What is gaslighting – and what does Priti Patel have to do with it?

Priti Patel has insisted that she “will not be silenced” after a group Labour MPs accused her of using her own experiences of racism to “gaslight other minority communities”.

In a letter to the Home Secretary, 30 opposition MPs from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds claim that her response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations seeks to undermine protesters’ concerns.

“We write to you…. to highlight our dismay at the way you used your heritage and experiences of racism to gaslight the very real racism faced by black people and communities across the UK,” the politicians say. 

Patel hit back on Twitter, insisting that she would not change her approach to BLM because it does not “conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave”.

What is gaslighting?

The word gaslighting “derives from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton about a sinister and controlling husband, but has been popularised more recently as part of the new lexicon of social justice”, says The Telegraph’s Gemima Lewis.

These days, it refers to the act of psychologically manipulating someone to doubt their own experiences, and “typically refers to intimate relationships”, says Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol.

“It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy,” Lewandowsky writes in an article on The Conversation. “If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them.”

Gaslighting also takes place in public and political life, he says, adding: “When it comes to politics, the signs are similar. You may feel confused and alone in the world, assuming nobody understands your point of view and that it must therefore be wrong.”

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How did the Patel row begin?

The accusation of gaslighting was levelled at Patel following a heated exchange in the House of Commons on Monday.

Labour MP Florence Eshalomi called on the home secretary to “act now” to resolve “structural inequality, discrimination and racism”, as demonstrators take to streets across the UK to demand action on racism following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The black Labour MP for Vauxhall voiced doubts as to whether Patel could “actually understand the anger and frustration” felt by protesters.

Patel replied: “Well, on that basis, it must have been a very different home secretary who as a child was frequently called a Paki in the playground, a very different home secretary who was racially abused in the streets or even advised to drop her surname and use her husband’s in order to advance her career.

“So, when it comes to racism, sexism, tolerance for social justice, I will not take lectures from the other side of the House.”

However, in their letter responding to her comments, the Labour MPs argue that “being a person of colour does not automatically make you an authority on all forms of racism”.

Shadow minister for community cohesion Naz Shah tweeted: “Shared feelings allow us to show solidarity not gaslight other minority communities.” 

“The only silence we don’t need is inaction,” adds Shah, who is calling on the government to implement the recommendations of recent reports into the Windrush scandal and criminal justice reform.

“If #Blacklivesmatter then don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk,” she concludes.


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