Health

Black People Aren’t Making Things Up: The Science Behind ‘Racial Battle Fatigue’

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In the early 2000s, University of Utah researcher William A. Smith coined the term “racial battle fatigue” while studying how racialized microagressions — relatively inconspicuous, but potent, degradation of marginalized people — affected black students at predominately white colleges and universities.

His paper, titled “Challenging Racial Battle Fatigue,” concluded that students of African descent constantly worry, have trouble concentrating, become fatigued, and develop headaches when navigating personal and professional spaces that have historically favored white people. Even more frustrating for undergraduates of color, Smith asserted, was an assumption by the majority power structure that leveling the playing field stopped at integrating them into institutions of higher education. Since then, a series of studies have built on Smith’s findings, with researchers coming to similar conclusions about what has been described as the pitfalls of living while black.

Recent news about the murder of nine black church congregants by a young white supremacist during a Bible study, along with other police-related atrocities against black Americans, have shed light on persistent racial and class tensions in the United States. Much of the mainstream media coverage has been relatively shallow, only exploring conflicting accounts of events. New research, however, goes deeper — examining the toll that daily microaggressions take on black people’s psyche.

One of the latest academic works, featured in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, focused on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) — defined as more than six months of severe worrying and tension.

Researchers examined data from the National Survey of American Life, a study of more than 5,800 American adults -– 60 percent of whom were African American, nearly 25 percent were Afro-Caribbean, and 15 percent were non-Hispanic whites. More than 40 percent of the African Americans surveyed recounted receiving some form of racial discrimination, and nearly 5 percent suffered from GAD. Meanwhile, nearly 39 percent of Afro-Caribbean respondents said they received discrimination, and less than three percent developed GAD.

Whites who suffered from GAD in the study did so because of other forms of discrimination, head researcher Jose Soto, Ph.D. told PscyhCentral.com. For all races, non-racial discrimination counted as a source of GAD. Soto acknowledged that Afro-Caribbean respondents had less of a sensitivity to racial discrimination — perhaps a result of their different history. Even so, Soto said that people of the black diaspora entering unwelcoming environments endure stress that can become mental illness, similar to what soldiers face on the field.

“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 Soto, head investigator at Pennsylvania State University. “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.”

Racial battle fatigue becomes a life-long experience that transcends generations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recorded a widening racial disparity in infant mortality, finding that black babies succumbed at rates significantly higher than their white counterparts, mainly due to the daily stress their mothers — many of whom lived in low-income communities — endured. Black people in American workplaces struggle to navigate majority-white work environments and often anticipate cultural clashes, especially if they are one of the few people of color in top-tier positions. Such stress can go beyond the confines of the office, crippling a black person’s marriage and social life.

A discriminate justice system counts as another form of racial stress that limits black mental and physical health. The “Stop and Frisk” policies of the New York Police Department, for instance, have damned its victims to an eternity of trauma brought on by inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, threats, and humiliation, as outlined in a Center for Constitutional Rights report. Studies have shown that the threat of an impending negative encounter with law enforcement raises stress levels — inducing the creation of cortisol and weakening the immune, reproductive, and cardiovascular systems.

With little access to mental health services, black people — particularly those with poor coping skills — may find solace in alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. In 2012, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth Medical School found that adolescents who picked up unhealthy habits depended on them later in life during stressful times more than their counterparts didn’t partake. For those living in low-income neighborhoods, liquor stores and corner stores chock-full of tobacco products are only footsteps away — conditions caused in part by spatial mismatching, the byproduct of housing discrimination, and removal of employment opportunities from black communities.

Dr. Joy DeGruy, an internationally renowned researcher, says that consumption of harmful substances counts among the several survival tactics that black people employ when living in a white world that has yet to resolve the race conundrum. Her 2005 book, Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, explains how chattel slavery and ongoing institutionalized racism has impeded black people’s efforts to lead fulfilling lives.

Not everyone sees it that way, however, with people of different races — and even those of African descent around the Diaspora — often dismissing black outrage with indictments of laziness and criminality against disaffected black people. During a Black History Month keynote presentation at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN this year, DeGruy didn’t mince words for those who she said fail to acknowledge the legacy of slavery and the toll it takes on black people’s lives.

“Denial was huge. That denial turns into something that says, ‘Not only can’t I hear what you are saying, I need to stop you from saying it,’” DeGruy said. “So it gets deeper than that. I need to silence you. This injury reflects itself in things like ‘I don’t see race,’ or ‘I don’t really care what color people are.’ So you have all of these pathologies that show up because people aren’t dealing with reality.”