The word stopped me the first time I read it, before I understood its dictionary definition: Gaslighting. Many people, in fact, who use the word don't know its etymology. It originated from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, a callous husband manipulates his wife's sense of sanity by dimming and brightening the gaslights. This summary, however, can't covey why the movie coined such a significant term.
It's really a film about an array of ploys, tricks, denials and lies both covert and overt that a man uses against a less powerful woman until the less powerful pawn doubts herself and suffers from an altered sense of reality, sometimes disassociating by repressing the awareness that they have been brutalized. The person being gaslighted may initially perceive they have been cheated, maligned, or unjustly abused, but time passes. It gets harder to separate a conscious awareness of injustice versus an altered psychological state in which truth, lies and justice cease to matter—or injustice becomes an accepted reality.
It's the worst case scenario when the victimized person accepts a pattern of abuse. They give up on saying anything about it. Everything they believe is true appears unreal. The dominant reality proves they are wrong, mistaken, or worse, plain crazy. They're tempted to believe it.
My first association with the word—which was reinforced when I finally saw the movie—was how well it reflects a major aspect of the African American experience. It's apt when you consider the duplicitous ways Black American history has been distorted, ranging from a Southern tradition that downplays the brutality behind slavery to 20th century economic practices like redlining (another terrifying phenomenon wherein bank loans are denied based on area of residence), which have undermined opportunities for Blacks to accrue wealth and gain. These are underhanded practices that leave Black Americans confused (much like Ingrid Bergman in the film) or trick them into internalizing racism.
And when you measure the impact of the above alongside housing discrimination, glass ceilings, persistent police violence and all the various inequities Black Americans are often told do not exist (until they're revealed by statistical evidence—or cell phone videos), it's not hard to conclude that Black Americans have been historically gaslighted.
I can personalize this conclusion. Like many Black Americans, I experience a good deal of suspicion in so-called ritzy environments. In fact, I have never stayed at a nice hotel (paid for by my job) without security asking to see my room card. I've been asked for my card right in front of white patrons who were also asked, but simply brushed off the request smugly. Yet in my case, if I didn't show proof of occupancy, security wasn't leaving the issue alone.
I count myself lucky because in spite of all the times I have been detained by police, sometimes for as little as walking in my own neighborhood, I have never been arrested, nor physically injured. I hope I don't need to list the many incidences of murdered Black Americans who haven't been so lucky.
Gaslighting for Black Americans is the knowledge that you live in a society which is capable of denying your objective reality, capable of wrongfully stereotyping or criminalizing you and capable of enforcing its false judgements. The strangest gaslighting occurs when I have literally been turned into a bogey man, scenarios in which gaslighting creates an "other" Darryl who goes places I could not have gone, like a supernatural entity. These include incidents when I have entered a bar in a strange city, where I have never been before, only to be informed I was "seen here last week making trouble."
And some years ago in Santa Fe a neighbor who I presume was in her right mind began claiming "the Black man in the neighborhood" accosted her, cursed her and threw large, dangerous rocks at her. I heard her story from other neighbors, who fortunately vouched for me, and discouraged my accuser from calling the police. Then, a week later, a homeless Black man who was certainly the person my accuser had encountered in reality came walking through the neighborhood, throwing rocks!
Yes, everything turned out OK, but largely because I was a known resident. I am not at all certain everything would have been OK if I had been a stranger who happened to be innocent of a crime. It's another form of gaslighting that many people conclude "This could have happened to anybody," downplaying that, for Black Americans, the security you thought you had can be negated in the blink of an eye.
Here lately, gaslighting has become a familiar term applied to national culture and politics. I don't have a hard time understanding why. The last Republican National Convention trafficked in factual distortions pertaining to healthcare, pre-existing conditions, climate change and the Black Lives Matters movement, all tantamount to political gaslighting.
I have often been questioned by people who want to understand the Black experience. It's sad to say that a way to begin psychologically entering it might have been by watching the 2020 GOP convention. As you feel your intelligence being insulted, as you feel your sense of security tenuously shrinking, you know you're being gaslighted.