Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

When They Say You’re “Emotionally Unstable”

Racelighting advocates for racial justice.

Key points

  • Racelighting is an act of psychological manipulation where people of color receive racial messages that distort their realities.
  • Stereotype advancement refers to advancing or using racial stereotypes as a mechanism to racelight BIPOC.
  • One stereotype is that BIPOC are emotionally unstable and unable to regulate emotions and decorum.

Ariana is a Black woman and 3rd-year assistant professor in sociology at a community college. She has a reputation as a powerful speaker and teaches on racism and sexism. She is a beloved professor who usually has a long waitlist for her classes.

Her dean asks her to serve on the president’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) advisory council. This is a new council designed to advise the president on equity issues affecting students, faculty, and staff within the institution.

Ariana already serves on many committees and is reluctant to take on this role but agrees to do so because of recent issues on campus. At the first council meeting, Ariana gets the impression that there is no real commitment to diversity and that the council is serving as “window dressing” in response to numerous bias-related incidents that have taken place on campus.

She has this impression because another member of the council raised concern about a string of vandalisms that included drawings of nooses, swastikas, and racial epitaphs on the walls of several hallways and bathrooms. When this issue is raised, the president makes it clear that the committee should not concern itself with bias issues and instead focus on hosting cultural celebrations.

When Ariana again raises this issue in the meeting, she is shot down harshly and told by the President, "This is an advisory group to me, and I set the agenda. You are derailing important conversations that matter to others on campus."

Taken aback by the sharp response, Ariana remains quiet for the remainder of the meeting.

"Racelighting" is an act of psychological manipulation where people of color receive racial messages that distort their realities and lead them to second guess themselves. More simply, racelighting is what occurs when gaslighting is racial. Gaslighting refers to feeding someone false information with the purpose of altering their experiences, memories, and perceptions.

The term “gaslight” emanates from the 1938 play, Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton. In the play, the villain (Jack) repeatedly feeds his wife (Bella) false information to make her feel like she is losing her mind. He hides items from around the house (e.g., pictures, cutlery) and then accuses Bella of stealing them. He openly flirts with their maid in front of Bella and then denies it.

He tells Bella that the noises he makes in the house are not real and that she is imagining things. These messages overwhelm Bella and make her question whether she is the problem and is losing her sanity. The impact of these messages is intensified by the fact that Bella’s own mother suffered from mental health issues.

After the meeting, Ariana and another colleague talk extensively about the exchange with the president. They decide to raise the issues again but will do so in a very careful way that doesn’t “rock the boat.”

At the next meeting, Ariana asks about a different bias-related incident, where a student was called the “n” word in the campus bookstore by an employee. As soon as she does, the president tells her to “stop hijacking my committee” and then expresses concern for Ariana by insinuating there is something wrong with her mental health.

Ariana immediately shuts down and doesn’t say anything further. After the meeting, Ariana learns the president and several other administrators, including her own dean, are openly talking about her. They are suggesting she is “emotionally unstable,” “overly expressive,” and “needs to get help.” This narrative starts to gain steam, and, before long, Ariana’s colleagues and even some of her students are asking if “she is okay.”

Ariana even gets a phone call from her department chair asking if she “needs support” and informs her about counseling services available to faculty members.

Before long, the narrative is so pervasive that Ariana begins to question whether she is indeed the problem. She questions whether she is emotionally unstable, overly expressive, and “okay.”

Like gaslighting, racelighting distorts realities and can lead to an overwhelming sense of doubt for people of color. This is especially true for those who are engaged in efforts to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion within their respective organizations (e.g., schools, colleges, universities, companies, nonprofits, and government).

In the wake of George Floyd, far more organizations made public commitments to diversity, resulting in councils, committees, and taskforces dedicated to advancing equitable practices and improving climates for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). However, many of these efforts were window dressing for organizations that had systemic issues of racism yet no authentic commitment to improving the lives and conditions of BIPOC within their organizations.

One primary area of messaging leading to racelighting is stereotype advancement. Stereotype advancement refers to advancing or using racial stereotypes as a mechanism to racelight BIPOC. There are a number of stereotypes about BIPOC; however, some of the most recurrent in education are that BIPOC are prone to criminality, are less intelligent or capable than others, are lesser than, and are emotionally unstable. The last one, being emotionally unstable, refers to being viewed as unable to regulate one’s emotions and decorum in appropriate ways. For example, people of color are often stereotyped as being angry, aggressive, loud, bossy, or overly emotive. Such is the case with Ariana, who campus leaders portray as “overly expressive” and “emotionally unstable.”

With Ariana, the result was her questioning her own emotional stability, communication style, and general well-being. This distortion of truth leads her to second-guess herself and doubt her own reality and sanity. Thus, Ariana experiences racelighting.

Ariana’s story is indicative of the pushback many people of color have when advocating for racial justice. Their efforts can conflict with organizational cultures that simply do not value meaningful change. The authenticity and veracity of the message from others can serve to reinforce the perceived likelihood that the message is real.

Pushback can range from direct or active attempts to distort one’s reality to indirect or passive attempts. As a result, these experiences can lead an individual to question a host of underlying messages (e.g., they are criminals or immoral, are not smart enough, don’t belong, are not experienced enough, don’t care, are lazy, or are mentally unwell).

Thus, when BIPOC raise concerns about issues of race and racism within their respective organizations (e.g., schools, colleges, companies, nonprofits, and government), others should not assume there is something wrong with them. Instead, they should authentically consider whether their critiques have merit.

More from Psychology Today

More from J. Luke Wood, Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today