When William A. Smith, a education and culture specialistintroduced the term “racial battle fatigue” into 2003he used it to describe cumulative effects of racial hostility that black people – especially professors and graduate students – live in predominantly white colleges and universities. In short, it harms their psychological, physical, and emotional well-being.
Since then, the term has been applied by scholars to Hispanic students and women of color. Scholars have also applied the term to groups beyond the college campus, such as teachers of color and students of color at the K-12 level. Most research on racial fatigue in combat addresses the issue in the context of education.
As a concept, racial fatigue in combat is rooted in critical race theorywhich argues that racism is systemic and integrated into legal systems and policiesnot just something that happens at the interpersonal level.
Smith wasn’t the first to link race and fatigue in a single sentence. For example, in his 1990 book “Content of Our Character: A New View of Race in America,” author Shelby Steele written about “a kind of racial fatigue, a deep weariness with racial things.”
And the term “battle fatiguehas long been used to describe symptoms that result from combat stress, such as depression and anxiety.
The term “racial battle fatigue” therefore compares the collective experiences of people of color who are subjected to racial hostility to those of soldiers who suffer fight stress. Both are believed to result from placement in a hostile environment filled with regular threats and attacks.
What causes racial fatigue in combat?
Racial Macroaggressions are large-scale racial experiences that can be mediated and traumatic. For example, when a video surfaced by George Floyd being slowly killed as a result of a policeman kneeling on his neckthe experts say so traumatized many who saw the video. This experience is an example of how hearing or observing experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination can add to the distress of people of color.
Racial microaggressions are defined as “brief and common everyday verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slurs and slurs toward people of color.” Common racial microaggressions towards black people include questions such as “Where are you from? and statements such as “You’re so eloquent” or “I’m not racist.” I have several black friends. They also include asking a black person, “Why are you so loud?” and mistaking a black professional for a service worker.
What does racial combat fatigue cause?
Chronic racial stress is associated with poorer mental health. This includes depression and anxiety. It is also associated with an increased likelihood of develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
What can be done?
There are several strategies students of color can practice to minimize the damage caused by racial stress.
To this end, students of color can seek to connect with other people of color to foster a sense of community, which can reduce feelings of isolation for people of color.
2. Engage in mindfulness: Research suggests benefits of using mindfulness strategies for dealing with racial stress. For example, when students of color engage in a assertiveness exercise which involved writing about important life values, it mitigated the effects of negative race-based stereotypes on their academic success.
Students can also learn reflexive coping strategies, which consist of managing stressful events by modifying the situation, one’s emotions or one’s thoughts. Research has shown that the use of such strategies can promote positive mental health for students of color exposed to racial microaggressions.
3. Exercise: Students of color can make conscious efforts to engage in regular physical activity, as exposure to racial discrimination has been found to lead to greater sedentary lifestylewhich in turn can lead to poorer health.
As long as racism persists in education, students of color can never completely avoid racial fatigue in battle. But by being more aware of this fatigue and how to combat it, they can at least be equipped to deal with it more effectively and prevent it from harming their academic career and their lives.