When White Supremacy mingles with complex trauma in the workplace

We use gaslighting because it works.

I’ve wanted to scream that all day, and all week, and almost daily this past year.

I was reminded of a conversation I was having with a five-year-old while they were becoming familiar with this term gaslighting.

She began, “remember at Mommy’s birthday party when I said that it wasn’t her birthday, that is was actually mine?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I do remember.”

“That was gaslighting,” she finished, and I nodded.

“That was gaslighting,” we could agree.

These slight, casual examples where a version of reality is offered to contradict our experience, or our understanding, this is what gaslighting looks like so regularly.

It feels unmaliciously harnessed, almost like a white lie, and yet, over time, we accept these assumptions as facts.

What’s the harm, we ask and then dismiss by answering that there isn’t any.

As I replayed this conversation in my mind, I reanalyzed several examples of gaslighting from my experiences of work and school, beginning with just the last few days.

It was suggested to me that I don’t take advocacy for survivors of sexual violence seriously, and the evidence for this is that I prioritize a positive culture for advocates.

It was similarly suggested to me several years earlier that I am hard to supervise, the evidence being how by brain reacts to and recognizes patterns very quickly.

My supervisor was giving me a performance review, going through areas of growth.

She expounded, “You come into my office, and you visualize this constellation of stars.”

She used stars as a metaphor for work plan and strategic goals in this example.

“You begin with the last star, and you thoughtfully move from the furthest to the nearest, explaining your thought process between outcomes and interrelated steps. And I’m at the point where I’m still learning that the first star is a star.”

This feedback was offered to me as professional critique, as something I should change, and for a while I took it to heart. I believed what my supervisor said — that I shouldn’t look at a big picture, that is was a distraction, or a communication barrier that made my points get lost.

When this recent critique was shared with me about my attitude towards advocacy, this framework crossed my mind. I could hear again; you can’t effectively prioritize survivors while also prioritizing advocates; you can’t develop processes that impact multiple areas positively by addressing patterns.

And then I got mad, and a little sad, because I remembered something relevant.

We gaslight because it works.

We gaslight because there is a form of power we are protective of maintaining, and if we accept this framework shift, we fear that we will lose that power.

We influence how information is shared, and we try to influence how it is received by the listener.

We try to anticipate what it will take for them to agree with our presented perspective.

And, rightly or wrongly, we frame alternative perspectives as noncredible because they challenge us.

An example that occurred this Sunday illustrates this point well.

In a discussion I was leading on my workplan, a tangential conversation was opened regarding the content for an upcoming workshop.

It was decided that we wanted to discuss the burning of the Amazon with children and youth, and I immediately thought of the question of contextualization.

If we go there — if we cite an example of climate emergency — are we able to reference other examples of climate crisis, their rapid rise, the truth that natural disasters are unnaturally contributed to by human decisions? Are we going to name that we can’t all agree that climate change is even real?

The response was one of consensus, framing my questions as divisive, as a distraction from the common message of stewardship of the planet.

The secondary challenge?

That such a framework is intellectual, a matter of opinion, and not age appropriate for a multiage setting.

I inhaled, receiving again the narrative that was absorbed and internalized within the room.

I thought again, we gaslight because it works.

I’ve recently started a Masters program in Industrial Organizational Psychology, which in casual speak refers to questions of people at work.

The tools of data science, data translation, and tool development are married together in questions of decision making at work. The role of an IO Psychologist is to internally and externally consult in matters of data driven decision making, understanding that every recommendation is an interpretation that carries layered impacts.

The question arose — what about ethics?

How is one ethical in this role, how do you couch your recommendations confidently and cautiously at the same time. In the words of my professor, “How do you tell the truest story with the information you have?”

The tone of this conversation for the first time made me present to the classroom, willing to engage more visibly, because the words being used were relevant to my interests as a practitioner.

I’m asking questions of myself and my environments that look at connections in our thinking, and consequences of rampant disconnections in our actions and frameworks.

I’m invested in wedding infrastructure, relationships, and individual decision making as factors that shape organizational culture and organizational impacts, and I’m invested in problem solving that begins at those nexus points.

In an exit interview I conducted with one of my former colleagues, she said of me as a supervisor,

“Thank you for respecting my boundaries, limits and needs as an advocate, and not using them against me.”

In the moment I smiled, because the nostalgia affected me, but her feedback gave me a new insight.

As a white advocate supervising a Black advocate, she was articulating specific environmental criteria that had made me accountable to her safety at work.

In an environment navigating organizational trauma, vicarious trauma, gentrification in nonprofits, and personal trauma histories, none of those frameworks by themselves helped explain or relate to employee experiences.

White culture is baked into the workplace to an extent that we are barely conscious of, regardless of our individual efforts. And, too often those efforts are sidelined by trauma histories that skew our perceptions of power dynamics, and make us further impacted by tactics of gaslighting.

We focus too narrowly on individual bad actors, and not enough on patterns in environments.

We fail to account for how organizational culture is influenced and learned, or as education reformers articulate so well, we don’t realize that “the temperature reads what the thermostat is set to.”

What the workplace is set to is a reactive understanding of harm and harm doers.

What the workplace is set to is a power hoarding mindset for sharing and translating information.

What the workplace is set to is a sequential process for collecting data, rather than an integrated approach.

What we all have to remember is what I have wanted to scream,

we gaslight because it works,

And we have to better address why it works, why we rely on it, and why we wrongly believe that we can ignore the consequent impacts on our thinking.

I’m reminded as I write that until recently, trauma therapists hadn’t internalized that the nervous system, and not just the brain, is shaped by traumatic experiences.

The impact on the nervous system is why we can’t flood the body with insight — -without retraumatizing folks and shrinking their capacity for resilience and tolerance of being triggered in therapy.

Similarly, organizational culture functions like our nervous systems, and it reflects what feels tolerable, what feels familiar, what feels functional, what successful outcomes mean here.

There is no change to organizational culture that can be sustained without connecting our thinking, and influencing our decision making cumulatively.

To do that — to really grapple with how work is set up — we have to constellate.

We have to evaluate, and narrate, and operate from a foundation of truer stories, transparent information, and a foundation of accountability for our role in shaping the environment with our skillsets.

White culture places value on productivity and efficiency, telling us that problem solving has to focus on those areas, often at the expense of most other quotients.

And yet, the fact that we believe that is a product of how effective gaslighting has been on us.

Perhaps it could also be a fact that we could learn to internalize different information.

Perhaps we could ask to hear the truest story from the information available, and we could tell and believe those stories.

Perhaps our capacities can shift as our environments set new priorities.

Maybe then, with the confidence of the five-year-old I mentioned, we can build those environments.

I like to imagine that if I were meeting with that former supervisor now, I could sound more like this.

You’re right that I base my thinking on a lot of information, and that understanding connections is something I value. Let me try to do a better job of communicating where you feel stuck.

And to my former colleague, I’d just say thank you. For language, for affirmation, for contributing to an environment that is healthier for us both.

Thank you for helping me internalize that full thinking is not a distraction, just a truer story.

A truer story that needs to be translated to combat the gaslighting we’re facing at work.

A truer story that can help us build literacy together, basing our credibility on our impact.

We need to ask ourselves, why are we intimidated?

What are we afraid of losing?

What power am I holding onto that I need to let go of?

Maybe our answers will surprise us.

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.