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Understanding racial battle fatigue

The psychophysiological symptoms that people of color may experience living in and navigating through historically white spaces are real and must be discussed.

Note: This is an edited version of a story that was initially published in the campus newsletter in December 2016. It is being republished here in light of current protests involving the murder of George Floyd and to raise awareness and recognize the pressure and exhaustion being felt by Black members of our campus community.

As campus communities work to understand and respond to calls for action following the murder of George Floyd, they should also work to understand the “racial battle fatigue” many people may be experiencing, according to William A. Smith, professor and chair in the Department of Education, Culture & Society and the Division of Ethnic Studies.

“What we have to do is recognize that these things have been going on and [the 2016] election only made the larger society and our campuses start to recognize what has already been part of the experiences of people of color on college campuses,” said Smith, who coined the term “racial battle fatigue” in 2003.

Professor William A. Smith

Smith has written extensively about microaggression experienced by Black faculty and students, including being the lead author of a study published in September 2016 in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. The study looked at the experiences of Black male students on historically white university and college campuses.

Microaggressions are subtle, cumulative verbal and nonverbal acts ranging from slights to insults and stigmatizations that target race, gender, class, religion, ability, sexual orientation, class and other minority statuses. While such acts may be intentional, often those who engage in these behaviors are unaware of their stereotypical and hurtful nature.

Smith came up with racial battle fatigue to describe the psychophysiological symptoms—from high blood pressure to anxiety, frustration, shock, anger and depression—people of color may experience living in and navigating historically white spaces.

Both topics are the focus of Smith’s 2016 study, which is titled after the Marvin Gaye song “Inner City Blues”: “‘You make me wanna holler and throw up both my hands!’: campus culture, Black misandric microaggressions, and racial battle fatigue.” Smith and his co-authors looked at the experiences of 36 Black male students at seven elite, historically white universities. The students reported experiencing anti-Black male stereotyping, marginality, hypersurveillance and control directed at them on and off campus.

The paper argues that “systemic and predictable racial microaggressions” are pervasive on college campuses in the United States. The study found that Black men who experience “chronic racial micro and macroaggressions will perceive their environment as extremely stressful, exhausting and diminishing to their sense of control, comfort and meaning while eliciting feelings of loss, ambiguity, strain, frustration and injustice.”

On historically white universities and colleges this leads to a sense the campus is not a neutral or safe space, reflected in lower application and program completion rates, the authors said.

“If we know males of color are having these experiences, why aren’t we doing more to address the situation?” Smith asked.

The current political climate may exacerbate the problem, he said.

“It is very important that we talk about racial battle fatigue because if college campuses are going to address this, they are going to need to understand that this is real,” Smith said. “Students and faculty of color have been saying this for years and many people discounted it.”

In Smith’s view, the U is ahead of many other universities and colleges in its efforts to address issues of microaggression and racial battle fatigue—from offering counseling services to work done by the Office for Equity and Diversity, creation of the new School for Cultural and Social Transformation and establishment of the Black Cultural Center.

But the U still has a long way to go to be an inclusive, diverse, safe place for all members of the campus, Smith said.

He would like to see a resource center for Black and Latino male students and adoption of admission criteria that gives preference or points to applicants who have engaged in or demonstrated support for social justice or racial equality—which would, in time, help change the university climate. Smith also would like to see the university set up an outreach program to U-bound high school students that preps and educates them about how to be change agents in developing a healthy campus climate and bolstering educational success.

“We have to prepare these students with the idea of becoming global citizens who value diversity and are able to recognize when microaggressions are part of the student experience and will work to ameliorate them regardless of the group targeted,” he said. “We can’t wait for these incidents to happen. We have to be at the forefront of working to prevent them and, when they do happen, understanding how we intervene and how we restore health.”