, I posted about this experience online and received nearly unanimous support. Again, I wasn’t writing about the purse clutch as if it was the first time it happened to me. Events like occur in my life every day. If I posted every racist incident that I am involved in, I wouldn’t have enough time in the day to hold down a job. However, I wanted to point out that even if I am not wearing a hoodie or walking with pants half off my ass, I am still seen the same way. I was happy with the responses – “I am so sorry to hear about this, those people are stupid, keep your head up, there is nothing wrong with you.” However, there were a couple of people that didn’t agree that this was racially motivated. “How do you know he grabbed his partner’s bag because you were Black? They are in a strange city”, is what someone said. I then heard the typical “Well when I walk by women, they grab their bags, and I am white.” The next comment I found interesting: She didn’t grab her bag because you are Black, she grabbed it because you are a man. I was puzzled at these responses. For one, the man zipped up his lady’s bag and started to walk behind her and two, I seriously doubt this would have happened with a similarly dressed white man or even with he was wearing a hoodie. I am not mad at people for having their own opinion; that is their right. I found it strange that those white people are attempting to argue my experience as a Black man. It’s almost as if they could not believe that this could happen and were attempting to have me look at it another way. This is referred to as “Gaslighting.”
The term gaslighting came into my consciousness a couple of years ago. I had seen women and non-white people use the phrase in conversations online when they became agitated and angry that a white person or man could not accept their reality of oppression. Dr. Stephanie Sarkis Ph.D. of Psychology Today describes it as “a series of manipulation tactics used to discredit you, keep you off balance, and have you question your reality.” When I realized what gaslighting was and how people use it, I thought to myself, “This is something that is done every single day, whether knowingly or unknowningly.” I have heard stories of people trying to tell a family member that they had been physical or sexually abused, only to be rebuffed and told they were looking at it the wrong way or blowing it out of proportion. When non-white people talk about racism with whites, particularly in confrontations with police, many times the responses are, “Well are you sure you didn’t do anything? Maybe you caused the cop to react that way.” I have even seen men gaslight the women they were in emotionally and mentally abusive relationships with, always turning around arguments to make the woman seem ‘hysterical”, “over-emotional”, and question her as if she is the one causing the union to break down. I have even done this myself; I am not immune to this.
A couple of years ago a friend came to me and told me that an acquaintance had started to sexually harass her. I had been good friends with her for years and hadn’t known the guy for more than two, so that should have bought her some credibility, right? Well when she related the story to me, I immediately started with “are you sure?” And the standard “could you be reading more into this?” Not only would I not believe that a man could be capable of this, but I was questioning this woman, my friend, who probably experiences some form of unwanted advance from a man EVERYDAY of her life. Yeah, I file this under “Not one of LeRon’s proudest moments.”
When I think about all the times I have spoken about experiencing racism as a Black man, there has always been someone who tries to play “devil’s advocate” and cannot believe racism was the reason. At first I would get upset, but as I have gotten older, I expect it. We live in a system of racism/white supremacy; this is not out of the ordinary. That does not make it right. When people talk about how they have been hurt or offended, trying to convince them otherwise is not helpful. Gaslighting causes confusion and sows doubt in the mind. The person may start to wonder, “Well what if I am looking at this the wrong way? What if I am not the victim? What if I brought this upon myself?” This can cause mental anguish and encourage the person not to share when they are in pain.
I have always believed that there is a time to listen and a time to respond. Gaslighting obliterates that. It tells the person – “Fuck your experience, you got it wrong.” When it comes to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressive systems, there is so much misinformation being bandied about. There are many folks trying to tell you these systems don’t exist. The next time someone who is non-white, LGBTQ, or a woman, tells you a story about them being discriminated, harassed, or abused, just listen. Don’t personalize it and take it upon yourself to try and convince them that was not what happened. Don’t try to “fix it.” I guarantee you they experience situations like that every single day, so attempting to discredit what happened to them does not help. It only hurts and makes you look like a self-absorbed racist/homophobic/sexist asshole. Just listen. It is not about you correcting them or making them believe people are all not bad. Matter of fact, it is not about you period. Just listen.
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