Who’s the Real Problem? On White Supremacy and Institutional Gaslighting

Anisha Sankar unpacks the way institutions uphold white supremacy when they treat people who report racism as the problem.

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Institutions uphold white supremacy when they treat people who report racism as the problem.

White supremacy is a ghostly phenomenon. You can’t always see it, even if you know it’s there. What’s worse is when you try to explain its presence to someone else. This has viscerally disturbing effects: you scream, “There’s danger!” You cry for help, try to warn others. You are met with blank stares, heads turn away, people return to their lives, mildly irritated or at the very least, inconvenienced by your outburst.  

Every now and then, however, white supremacy rears its ugly head. For these moments, white supremacy takes a form. Suddenly, everyone can see it. The ghost becomes incarnate, made flesh. This moment feels explosive.

Something happens in these moments when the fabric of normality is ruptured. Dynamics shift when everything is up in the air. Power is contested. You feel like things could be rearranged before they fall back down. There is a burst of potential accompanied by the conviction that nothing will ever be the same.

But slowly, as the dust clears, things return to the way they were. The loudest voices call for unity. You get the unsettling feeling this is a cheap trick, an attempt to patch things up swiftly. Unity functions as a denial that differences exist. Unity says, “This is not us.” These calls for unity deny that violence is a norm under conditions of colonial capitalism.

People return once again to their own lives, convinced that the violence of white supremacy is a random occurrence. You sit with confusion, as the room begins to look the way it always was. It’s almost as if nothing ever happened. The tangible form of white supremacy has disappeared, but you can feel its spectral presence around you.

This is how it feels to live with white supremacy as a social and institutional norm in Aotearoa New Zealand. It feels like you are pointing to a problem, but everybody around you denies it exists. The word used to describe this in other instances is ‘gaslighting’.

The term gaslighting derives from Patrick Hamilton’s play (1938) and its mystery-thriller film counterpart (1944), Gaslight. The story is this: a man tries in many vindictive ways to convince his wife that she’s mentally unsound. He puts his belongings in her bag and then accuses her of stealing them; she thinks she’s a kleptomaniac. He tells her he’s going out, but creeps around in the attic instead. By turning the attic lights on, gas to the lights downstairs is reduced, causing them to dim. He tells her later that she imagined the lights dimming. He does this to distract her so he can carry on with his other murderous, criminal pursuits.

The story resonates in an eerie way with those who are familiar with the experience of naming racism when they see it: gaslighting is a manipulative strategy almost always employed by those in positions of power. It is, in essence, an abuse of power.

Naming a problem is an interesting thing. In Living a Feminist Life (2017) Sara Ahmed writes, “When you name a problem, you become a problem.” She illustrates this with a scene: everyone is sitting at the dinner table. Someone makes a sexist joke, everyone laughs. You speak up, expressing your discomfort. Suddenly, everyone turns to stare at you. You are the one who has disrupted the flow of the conversation. You become the problem.

When everyone around you is denying a collective problem exists, it’s easy to believe you imagined the gaslights dim.

Ahmed’s example brings attention to how the normalised reaction to the naming of a problem is to gaslight you into thinking you are the problem. You were trying to point out the systemic nature of the problem, but it becomes something different through the collective response. It’s easy enough to believe. When everyone around you is denying a collective problem exists, it’s easy to believe you imagined the gaslights dim.

The Afro-Jewish philosopher Lewis Gordon writes that the system of colonial capitalism in the United States creates conditions in which black people’s subjectivity is constituted as problematic. They are seen as problems, instead of as people who face problems. This distinction is important, and adds another layer of complexity to Ahmed’s sentiment on becoming a problem.

So when racialised people name problems they face under colonial capitalism, a double contradiction occurs. We already are considered problems because of the nature of our very existence in such conditions. Our experiences tell us that this is the case. When we name something that challenges the sense of unity in which the violence of colonial capitalism is wrapped up, we become hyper-visible as problems. We out ourselves as problems, because the naming of our experiences with racism and white supremacy challenges the rhetoric of unity that is necessary for the smooth functioning of colonial capitalism.

White supremacy is a social and cultural norm in Aotearoa New Zealand. This has been true for 200 years, since Pākehā first settled here. The history of colonialism is therefore also the history of our institutions: our banks, our justice system, our universities. These systems are largely designed by, and for, settlers to create and maintain economic and social benefit under colonial capitalism. The colonial capitalist system relies on two things that it gets from Indigenous and racialised peoples: land and labour. First, it requires the expropriation of land from tangata whenua, and second, the use of tangata whenua and other racialised subjects as a labour force. Racialised difference is embedded into the system of colonial capitalism, although it’s masked almost convincingly in the language of ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationhood’.

Gaslighting is not always an individual phenomenon. Gaslighting can be an institutionalised strategy, used by systems that seek to uphold and maintain their power. Often, we hear talk about the phrase ‘institutional indifference’, referring to institutions’ lack of willingness to comprehend certain problems. Indifference, however, suggests a level of passivity that should not be attributed to those institutions with a lot of power. What happens in these contexts is a lot more manipulative.

You walk out of meetings with management thinking, “Am I crazy? Did I make it all up?” 

When you name a problem like white supremacy through institutional channels, the system refuses to comprehend. You walk out of meetings with management thinking, “Am I crazy? Did I make it all up?” Making a complaint through institutional channels is like sending a virus into a system: the system’s antibodies attack.

This is perhaps why we have little success when it comes to vying for institutional change. The struggles to change our institutions may seem, for many of us, the way towards a different kind of social reality. But this is difficult when these institutions are committed to upholding the system of colonial capitalism.

Ahmed calls the attempt to make institutional change as individuals ‘diversity work’. She describes diversity work as “the work we do when we aim to transform the norms of an institution, and the work we do when we do not quite inhabit those norms”. Considering that white supremacy is an embedded social norm in Aotearoa New Zealand, those who experience the harsh reality of white supremacist oppression are the ones burdened with the task of trying to make these changes. This kind of work happens, of course, as unpaid labour.

When we do this work, for example, by making a complaint about an incident of racial harassment or discrimination, these institutions begin a process of damage control. Damage control is about controlling the problem, while what is being asked for is that the structural conditions that give rise to the damage be addressed. In this case, the person who has named the problem becomes the damage that needs to be controlled.

Part of the process of damage control is the recurring term you might hear when you make a complaint: ‘natural justice’. This is particularly dangerous, because there is nothing natural about a complaint going through bureaucratic institutional channels. But this refers to a specific process in which when you make a complaint, you are named to the person you have complained about, and they are given a chance to defend themselves against any accusations.

Natural justice aids the process of damage control, because it makes the problem a ‘he said, she said’ one. When institutions focus on damage control they allow the problem to become individualised. This isolates those who name racism when they see it. This is part of the process of institutional gaslighting. Convincing an individual that their experience is separate from the conditions that inform their experience literally has the effect of undermining that person’s version of social reality.

The rhetoric of unity is used as a mechanism to aid the process of damage control ... The sooner you give in to this narrative, the sooner things will be allowed to go back to how they were.

The rhetoric of unity is used as a mechanism to aid the process of damage control, and becomes a central component of institutional gaslighting. Damage control tries to get you to explain and justify why you think something is a problem. But explaining that the problem reinforces a systemic injustice is not ever an adequate answer, and when you try this, the response is almost always: that’s not what this problem is about. This problem, they say, is about you. This is your problem. The sooner you give in to this narrative, the sooner things will be allowed to go back to how they were. The rhetoric of unity, perhaps conveyed in words like ‘collegiality’, allows institutions to justify the terms on which they convince you that this problem is yours.

When we name a problem by making a complaint, our explanations of why we are making it need to be recognisable in an institutional language or policy framework. They need to fit certain criteria, for which policies outline that there can be no room for negotiation – no grey areas are allowed. There is often a narrow consideration of what harassment or bullying look like, because it is only measured by the risk of overt violence. Racism might be mentioned as a condemnable behaviour, but what constitutes racism is not defined. If a perpetrator of violence or harassment isn’t going to “jump out of a bush and beat you”,1 then there is no further nuance that allows for a more sophisticated understanding of the problems at hand. And of course, no acknowledgement of systemic racism or power whatsoever.

My personal experience with naming a problem of white supremacy has followed the pattern of institutional gaslighting. I work at a university in Auckland, where I teach classes of up to 50 students. Five days after the March 15 terrorist attack, I experienced an incident of racial harassment. A student had a disturbing racist outburst in class, which they followed up with a vile email to me. In this email, the student listed what they saw as their “political views”, including that “colonisation was glorious”, that they “don’t recognise the Treaty of Waitangi – it should be nullified”, and some incredibly specific derogatory remarks about some Indigenous groups and the religion of Islam. They accused me of silencing their political views in class and asserted that they have a right to express their views freely, without discrimination. The email read as an implicit threat, and it felt like the student was emboldened by the Christchurch attacks to pursue this kind of harassment.

Making a complaint about this experience was an emotional rollercoaster. All decision-making was totally out of my hands. Meeting after meeting was held, and in all of them, I was made to explain why I thought this was a problem. The first suggestion was that I no longer teach the class, and that I be removed instead of the student. The university eventually conceded not to do so as a result of the work I put into refusing. Other, similarly inadequate suggestions followed, to each of which I had to commit time and effort to refuse it. This back-and-forth went on for over a month.

The different options on how to deal with this problem were presented, without consultation, in ways that individualised the problem: it became my problem, which is to say I become the university’s problem. Tactics of damage control were used to isolate me. A narrow lens of what constitutes violence was employed. “Is he going to jump out of a bush and beat you?” is a real question I was asked, in order to ascertain the threat of violence. And when I complained further about the institution’s response – that they were dealing with this complaint in a way that caused me further emotional and psychological harm – I was again made to justify why this was a problem. I was told that there was ‘no substance’ to my complaints. The process was like, as Ahmed would say, banging my head against a brick wall.

The response by my institution is an example of institutional gaslighting and abuse of power. Eventually, I became too exhausted to continue with the complaints process. There’s only so far you can go, when everyone around you denies a problem exists, without compromising your own mental health.

What does all of this mean in a post-Christchurch context? When it comes to dealing with changing institutional norms, at a time in which white supremacy is taking new forms, it means we need to be hyper-vigilant in recognising and emphasising the connections between the old and the new. It means recognising the connections between individuals and the history of systems of power.

What the white supremacist attack on the Muslim community in Christchurch, and the collective national response to it, illustrates is that New Zealand will tolerate the everyday violence of colonial capitalism, but will not tolerate the overt violence of white-supremacist mass murder. This narrow focus on overt violence is a gaslighting strategy. With institutions confirming the unacceptable nature of overt violence, but minimising the harm of everyday racism and white supremacy, people become convinced that their experiences are not what they think they are. This is also what the narrative of ‘this is not us’ functions to do. It’s a strategy that denies the reality of the conditions of colonial capitalism. This upholds the hierarchies of power that structure the way in which we live our lives, because it ensures that they go unquestioned. Like the Gaslight story illustrates, these strategies are an abuse of power. When institutions respond by treating you as the problem and denying that what you’re experiencing is an institutional norm, then they tolerate and protect perpetrators of racist violence at the expense of racialised people. In doing so, they uphold white supremacy.

The way that our institutions take complaints into consideration denies difference and the question of power. And this, perhaps, is what white supremacy is really about. Power is also a ghostly phenomenon. Our social reality in Aotearoa New Zealand is constructed on the basis of very specific hierarchies and distributions of power, but this is mostly denied in the dominant narrative of our history. The function of power is all around us, but we can’t quite point to a tangible form. It just exists. We can talk about prisons and universities and the government all having white supremacist origins, but dominant ways of perceiving the world treat these institutions as natural and rational constructs. They are not; they were built to uphold a racist hierarchy of power.

Now is the time to demand sophisticated and nuanced analysis of power and white supremacy. We need to be able to point to problems, name them, and refuse to be gaslit into believing we as individuals are the problems, or that our problems are separate from the structural creation of them. 

For as long as power is distributed the way it currently is under conditions of colonial capitalism, then white supremacy will exist. Now is the time to demand sophisticated and nuanced analysis of power and white supremacy. We need to be able to point to problems, name them, and refuse to be gaslit into believing we as individuals are the problems, or that our problems are separate from the structural creation of them. Embracing these contradictions means that we can move through them. But we need to do this collectively. Challenging the rhetoric of unity that seems to define this country could look like embracing our differences, and our different experiences, but in solidarity. There is a lot to dismantle, and a lot to rebuild, but this is a task we are better equipped to do together.


Feature image: Bruce Tuten