For many clients of color, their stories of racial stress or trauma are often downplayed, disregarded, or invalidated . . .
. . . sometimes even by those closest to them.
So in the video below, Usha Tummala-Narra, PhD shares how she worked with one client who experienced multiple levels of gaslighting in the aftermath of a racially traumatic experience.
Have a look.
And so, we’re taking in messages about whether we’re smart, whether we are civilized, whether we’re attractive, whether we’re safe or dangerous to other people. And so here, I would work with clients to examine the messages that they’re contending with because oftentimes what happens with manipulation and gas lighting is that we start to not trust our own reality, and we start to wonder, “Is what I feel real? Is it me? Is it the other person?” And we start to question ourselves that way. And, it comes up in moments of microaggressions, as well, where we start to wonder, “Did I really hear what I heard,” and we start to kind of question our own reality. So, when I’m working with clients to kind of look at these messages and talk about them, they might recognize it’s a stereotype or it’s untrue, but they might have a hard time believing that it’s not true of themselves.
So in thinking about extreme manipulation or gas lighting, a case comes to my mind of a client who I will call Tanya. Tanya is in her mid-twenties, and she describes herself as a Black Dominican American cisgender, heterosexual woman. Tanya needed help after being sexually assaulted by an acquaintance that she had met through work, and she had been coping with headaches and depressed mood and anxiety. She was feeling hopeless about her future when I met her. And, one of the very first things she said to me in our first session was “I need to talk to someone who will believe what happened.” And just two months prior to meeting her, her father had blamed her for the assault, telling her that women need to be more careful.
Just to give a couple of things about her background, Tanya’s parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic when they were young adults and they lived in a predominantly Dominican immigrant working class community. She and her sisters were often cared for by other parents in their Catholic church community and really, when she talked to me about her Dominican community, she felt a strong sense of security, loved hearing stories about the Dominican Republic, although her family really didn’t have the financial means to travel back to the DR. Her parents would frequently argue about finances and at times, that would lead to violence when her father would throw objects, like a dish or a glass against a wall, he would never apologize for this and she learned from her mother to remain calm and quiet during these instances.
In a sense, the mother was herself kind of adapting her own reality for the father and this is what Tanya would observe, that you have to stay quiet to bear through this violence. And, when she left home and attended college, she saw that as an eye-opening kind of experience, especially with regard to race, because this was the first time she had lived outside of a predominantly Dominican community. She felt unprepared for college, she was first generation student and, in one of our sessions, she told me it was like this sea of white people. She said, “I knew to expect it, but it was hard to take the assumptions that people made.” For example, she said, “This one girl, one woman in college said that, “I’m Dominican,” and she said, “Oh, do you know voodoo,” so making assumptions like that.
And she dealt with these comments by just withdrawing, essentially from other people, largely, and she felt very isolated from people in college. And, at the same time, her friendships at home were complicated, as well, because she felt like she could talk with her girlfriends at home about the anti-black bias that she was experiencing at college, but she couldn’t really talk about other things like anti-black bias within her own community with those same friends.
And so, one of the things that she began to talk about in our work is how dark skin color was seen as something negative or unattractive in her community. And, these were message messages that she would receive from her parents, as well as other people in her church. So, one of the reasons this is important to note is that when she was raped by this person, she had met this perpetrator while riding the subway and she said that she was really taken with his good looks and felt flattered that a handsome, light skin man was interested in her, she had never, in fact, been asked out by someone who was lighter skinned than her. And, she had agreed to go out on a date with him and later that evening, he had raped her. In the course of the assault, her rapist called her denigrating names, including those that insulted her dark skin color.
Eventually, as we processed the trauma, she was able to talk with her parents and her sister about the rape and told her father that he hurt her by blaming her and her father apologized but told her that she’s too sensitive. So, when I think about Tanya, I think about gas lighting and manipulation on so many different levels, so many different spaces in her life, that oftentimes our clients are dealing with messages that distort their sense of self and their sense of reality. And, here you have Tanya internalizing those messages about dark skin color, feeling unattractive, and that being reinforced as she’s being traumatized through the rape as it’s happening to her and, at the same time, feeling ashamed of internalizing those feelings and those messages about dark skin color. So, she’s both accepting it and rejecting it and in much of our work, we started to dissect that and wonder where did her parents learn those messages?
What did she and her siblings do with that? And also in the relationship with me, being an Indian American therapist and my skin color actually being very similar to hers, and I also have experienced that kind of colorism within my family and community. So, trying to recognize this as something that we both learned and how do we then unlearn it or do something differently with it than those who we learned those messages from. So, I do see that is a form of manipulation that manifests in various different forms.
To hear more strategies for helping clients who’ve experienced racial trauma, sign up to watch the free broadcasts of The Trauma of Racism: Expert Strategies to Help Clients Heal.
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Now we’d like to hear from you. How do you help clients of color who’ve experienced gaslighting and manipulation? Let us know in the comments below.