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Put a Stoplight on Racial Gaslighting

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

Put a Stop Light on Racial Gaslighting

Sharla Horton-Williams, Ed.D.

School Leadership for Social Justice | | November 2020

We’ve talked about racial gaslighting before. It has to stop. It is dangerous. It is harmful. It is damaging. It happens every day in schools. And, it has to stop. Here is an example of racial gaslighting. This real-life situation that happened in a local school this morning.

• Non-English speaking Hispanic mom calls to say the district issued device was stolen.

• Hispanic campus staff member who is translating and trying to help mom explains that mom says she can’t get a police report.

• White district representative says mom has to get a police report.

• Mom says she’s not calling the police and she will just pay for it.

• District representative insists that a police report is necessary.

• Mom reiterates that she will not call the police.

• Hispanic campus team member explains to Black campus administrator that the district representative insists on a police report and doesn’t understand that mom can’t get one.

• Black campus administrator calls the district representative and reiterates that mom refuses to call the police and explains that mom is willing to pay for the device out of pocket to avoid calling the police. She attempts to explain to the district representative that mom or a member of the family may be undocumented and afraid to call the police for fear of what may happen to them. She tries to help the district representative understand the complexity of this situation and how problematic it could be for this mom to call the police.

The district representative then says, “Well, I grew up in environments like that, too.”

Wait. Environments like what?

You grew up as an undocumented person of color in a highly charged socio-political climate where families like yours were split up and babies were snatched from their mothers and put in cages? Is that how you grew up?

Her statement is a classic example of racial gaslighting. Racial gaslighting is essentially undermining the experiences of a person of color by making them think that race is not an important or critical factor in a particular situation. And y’all, it’s incredibly damaging to people of color.

Examples of racial gaslighting include ever-so-common questions or statements like:

“How do you know that was about race?”

“That happened to me, too, and I’m not black.”

“Everything isn’t about race!”

Or, in this case

“I grew up in environments like that, too!”

I included the races of all the players in this real-life situation because it’s important to remember that people of color always see life through a racial lens. As such, there is generally a greater sense of empathy and understanding when it comes to the experiences and perspectives of other people of color. In the words of author Ijeoma Olua (“So You Want to Talk About Race”), when a person of color says something is about race, listen and believe them.

LEADING FOR JUSTICE means recognizing and actively working against the policies, barriers, ideologies, and systems that negatively and disproportionately affect students and families of color in our schools. Leading for justice means mitigating harm for the people we serve. Leading for justice means calling out and challenging existing (often long-held) values and systems that disenfranchise or cause harm.


  • Which cultural or racial groups are more likely to be distrustful or afraid of the police?

  • When it comes to police interactions, how might the perspectives of the cultural and racial groups in your school differ from your own?

  • What campus or district policies may promote negative or harmful (real or perceived) interactions between these groups and police?

  • Is there another way to get to the desired or necessary end that does not compromise the felt safety and emotional well-being of the families in our community?



  • What beliefs did this information challenge? How were your beliefs shifted?

  • What new knowledge did you acquire?

  • What leadership behaviors will change as a result of this shift in beliefs and new knowledge?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black and Hispanic students who have historically been underserved in education. She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leadership in closing the opportunity-achievement gap.

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