The term racial battle fatigue (RBF) describes the psychological stress response that racially oppressed individuals experience within a white-dominated society. In today’s world, the impact of this kind of racial trauma is inevitable and cumulative. But there are ways to recognize and cope with RBF that benefit you as an individual and can also help heal your communities.
What is racial battle fatigue?
Racial battle fatigue (RBF) has been defined as the psychological, emotional, and physiological toll of chronic exposure to racism.
The term racial battle fatigue was introduced by William Smith in 2004. Initially, it was coined to describe the profound cumulative effects of unavoidable, systemic racism African Americans experience in predominantly White institutions of higher education.
Since then, the term has been used to describe daily race-targeted stress in other settings, as well.
An essential point in understanding racial battle fatigue is recognizing that it’s not about a few isolated incidents. It’s about the toll of existing in a system that creates chronic stress.
The negative impact of persistent socioeconomic inequities and life stressors deteriorates health on both a physical and emotional level.
Trauma describes the impact of witnessing or experiencing a dangerous or terrifying event.
In response to stressful experiences, it’s normal to have extreme physical and emotional reactions. These are linked to your body’s fight-or-flight response.
If you’re impacted by racism, the experience of existing in a racist paradigm can cause trauma.
And any experiences that cause racial trauma can add to the risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For BIPOC folks in a systemically racist paradigm, racial trauma is inevitable and cumulative.
Experiences that contribute to RBF
Racial battle fatigue encompasses a great range of experiences, from the micro to the macro.
On the macro level, this could include lack of political representation, inequities in healthcare access, housing, and educational opportunities.
On a more daily micro-level, experiences are stressful as they occur unpredictably and from sources meant to be helpful, like teachers and law enforcement.
BIPOC folks experience the lived phenomena of race-based traumatic stress as profoundly exhausting and anxiety-producing. The experience of being profiled while going about normal life activities has been described using phrases like “driving while Black” and “shopping while Black.”
What it feels like
Qualitative studies of racial battle fatigue describe the experience of RBF as being chronically and inequitably
This experience includes both overt racism, which includes things like blatantly racist comments, attitudes, and beliefs. But it also involves covert racism, like racist policies and institutions that systemically subvert minority access to benefits while denying the legitimate experience of minority individuals and communities (gaslighting).
Racial battle fatigue can be a profoundly unsettling experience of both hyper-visibility and hyper-invisibility. Perhaps your every error is hyper-visible and criticized, while your achievements and contributions are simultaneously ignored and invisible.
RBF has been described as how systemic racial hierarchy and bias impact BIPOC people, particularly Black people, in harmful ways.
What are indications of racial battle fatigue? As with all health conditions, each of us may experience a unique constellation of symptoms.
That being said, researchers have documented some common signs of racial trauma.
- Anxiety and depression
- Fatigue and burnout
- Frustration and anger
- Hopelessness and giving up on goals
- Sleep issues and appetite disturbances
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of self-confidence
Coping with racial trauma
1. Know the signs.
Learn about signs and symptoms that help you understand what you are experiencing. Getting to know your body and mind can help you notice what symptoms you experience when experiencing racial battle fatigue.
2. If your cup is not full, do not pour.
You have to have mental, emotional, and physical reserves to cope with racial trauma. This means that you can’t participate in every action or fight. Sometimes, you’ll need to step back from doing to recharge.
It can feel uncomfortable to take time that’s just for you, especially if you’re used to over-giving. It’s likely you’ve absorbed society’s message that it’s “selfish” to step away and care for yourself.
That makes self-care even more important. You get to choose how to do this—and experimentation is encouraged. Find whatever fills you up and consciously set aside time every day or week to refill your reserves.
3. Seek out supportive people.
Sharing stressors and emotions with trusted and understanding people is helpful. Validation and support help us stay resilient. To cope with race-based psychological trauma requires a support network.
Finding folks you can talk to about your experience also gives you an opportunity to give voice to the harmful messages and ideologies of systemically racist institutions. Let your support network remind you that you can put down those oppressive beliefs. Caring for yourself is a revolutionary act.
4. Make a plan
When you are safely away from immediate stressors, compile a list of stressful, hostile, or triggering people and places. You can rehearse ways to respond, cope, or seek support.
When you feel triggered or are experiencing symptoms of racial battle fatigue, turn back to your list for ideas and support. Reach out for support and care for yourself in the ways that help you feel the most deeply nourished and recharged.
This is a longer-term action, but community engagement is a way to push back against the sense of helplessness and anger that chronic racism causes. Finding ways to fight and stop racism can include action on your campus, in your workplace, or with local, state, and federal officials.
6. Professional help
Finding a therapist, counselor, or another resource in the mental health field can support you to care for and understand your experience. Check out these organizations that provide therapy for BIPOC folks.
- Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective
- Black Metal Health Alliance
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Black Girls Smile
- Therapy for Black Men
- APISAA Therapist Directory
- Latinx Therapy
- Therapy for Latinx
- Native American Health Center
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Racial battle fatigue (RBF) has been defined as the psychological, emotional, and physiological toll of exposure to racism.
- The symptoms can range from mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and insomnia to feelings of anger, helplessness, hopelessness, and loss of confidence.
- You can get support to help you cope with the harmful impact of racism on your body, mind, and spirit.
- Baumgartner et al. (2018). Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.
- Geronimus (1992). The weathering hypothesis and the health of African American women and infants: evidence and speculations. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1467758/
- McEwen (2017). Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2470547017692328
- Mustaffa (2017). Mapping violence, naming life: a history of anti-Black oppression in the higher education system. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09518398.2017.1350299?journalCode=tqse20
- Pizarro & Kohli (2020). “I Stopped Sleeping”: Teachers of Color and the Impact of Racial Battle Fatigue. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0042085918805788
- Smith (2004). Black faculty coping with racial battle fatigue: The campus racial climate in a post-civil rights era. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313666716
- Wright et al. (2020). Racism as a public health issue. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41390-020-01141-7