In the world I inhabit, I tend to view society as egalitarian, with every person accorded equal opportunity to prosper and thrive.

In her recent book Caste Isabel Wilkerson, calls this rosy picture into question. Wilkerson suggests that this happy illusion is available to me only because I have lived all my life as part of the dominant culture in a a rigidly stratified caste system that is every bit as binding as in India where caste is taken for granted as the dominant structure of society.

According to Wilkerson,

Through no fault of any individual born to it, a caste system centers the dominant caste as the sun around which all other castes revolve and defines it as the default-setting standard of normalcy, of intellect, of beauty, against which all others are measured, ranked in descending order by their physiological proximity to the dominant caste.

They are surrounded by images of themselves, from cereal commercials to sitcoms, as deserving, hardworking, and superior in most aspects of American life, and it would be the rare person who would not absorb the constructed centrality of the dominant group. It would be the rare outliers who would go out of their way to experience the world from the perspective of those considered below them, or even think about them one way or the other, and the caste system does not require it of them.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origin of our Discontent. NY: Random House,268.

Wilkerson uses the term “gaslighting” to describe one of the prevailing patterns in this caste system.

As part of the dominant caste, I am ill-qualified to speak about gaslighting. Fortunately Jennifer Baker at Lithub ( has come to my rescue. In her article, “How Gaslighting in Fiction Can Reflect the Realities of Psychological Abuse” (June 23, 2021), Baker describes gaslighting as,

the ways in which people are pushed to question their sanity and their reality.

She explains that gaslighting is a term which describes a form of psychological manipulation. The term was

originally inspired by the 1940s film adaptation of the play Gas Light, in which a newly wedded woman is continually manipulated by her creepy husband in order to hide his own crimes. The husband schemes to make his wife doubt her perception and stability at every turn.

From her personal experience Baker describes the feeling of being the victim of gaslighting saying that,

For years I didn’t have a name for gaslighting. The feeling though and the anger that accompanied it were always palpable, enough to keep me rooted in place, calculating what to say, clutching my hands together so they wouldn’t fly every which way in defense. I felt cut down, upset, confused, so confused—those were emotions I could name. I named my anger at my job when my boss laughed when a visiting vendor told me, the only Black woman in the room, to smile repeatedly. I named my frustration in couple’s therapy as my (then) husband insisted I wasn’t being a supportive enough wife, though my underpaid publishing job kept us both afloat while he finished his undergraduate degree. I named it each time I was struck with someone’s deflection, and ultimately left questioning myself. In each instance their power was maintained leaving me reduced to the point I could actually feel myself shrinking even as I stood erect in front of them.

Gaslighting is the learned inclination to trust someone else’s judgment or version of the truth more than your own.

For the victim of gaslighting, any intuition to push back against the dominating version of reality gets squashed by the insinuation that, if you disagree with the voice that speaks the loudest, you are not thinking clearly or rationally. In the face of the loudest voice, the voice that is at odds with those in power, becomes quieter. The dominant version of “truth” causes one’s own mind to become less assured; the insidious tendrils of uncertainty and insecurity begin to choke one’s ability to connect with one’s own inner sense of what is true.

(n.b. – what we have come to know as “colonialism” was one dominant caste sponsored version of gaslighting. And the travesty of Indian Residential Schools is a tragic example of gaslighting colonialism at work. Children were taught that their version of reality was wrong/”savage.” If they persisted in pursuing their version of reality, they were evil and would be severely punished.)

Gaslighting instills self-doubt deep in the victim’s psyche, preventing them from taking the action they sense is in their best interest. The victim feels compelled to shape their behaviour to help the dominant person avoid the discomfort of having their worldview upset.  The victim seeks safety in withdrawal, silence and accommodation. Their world gets smaller and smaller as they begin to disappear under the power of the dominant caste. It is not long before the victim begins to take on the identity as the person who is wrong, deluded, or perhaps a bit “crazy.”

Baker says,

if you try to break out, you’re encouraged to second-guess who you are and what you really believe.

This is a scary place to be. One’s sense of reality is called into question. One loses one’s voice and begins to lose one’s ability to make decisions and undertake actions that are healthy and might lead towards fuller more authentic life.

For the gaslighter, the other person is always the problem. If the other would only change and agree with the gaslighter, the world would return to its proper axis and all would be well.

Members of the dominant class must see their tendency to resort to gaslighting in an attempt to impose their will on the world they inhabit. They must learn to speak more gently, to ask open-ended questions and, above all, to listen carefully and sensitively to the genuine life experience of those who find themselves in the subordinate caste.

Victims of gaslighting need to find their voice. They need to listen carefully and respectfully to their own authentic experience and honour the truth they know deep within. Then they must take courage and stand by the reality they have discovered and refuse to be swayed from what they know to be true.

It is all about power. The gaslighter must find ways to support those in the subordinate caste to speak. The victim of gaslighting needs to give voice to the truth they sense. Together perhaps we may find a way beyond the impasse that is entrenched in the debilitating system of caste.