Transformative Talks Family T-Time: Gaslighting


A Resilient Response to Gaslighting

Since our Family T-Times are a confidential peer support space, we are not making recordings available to the public. Instead, we will share a summary of topics and resources from each month’s discussion.

On Wednesday, September 12, we held the first Transformative Talks Family T-Time. Ten of us joined the call to discuss gaslighting: what is it, how have we experienced it, and how do we move past it?

Our special guest Helen Kim Ho started the first Asian-American civil rights organization in the Southeastern U.S., and now offers legal representation to workers facing discrimination on the job. After introductions, she shared a definition of gaslighting and her personal story to get the conversation started. Untokening core organizer Adonia Lugo helped with facilitation.

Gaslighting takes place when some entity makes a victim question their reality. Like in the 1944 movie Gaslight, from which the phenomenon takes its name, abusers limit their victims’ access to alternative sources, ensuring that only certain people or entities are the arbiters of the truth. Gaslighting is the opposite of the feeling of entitlement; a victim may have thoughts like, “it must be me” or “maybe I’m wrong for sharing this truth.” Over time, it takes a toll on a person’s mental health to experience this kind of deep anxiety and self doubt. But we can heal from it, as we learned from our participants.

As the discussion got going, a few key themes emerged:

  • “Our ideas are bad for business”

    Some participants shared that they have seen their perspectives rejected if they do not uphold the dominant capitalist system. Even when we’ve specifically been asked to provide ideas for making transportation work more equitably, we’ve heard dismissals like “that wouldn’t resonate with donors.” True equity will take building a new system with sustainable prosperity at its heart; we can’t retrofit equity into structures designed around scarcity. Plus, in some cases it’s actually fear of the word “racist” or of talking honestly and openly about race that holds white leaders back, not the bottom line. For better or worse, more and more companies are going after BIPOC dollars.

  • False allies

    It’s a reality for many folks in The Untokening network that oppressed groups respond to their trauma differently, and that some individuals will figure out how to work the dominant system to their advantage rather than building community solidarity. In fact, many companies actively use this reality in their HR processes, hiring women of color to regulate the behavior of other marginalized groups on staff. As one T-Time participant put it, “Your internalized oppression? I don’t need to own that.” On another note, someone mentioned that even the term “ally” doesn’t go far enough; “we need accomplices and agitators.”

Tools for Untokening

  • Build a circle of solidarity or community of colleagues where you can feel validated and heard

  • Keep a log and find words to describe your experience

  • Trust your gut and believe yourself

  • Remember that bringing more realities to light contributes to overall anti-oppression and decolonizing work

Advice for Accomplices

  • Avoid singling people out: One participant shared how targeted she feels when a colleague asks her why ________ people do ___________. Even if the asker “didn’t know” that they were stereotyping and tokenizing, it still feels hostile. Challenge expectations that all ___________ individuals will have the same perspective or opinions

  • Controlling the message: A participant mentioned a song from the musical Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells your Story?” Many folks feel tired when they’ve repeatedly been told their viewpoint is wrong or unwelcome. A person starts to wonder, “why am I even talking?” Do your best to welcome a broader range of views that advance shared values toward collective prosperity. The most persuasive messaging comes straight from lived experience.