Many of us have encountered gaslighting: the tactic by which an individual, to gain power over an opponent, seeks to convince them that their failure to understand or agree is a product of their delusion. Discomfort, shame, and deeply unsettling self-evaluations may accompany such manipulation. Gaslighting is most commonly associated with intimate partner/domestic abuse, with the gaslighter using alienation, isolation, and projection to convince their significant other that their understanding of the relationship and by extension the world are totally wrong. The target of gaslighting is ridiculed, shamed, and sometimes even brutalized into affirming a worldview that mirrors their abuser’s. But gaslighting is also larger than the individuals involved in a given interpersonal interaction; these interactions often mirror and invigorate wider forms of structural violence.
During a recent graduate seminar at the University of Toronto, Michelle Murphy, a feminist historian of science, introduced the concept of genealogies of gaslighting. These genealogies trace the foundational assumptions of the logic that seeks to legitimize the violence to which marginalized communities are subjected. Together they illuminate how modes of kyriarchal oppression produce ignorance, which is not simply an absence of knowledge, but also a refusal to know. In plainer terms, the genealogies of gaslighting are the historical-sociological formations of overlapping systems of domination that assert a particular set of identities as normal, and then subsequently make those identities into material realities. White supremacy’s utilization of scientific logics to construct categories of difference and hierarchies of superiority/inferiority that justify violence against Black and other racialized bodies is one facet of these genealogies. The use of biology to rigidly define “normal” sex and gender within a binary regime that heavily regulates or altogether prevents gender non-conforming individuals from having agency over their gendered self-determination is another.
White supremacy is a part of these genealogies of gaslighting, and white ignorance is one means by which supremacism sustains itself. In “White Ignorance,” Charles Mills describes how “the white delusion of racial superiority insulates itself against refutation” and so refuses to affirm ways of knowing (and being) that do not share assumptions that reinforce marginality. White supremacy attempts to acculturate not only white people but people of all ethno-racial backgrounds into believing and upholding the social, political, and economic structures that comprise it. It seeks to maintain its own infallibility.
“Show me evidence that racism still exists,” may be one demand to which Black people are subjected, as though centuries of abolitionist writings, personal accounts of violence, policy documents and Department of Justice investigations, the unending video stream of Black lives lost to police murder, and 19th century lynching postcards—still circulating—are insufficient. Supremacism-contradicting knowledge is, through manipulation, rendered less credible. This forces people producing anti-racist knowledge to carry a never-ceasing burden of responsibility to “prove” themselves.
Dominant knowledge—the facts and truths asserted and defended by systems of power—is a social construction (as opposed to unarguable fact) that dismisses, redefines, co-opts or altogether erases contradictory knowledges. It is within this context of knowledge and ignorance production that, for example, whitewashing and cultural appropriation exist. Because whiteness demands control over defining non-whiteness, cultural productions circulate at the expense of the peoples to whom they belong.
Donald Trump’s deployment of “fake news”—an approach that combines his habitual lying, a refusal to be held accountable for his statements, and a blatantly anti-Semitic skepticism of the media—presents a clear example of gaslighting in action. But Trump’s use of false rhetoric has been well-covered. More subtle yet nevertheless insidious is the gaslighting performed by Rachel Dolezal and those who, in the name of “real intellectual curiosity,” defend her claims (and others who defend those defenses) to “transracialism.”
Dolezal has, for the most part, been handled carefully by cis white America, treated more like an amusing oddity than the embodiment of harm. The assumption that she is “merely” guilty of cultural appropriation necessarily obscures the white entitlement inherent to painting on Black skin and taking on another racialized identity as one’s own. This is likely because her entire schtick is predicated on white America’s deep disdain for two groups of people: Black women and trans people.
Dolezal’s claim to Blackness is rooted in the misogynoiristic tradition of reducing Black womanhood to a costume or commodity—something that can be put on and removed at will. Dolezal can adopt and abandon “blackening” aesthetics like bronzer and twist-out wigs as she wishes because her so-called affinity for blackness, though supposedly deep, is rooted in an understanding of Black womanhood as a “culture, a philosophy, a political and social view,” or, in other words, something that can be extracted from history and brought into the realm of choice and self-identification. And it is important to note that Dolezal altogether waived her Blackness when she chose to sue Howard University in 2002 for discriminating against her because she was white. This is not unlike the actions of Abigail Fisher, who, in the ultimate fragile expression of white entitlement, sued the University of Texas for reverse discrimination, thereby potentially jeopardizing affirmative action when she simply failed to meet the academic requirements for admission.
These are the identity politics that Rebecca Tuvel reinforces in her analogy-defense of transracialism and “transgenderism” published in the leading feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia, at the end of March. In an article titled “In Defense of Transracialism,” Tuvel seeks to analogize changing race to changing gender: if we validate trans people’s transitions, we must necessarily also validate Rachel Dolezal’s. Even though she acknowledges that “Dolezal may have been driven by ulterior motives that inclined her to pretend to be Black” and feigns a neutrality by stating it is not her responsibility to “decide the Dolezal case one way or the other,” she weighs in nonetheless and validates Dolezal’s identity by placing her in the same realm as trans people. There have been a number of pointed critiques, including those by noted transfeminist Julia Serano, but the great part of the public conversation has been defensive of Tuvel, revolving around left and right convergences of “academic freedom” or decrying the harms of “callout culture” in academia, while notably omitting engagement of the counter-arguments posed.
Dolezal’s claim to Blackness also relies upon transmisogyny and a gross misappropriation of narratives around the social construction and fluidity of identity—physical dysphoria, and “wrong bodiedness”—that some trans people articulate in a number of different ways. From the beginning, her “trans-racial” identity was a misappropriation of the identities of adoptees who used the word to describe the experiences of being adopted into families with different ethno-racial identities than their own. As she has seized the opportunities afforded to her to explain herself (and promote her book), she has even more explicitly weaponized trans experiences to legitimize her own, going so far as to say in a recent interview: “There’s more stigma for race fluidity than gender fluidity right now, and I don’t think anybody would deny that.”
Dolezal would be bad enough if everyone simply ignored her. But because she deliberately evokes the white cis majority’s contempt for and refusal of both trans and black self-determination, her claim to Blackness is treated as an opportunity to explore the boundaries of identity rather than as sheer racist opportunism. Though earnest interrogations of these boundaries have been made by Black trans scholars like Kai M. Green, outright defenses of transracial claims that fail to draw upon Black or trans scholarship at length, like that of Tuvel, are disingenuous.
Dominant cisnormative logic dismisses trans personhoods as altogether illegitimate by denying the reality of trans people’s needs, experiences, and self-understanding. With Dolezal, the “unseriousness” of trans identities juxtaposed against their potential for realness: being trans is entertained as some potential identity within the realm of some gendered possibility, but it exists as a source of comparison and analogy rather than a state of being that is unequivocally affirmed and respected by us as cisgender people. Gender non-conformity becomes part of a series of hypothetical constructions as opposed to a diversity of narratives and material identities that exist without question, and when the transgender-transracial analogy is employed, these experiences become ripe for the callous co-opting and exploiting.
Dolezalean-style gaslighting rests upon three layers of white supremacist logic. First is the presumption of the perpetual victimization of white womanhood; in positioning her desires to be Black and beautiful in proximity to the parental abuses she says she has experienced, she accesses a sympathetic victim role (one that potentially explains her behavior emerging from a place of childhood trauma) that is the sole domain of white women. Second, she capitalizes on a cultural moment of trans hypervisibility, constantly comparing herself to Caitlyn Jenner, who came out as a trans woman just a couple of months before Dolezal was outed as white. But if Dolezal truly seeks to share her navigation of the world as the finally free Black woman that was never allowed to be, why does she invoke Jenner, a white woman rather than her Black trans sisters who are “similarly” forced to defend their transitions and identities? Lastly, Dolezal knows that because constructions of race are in many ways organized around anti-Blackness, the majority of white people would rather deride Black women than listen to our objections to her co-option of our identity. It isn’t any surprise that defenders of Tuvel are using “witch hunt” to describe Black and trans calls for accountability from both Hypatia and Tuvel herself. And it is even less of a surprise that Tuvel’s defenders are attacking critics of her article (myself included) as opposed to the well-founded academic rebuttals of her work. Many cis Black men, like clockwork, also opted to defend this white woman through claims that she has done more work for the community than most of us have. As Trudy of Gradient Lair incisively noted:
“This is very specific to a White woman/Black woman dynamic. It is the same reason why Black men defend Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and Lily Allen et. al. in ways they never defend White male cultural appropriators. So much appropriation and erasure of Black women is intraracially justified because of the hetero Black male gaze.”
Ijeoma Oluo’s recent interview (and psychological profile) of Dolezal is the first interview that has clearly illuminated the depths of the raced-gendered delusion and entitlement within which she operates. In one of the most revealing parts of the interview, Oluo questions Dolezal about the chapter of the book where she compares herself to enslaved Africans. Dolezal distinguishes her comparison from the wrongful analogies of other white people by saying that “those people are not aware, they haven’t been black history professors.” Dolezal, it’s worth noting, is a former Black history professor with degrees in art—not any kind of African or Afro-diasporan history. Nevertheless, she commandeers authority all the same. As the interview progresses, Dolezal increasingly responds to Oluo with the characteristic agitation and dismissiveness of a white woman exasperated with a Black woman on the verge of revealing a grand ruse. Fortunately for Dolezal, nobody listens to Black women—we are not the authorities on Black womanhood. She knows this. Dolezal’s entire being relies on this.
Gaslighting makes us question ourselves because we are forced to entertain how white supremacy voids us of our humanity and our capacity to define ourselves as equals. Because, for instance, Tuvel’s article will be seen as an authoritative disciplinary engagement on race and gender, it will likely be added to academic curricula and reading lists and perhaps eventually even become canonical (though still controversial) in gender studies.
Both Dolezal and Tuvel demonstrate the infallibility and virtuosity of cis white womanhood: despite the harm they enact, they are still always worthy of understanding, protection, kid-gloves. Assumptions about the “fakeness” or subordinate status of trans and Black identities ground Dolezal’s (and white supremacy’s) ability to co-opt and pit the experiences of marginalized people against one another. Because of how our navigations of the world are dismissed, we are shamefully forced to make ourselves legible to a gaze that can only ever see us as less than. Attempting to dispel these harmful ideas in academic discourses, we are often forced to wade through the trenches of normalized and canonical bigotries via literature review. If we choose to engage in this one-sided dialogue with power, we sometimes self-police so as not to be too threatening, or we center and accommodate the feelings of our oppressors so that our humanity becomes easier for them to understand. We are often forced to abandon our justifiably militant positions in favor of more respectable ones or silence simply because a means of coping can become a priority over never-ending and seemingly hopeless demands for our rights to humanity and freedom from violence.
It is not enough to simply hope that Dolezal, or any other career appropriator, simply disappears. As long as there is a structural and systemic investment in discrediting gender non-conforming and Black identities and subordinating the understandings they possess, these gaslighting genealogies that define and regulate humanity will continue, and the Dolezals of the world (and their defenders, and their defenders’ defenders) will spawn and flourish like the cockroaches they are.