There’s a reason racial gaslighting is so widely talked about: It’s everywhere, especially the workplace.

Gaslighting is a covert form of undermining others so that they doubt what they experience, see or feel. Racial gaslighting spurs self-doubt about racist experiences. It often subtly shifts the dialog from the topic at hand to the speaker and their perceptions.

“You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Are you sure it was about race?”

“I’m sure he/she didn’t mean it like that.”

Intentional or not, these types of comments throw us off-balance by questioning our judgment and encouraging self-doubt. They also allow us to avoid uncomfortable conversations that require empathy for the experiences of others. But as conversations about race have increased in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, so has racial gaslighting.

The Workplace: A Good Place to Start 

The workplace, where conversation usually floats on surface-level pleasantries, is the perfect breeding ground for racial gaslighting. Well-meaning coworkers have at times questioned my own lived experiences – and then pointed to my offended reaction as the problem, explaining that “business isn’t personal.” 

For example, when Chicago’s essential stores were closed due to looting, I took time off from work to help organize relief efforts in Englewood. Our community came together to raise $30,000 in donations, fill five U-Haul trucks with care packages containing household and pantry supplies, and distribute them to those most affected, in less than a week.

Many colleagues were supportive of my time off. Others rebuked me: “You wouldn’t have to be out organizing if it wasn’t for the looting.” The comments shocked me by their lack of empathy for both the issues at hand and the importance of the issues to me personally. Thankfully, the grit and gusto of being active on the front lines during tragedy kept me from being weighed down by their deaf comments.

When a co-worker sought to share BLM resources, hoping to forward an email from corporate leadership to their distribution channel, a senior manager discouraged the action. “I support BLM,” he said, “but this isn’t the right forum.” Not everyone needs BLM resources, he noted. Not everyone needs COVID-19 resources either, but we share them company-wide.

To be clear, it’s not about needing resources, it’s about providing access to them. The Black community has been historically disenfranchised and lacking in access to basic necessities. We’re fighting a war on multiple fronts, and arguing about the necessity of resources is, frankly, ridiculous.

Making Change

I’m embarrassed to admit that racial gaslighting has kept me silent and complicit in perpetuating systemic racism throughout my whole career. My recent experiences have required me to change that. I’m now determined to be active and unapologetic about addressing gaslighting head on.

This stance is new for me. I’ve always tried to be empathetic, to reach out to others and find commonality with people who think and feel differently from me. As a leader of Cognizant’s African American and Latinx Affinity Group (AALG), I know how important allyship is. However, I cannot force someone to be an ally. Allyship must go both ways, and I cannot be fully present for my community when I’m trying to win over hearts and minds.

We all need to do our part in self-managing; systemic racism is much larger than all of us. “If you see something, say something” isn’t good enough because gaslighting is rarely “seen.” It hides itself in everyday conversation.

I encourage everyone to broaden their knowledge of gaslighting. Whether it’s through reading or attending a training session, the more knowledge people have, the better equipped they are to become an ally. It’s also vital to provide a safe space for conversations to happen that likely wouldn’t happen in a regular meetings – that’s a key component of AALG, where we host a weekly Open Forum.

The Learning Never Ends

I’m not immune. I’ve gaslighted others. When discussing hot topics like defunding the police, I’ve caught myself using terminology that’s more comfortable for me to digest, like “reallocate the police.” I thought finding shared meaning would allow me to participate on my own terms. But it’s not my place to rephrase or redefine the language of others.

I’m still learning. I step on landmines every day as I unlearn my own ingrained behaviors. We all are. That is part of growth.

Don’t get me wrong: These conversations take work, especially in the workplace, where people are most apt to assert it’s not the right forum.

I’d say it’s one of the best.

Meganne Franks

Meganne Franks

Meganne Franks is a change agent in Cognizant’s Digital Strategy consulting practice, helping clients tackle business transformation in all industries. She leads... Read more