The Self-Gaslighting of an Asian American

Dorothy Kowal
5 min readFeb 28, 2021


Photo Credit: Kristina Flour

Gaslight: to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity, perception of reality, or memories.

Self-Gaslight: to manipulate oneself by psychological means into questioning one’s own sanity, perception of reality, or memories.

I am outraged, frightened, and deeply saddened by the horrific violence against Asians in my country. The numbers feel staggering- nearly 3,000 incidents in the past year.

I immediately ask myself if it’s really “that bad,” and quickly conclude that I’m making too big a deal out of it. 3,000 is not a lot. This is not oppression. What has and continues to happen to Black and Brown people in America is oppression. Shame on you. Who do you think you are?

I read that Asian elders are being targeted. A grandfather in San Francisco was assaulted in broad daylight and later died. The internet provides the details of an elderly woman lit on fire in Brooklyn. I feel scared for my parents, both in their mid 70's.

My parents are fine. They don’t look like these Asians on the news. They speak English, play golf, and go to Costco and Panera. I’m being over-sensitive again, my feelings of concern hyperbolic, as usual. I should call them more.

For the past year, I’ve privately absorbed social media posts that detail hate crimes against people who look like me, rationalizing this time intensive activity as a personal safety measure. But this “news” only recently garners a moderate amount of mainstream media attention. I feel hurt by friends and family who don’t say a word. Do they not know? Or do they not care? They probably just don’t care enough. Should I?

What constitutes a “hate crime”… really? At least some of these incidents must be “wrong place at the wrong time” scenarios.

I do not feel validated by Jeremy Lin and Naomi Osaka’s social media posts.
I secretly wish a non-Asian celebrity spoke out against Asian hate. Then I’d have a right to own and share a feeling about this...maybe. I won’t talk about this with any non-Asian friends or family members unless they bring it up first. My proximity to whiteness prohibits me from claiming suffering based on my race. To do so would disregard the heinous history of slavery, our nation’s draconian anti-immigration practices, and the enormous amount of privilege afforded to me in exchange for my silence and work ethic.

I know enough to understand that all of these inner deliberations can be attributed to the voice of internalized white supremacy. A tried and true tactic of white supremacy is to promote division between races in an effort to paradoxically minimize and magnify the struggles of all, depending on who’s watching. But my experience has been one where people usually don’t watch. Since Asians are the “model minority,” there isn’t a need to be surveilled unless we take up too many spots at Harvard. I am often only considered not white when it’s a convenient role for others. Examples include: Korean BBQ Concierge, Racism Judge, or Diversity Statistics Booster. The number of times I have been told “I don’t really see you as Asian,” or “I forget you’re not white” have added up over the last 40 years, culminating in the sum statement: “You are invisible.” The fact that it is difficult for me to have an uninterrupted feeling of sadness or anger over Asian hate crimes is proof that the pyramid of racialized oppression is at the ground level, “well intentioned.” Noel Quintana doesn’t get his face slashed with a boxcutter on a New York subway if someone doesn’t say “You’re not that Asian. Of course you don’t have the coronavirus.”

Fortunately, I see the young people battling on my behalf at the base of the pyramid. A little over a week ago, a group of students from the school at which I work wrote a letter expressing their wish for the institution to address Asian hate. They articulated their sound understanding of the model minority myth, the resistance towards qualifying violence against Asians as hate crimes, and the need to communicate the seriousness of what is happening to our community. It may seem like a small gesture, but it broke my heart. These teenagers, who have been isolated from their friends and classmates for nearly a year, have plenty of their own pain to manage. Yet, they took the time to acknowledge without a doubt something I question regularly: that I am seen.

When I was a little younger than these students are now, the L.A. riots erupted on the other side of the country in the spring of 1992. It was the only other time before now that I remember feeling concerned (and shame about my concern) for my parents’ safety because of our race. The self-gaslighting was well practiced by that point: “Our market is in a fancy condominium building, they’re totally safe. We live in a suburb of D.C., not Los Angeles, things like that don’t happen here. You are seeking attention, this is not about you.” At the same time, I remember feeling confused. These Koreans with guns on the rooftops of their stores — they didn’t seem like the Koreans I knew.

I don’t remember talking about the L.A. riots with my parents when it happened. I’m sure they would have engaged if I asked, but even in my own home, I self-muted, choosing instead to listen to the voice in my head that said my opinions and confusion didn’t matter.

Nearly three decades later, I don’t have the answer to what will help eradicate this harmful practice of self doubt. Mostly, because I’ve created a reality in which I don’t have to think about it that much; I’ve perfected the very privileged practice of ignoring any racism directed at Asians unless it is overtly threatening. The overt threat is here now. I need to unlearn this self-gaslighting behavior because lives depend on it. To start, I will write this article to name and make visible the inner monologue of racialized self-gaslighting in hopes to relieve it of any misappropriated power. I will simplify the discourse in my head so it takes up less energy and provides clarity instead of uncertainty and doubt. I will say and repeat the following statements as often as necessary, to myself and to others:

I haven’t forgotten.
I’m Korean.
I’m not “practically white.”
I’m allowed to have a feeling.
My existence is relevant.
My privilege is real.
I don’t owe you anything.



Dorothy Kowal

Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Sonoma Academy. Fun parent. Awesome wife.