‘Racial Battle Fatigue’ Is Real: Victims of Racial Microaggressions Are Stressed Like Soldiers in War

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Black people are experiencing a scientific phenomenon that is not a figment of their collective imagination.  It is having an impact on their mental health, and they are not faking or imagining what is happening to them.  The condition is known as “racial battle fatigue,” a term which was coined by Dr. William A. Smith of the University of Utah.  In his groundbreaking research, Smith examined the impact of racial microaggressions — the subtle indignities, assaults and insults that whites inflict upon marginalized people of color — on Black faculty at predominantly white colleges.

In his paper, “Challenging Racial Battle Fatigue,” Smith wrote that “racial microaggressions can be defined as subtle, stunning, cumulative, verbal and non-verbal insults layered with racism, sexism, elitism, and other subordination….Everyday, People of Color are faced with interpreting the subtleties of microaggressions, deciphering the layers of discrimination included in the insults, and deciding whether or not to respond.”

As a result, microaggressions maintain white privilege and create unnecessary stress in Black people.  Smith said that the mental and physical stress visited upon people of color as they navigate this racism is not unlike the stress soldiers experience in war.  The stress of existing in white spaces is “mentally, emotionally and physically draining” for people of color, Smith argues, and the symptoms often go without being noticed, diagnosed or treated.

As ThinkProgress reported, the recent incidents of police violence and white supremacist terror attacks on African-Americans come at a time when new research delves into the psychological toll of daily microaggressions.  One study, featured in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, focused on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) — which MedicineNet.com defines as: “A condition characterized by 6 months or more of chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience.”

The report examined the mental health and racial discrimination experiences of 3,570 African-Americans, 1,438 Afro-Caribbeans and 891 non-Hispanic whites. The study found that over 40 percent of African-Americans experienced racial discrimination, and 4.5 percent suffered from GAD, while 39 percent of Afro-Caribbeans reported racial discrimination, and only 2.69 percent had developed GAD.  Meanwhile, whites experienced higher incidents of GAD, with only 7.79 percent reporting experiences with racial discrimination, and 49 percent saying they have lived with other forms of discrimination.

“The results of our study suggest that the notion of racial battle fatigue could be a very real phenomenon that might explain how individuals can go from the experience of racism to the experience of a serious mental health disorder,” said Jose Soto, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Penn State and head researcher in the study, as reported by Penn State News. “While the term is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments.”

Other studies have delved into intergenerational trauma among Black people, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and post-traumatic slave syndrome, a term developed by Dr. Joy DeGruy which speaks to the role of history in producing negative behaviors and perceptions among African-Americans.  DeGruy argues that Black people modified their behavior to survive enslavement, in an example of “transgenerational adaptations associated with the past traumas of slavery and on-going oppression.”

White America tells Black people to get over the past, while Black people are suffering from the trauma of past and present racial oppression, and are tired of engaging in debates over racism, and justifying or explaining their experiences. That the physical and psychic effects of racism are being acknowledged in the medical and scientific communities goes a long way in developing solutions to those who experience the daily indignities of racism.

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