Racial Fatigue

By Vinnie Casanova

It was as if a giant boulder had been lifted off my shoulders.

I felt seen. I felt understood. There was a word for it and, sitting in a conference about systemic racism, Jemar Tisby (speaker and author of The Color of Compromise) had just defined it for the audience.

Racial fatigue.

William Smith defines racial battle fatigue as the:

“cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions. These conditions emerged from constantly facing racially dismissive, demeaning, insensitive and/or hostile racial environments and individuals.

That freeing term and definition to my experience couldn’t have come at a better time. I now understood what manifested for me in trouble sleeping, constant stomach aches, and carrying an underlying sense of anxiety all the time: I was racially fatigued.

It was during that time that I was working in an organization that was predominantly majority culture – in staff, leadership culture, and the people I was serving. And being one of a few ethnic minorities in a setting like this can often mean you become the lone spokesperson for all things ethnic minority-related.

What I hadn’t realized is that all of the short and long conversations I was having within these circles about race and justice, although I wanted to be in them, were also taking it out of me. The moments when I simply stomached an insensitive, and at times racist, comment towards another people group. The times where I did say something, how much it took for me in that moment became clear by the physical and emotional depletion I felt immediately afterward. 

There are stresses of everyday life (i.e. work, relationships, paying bills, traffic, health, etc.) and any of these things can be stressful or taxing in and of themselves. But, for a person of color there can often be added layers of stress and anxiety trying to navigate a world like described above. 

Part of navigating this world as a person of color can be the experience of “microaggressions.” A microaggression is defined as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” 

Let’s be clear that some comments or actions that a person will experience are not subtle and are intentional. But, whether they are or not, these acts of aggression will still add up.

With each incident I experienced over time, the boulder on my shoulders became heavier and heavier. This is what led to some of my physical and emotional symptoms of restless sleep, constant anxiety, the feeling of tightness and tension in my chest and stomach, and trouble focusing. 

Being in a Christian context can make navigating some of what we’re talking about even more complicated. For me, there were internal tapes of lies and shame that came up when I was in that environment, telling me things like: “You’re making this up! It’s not really happening.” “This is what picking up your cross and denying yourself means!” “You’re the only way this person is going to learn about the realities of what’s going on for people of color!”

As you can probably tell there are some really mixed up messages in there. And even some that have branded themselves as being “Christian” or, because there is a verse attached, “biblical.” These messages sometimes make it even more difficult for someone experiencing this to acknowledge the realities of what’s happening to themselves, and then to others. 

Which is exactly where the Enemy would love for a person to be, and to stay. 

While God calls us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross to follow Divine footsteps, God also calls us to honor the body given to us, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). 

The context of this passage is fleeing from sexual immorality. But why flee it? Because it’s harmful? Yes! Because it is sin? Yes. But, I would say most importantly it’s because our bodies, by grace through faith in Christ, are now temples of the Holy Spirit. We honor and care for our bodies because God has so honored and so cares for our bodies.

Helpful Resources

I’m still on a journey of navigating through racial fatigue. To be honest, I don’t think it’s like a sickness that one simply “gets over,” but I think it’s something that a person learns to manage by God’s grace and healthy rhythms. 

Here are some things that I would recommend: 

  1. Awareness: We can’t acknowledge what we are not aware of. In my opinion, most of us have been carrying boulders for a long time, but simply have accepted it as the “norm” of life. Greater awareness of our selves, the loads we’re carrying, and how they’re affecting our bodies, can help us move into positive change. 

    Practical Exercise:
    • Spend 5 minutes in a quiet place that is without distractions and do a scan of what you’re feeling in your physical body. It may even be helpful to set a timer. Don’t judge what comes to mind, but simply identify them and then let them pass. Identify where there is tightness, where there may be stress.
    • After the 5 minutes write down some of what you identified. What emotions came to the surface? Was it difficult to sit still? Was it easy? Did you notice tension in your body? If so, where?
    • Know that all that came up, or didn’t come up, during this time that the Lord sees and is near to you. The Lord sits with you and walks with you, and will never leave you. If it was a helpful exercise schedule the next time you’ll take 5 minutes to check in on yourself.

  2. Bring Others In: It’s difficult to not feel alone in one’s experience or thoughts when it’s all we know. Is there a person on your team that you trust to share some of what you’ve been experiencing? Is there a person you’ve connected with, or seen from afar, that seems like they’ve been navigating through the same? If so, what could it look like to reach out to them to set up a time to grab coffee or video chat?
    • Personal Experience: This has been difficult for me in this season, but I’ll share an example. Someone shared some things that resonated with what I was processing through as it related to racial fatigue. I emailed this person and asked more about their process and if they would be interested in talking via video chat. The conversation was great as it allowed me to hear this person’s own process through some of the same areas I was navigating and also allowed me to share my experiences and be affirmed that I wasn’t crazy or alone. (Now they may not all turn out like that for me or you, but we won’t know until we ask!)

  3. Books/Movies/Podcasts: What I’ve personally found healing and refreshing is seeking out books and movies with accurate ethnic minority representation. Movies with characters that look like me and storylines that I can resonate with. While there are not as many resources here as I think there should be, there are still a lot more than was in the past. What would it look like to Google Asian American authors? Or Asian American podcast hosts?

With any of these things, when you take the step of faith to at least try it, you’re trying it. Not committing to it. So let yourself experience grace. Lastly, be kind to yourself. Speak to yourself in the same way you speak to a student, or another staff, walking through the same season. You are loved, seen, beautiful, not crazy, not alone.