Written by: Mariam Ibrahim
TRIGGER WARNING: brief mention of genocide and residential schools; this article centers around racial gaslighting and systemic racism.
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As I’m sure many of you know, Justin Trudeau responded to the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of former residential schools by making the following tweet:
“Dark and shameful chapters of our past.” I’ve been seeing the phrase “dark chapter” constantly over the past few weeks and for a long time prior to the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children. It has been used with regard to many different tragic events, most of them pertaining to BIPOC victims and survivors. But don’t just take my word for this;
This phrase is not only being used throughout media streams- I’ve heard it used many times to silence and gaslight me and other BIPOC when we bring up issues of racism. Whenever we try to explain systemic racism, and its origins and impacts we are often told, “why are you still upset? It’s in the past. It was a dark chapter,” as if these events have no relevance today and do not explain the ways we are mistreated. As if by adding the word “chapter” and acknowledging it was something that should not have happened means this era has closed and all impacts or related events, traumas, and emotions have passed along with it.
It’s important to note that gaslighting is often used against women through the all too well known phrases such as; “you’re just too emotional,” “you’re being dramatic,” “you’re too sensitive,” “you’re being irrational,” or “you’re overreacting.” Sound familiar?
This intersectional impact is especially notable since many of the liberation and social justice movements we talk about today are led by women; impacting not only the way people talk about individual reactions but also collective reactions. The way women are gaslit informs the racial gaslighting of people fighting for minority rights in movements like Black Lives Matter, Land Back, or Stop Asian Hate. The phrase “dark chapter,” invalidates these movements, deems them unnecessary, and denies the ongoing struggles for equity and justice that BIPOC continue to face.
This phrase also assigns a specific time frame in which it is deemed appropriate for whichever group of BIPOC have been impacted by the given event to grieve. It fails to acknowledge grief as an ongoing process, stemming from the denial that racism is systemic and any historic events pertaining to BIPOC have impacts that ripple out for centuries. It fails to acknowledge any cross-cultural identities or BIPOC solidarities by isolating the “entitled” grieving party as the only party with a license to grieve over the given tragedy. And it fails to acknowledge any collective humanity extending beyond the socially constructed barriers of race.
The way people use a “dark chapter” denies the nature of racism as systemic while simultaneously upholding systems inherently based and built on white supremacy. It gives modern white people license to ignore and deny the problems of today that are rooted in their ancestors’ actions so that they can continue to benefit from a system that was built on these horrific acts. After all, if the system doesn’t exist, there is, of course, nothing to dismantle.
While many would say not to read into these shortcomings of the way we talk about BIPOC tragedy and loss, I believe words and sentiments are a reflection of the way people process and view these events. Think about what “it was a dark chapter in history” implies. Those who use the phrase “dark chapter” in these contexts view these events as distant simply as a result of the passage of time and wonder how anyone can still be angry. They think it unreasonable for anyone to still care, and this communicates that they do not. They cannot even fathom drawing up genuine connection and sympathy for fellow human beings only because they existed so long ago and were racialized. They simply cannot understand why we continue to care for the trials and tribulations of our peoples today and see them as connected to the struggles of our peoples years ago. The way we talk about these issues is important. Language is important. It can uplift, empower, acknowledge, validate. Or it can abuse, oppress, and deny.