It’s Time to Talk about Black Fatigue

While leading diversity and inclusion sessions in corporations, Mary-Frances Winters repeatedly heard Millennials say they were exhausted.

“I was like, exhausted? How are you exhausted? You’re 30 years old,” recalls Winters, a Baby Boomer and longtime diversity and inclusion leader who spoke in January at the Justice, Equity and Inclusion Speaker Series event, Black Fatigue: Racism and Its Impacts on Mental Health. The event was presented by the Massachusetts Conference for Women, The Boston Globe, and State Street.

But as she pressed further, she heard them say they were exhausted from microaggressions, continued acts of racism and discrimination, and the amplification of it all over social media.

“That got me thinking,” says Winters, founder and CEO of The Winters Group and author of Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit.

“What I am learning from my younger brothers and sisters is that we are fatigued, and we have to take care of ourselves,” says Winters. Since researching the topic for her new book, she adds, she has also learned that scientists are increasingly recognizing a correlation between racism and physical and mental maladies.

That is why it is critical, she says, that we finally have real conversations about racism by understanding the cycles of Black Fatigue, the striking lack of progress on racial equity, and the words we need to be willing to use to have meaningful conversations about racism now.

The Cycle of Black Fatigue

Winters defines Black Fatigue as the “repeated variations of stress caused by centuries of racism resulting in extreme exhaustion causing physical, mental and spiritual maladies that are passed down from generation to generation.”

Stress caused by racism is passed down, among other ways, by getting into the cellular system, she says.

And, that leads to inherited disparities in health, with new studies showing that discrimination leads to aging faster, a lifelong buildup of stress, and eventually higher levels of disease and mortality.

A Striking Lack of Progress on Racial Equity

“People have asked why have there been protests? Because we have not made progress,” Winters says. “They ask: Why haven’t we made progress? It’s because of systemic racism.” Consider highlights of the socio-economic snapshot Winters presented:

  • Homeownership
    • In 1976, 44 percent of Blacks owned homes.
    • In 2015, 43 percent did.
    • All other groups increased their rate of homeownership.
  • Median household income
    • In 2007, it was approximately $40,000.
    • In 2017, it remained approximately $40,000.
    • All other groups increased their median household income (with the exception of Asians, who started with a significantly higher income.)
  • Unemployment: Black and brown people are 30 percent less likely to get a call back after an interview.
  • Incarceration
    • Black people represent 12 percent of the population.
    • They represent 33 percent of the people in prison.
  • Education
    • In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional.
    • Today, schools are more segregated than they were in 1954.
  • Voter suppression: It was not only rampant in last year’s election. It has been since 1865.

Words We Need to Be Willing to Say

“We haven’t had the conversations about racism in the past because of white fragility, embarrassment, shame, guilt,” says Winters. “I think we have to get over that and have the conversation.” And to do so, White says there are certain words we need to be willing to say that many have hesitated to say before. They include:

  • White supremacy: “Many people think when you say ‘white supremacy’ you are talking about people in hoods and neo-Nazis but there is a culture, an ideology of white supremacy we have to talk about,” says Winters.
  • Equity. “Some organizations won’t put ‘equity’ in their diversity framework. But equity recognizes that there is not a level playing field.”
  • Anti-racism. “Organizations don’t like to use ‘anti-racism’ because they fear someone might file a lawsuit,” says Winters. But it has to be acknowledged that anti-racism efforts are required to change the system.
  • Privilege. “I often hear from white people ‘I don’t have privilege because I grew up poor.’ But ‘privilege’ is not binary. You might not have it in some aspects and have it in others.

“For me, I have privilege because I am a member of the middle class and because I am educated; and we overvalue those characteristics. I don’t have privilege as a woman or a Black person because we have undervalued those.”

  • White fragility. This is the phrase popularized by sociologist Robin DiAngelo, to describe “the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged—and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy.”

Finally, Winters advises white people not to think “I am here to ‘fix’ and ‘dismantle’ racism.” More useful, she suggests is to think: “I recognize that I must understand who I am in relation to the system of racism in order to disrupt and dismantle it.”

To that end, she says, we need more white people to understand how core their race is to their identity. (Studies show 75 percent of Black people think race is core to their identity while only 15 percent of white people do.) People also need more exposure to difference, more experience with difference, and more education—all of which, she suggests, will lead to more empathy.

Mary-Frances Winters Mary-Frances Winters joined Kimberly Atkins, a senior opinion writer at The Boston Globe, and Kem Danner, a senior vice president with State Street Corporation, last month at “Black Fatigue: Racism and Its Impacts on Mental Health.” The event was presented by the Massachusetts Conference for Women, The Boston Globe, and State Street. Want to learn more? Listen to the entire conversation.

More from the February 2021 Newsletter

What Real White Allyship Looks Like According to Rachel Cargle

Rachel Cargle is a soft-spoken woman who offers a powerful challenge about what it means to be a white ally in the fight against racial injustice.

“Anti-racism,” she says, “cannot rest as a self-improvement space for white women” who do things like read to help them feel better about themselves. Ultimately, she says, real white allyship results in the improvement of Black lives.

So, how can we become such an ally?

Cargle, author of the forthcoming I Don’t Want Your Love and Light; curator of The Great Unlearning; and founder and president of the Loveland Foundation, Inc., offered a three-point framework to the Conferences for Women community, saying:

“I have discovered these three things must be part of the ways people move forward for allyship to be a genuine effort and meaningful attempt for what we are all going toward,” which, she added is to a “future that is not just diverse but inclusive, not just not racist but actively anti-racist.”

  1. Knowledge “Knowledge is a deep understanding that moves past feelings of I’ve gotten a little information. It involves not just learning but looking at who you are learning from,” she says. “We need to be listening to the voices of the people we are seeking to be in community with.”

She also suggests looking critically at what your children are learning about history to understand: “Who are they learning is good and bad, winner and loser, better and worse.”

  1. Empathy “We often think of empathy as ‘I see you, I hear you, I get what you’re going through.’ I have a much deeper interest in radical empathy—moving past the feeling of I see what you’re experiencing and really questioning ourselves by asking: ‘How do I play into that person’s pain? How does the way I’m existing affecting the way they’re existing?”
  2. Action.“This is the core of allyship,” says Cargle. “Showing up in tangible ways, refusing to make racism something that can be intellectualized.”

Intellectualism, through a limited focus on reading, documentaries and even education, is “a detriment to the movement because when you let it sit in your mind and don’t take action it negates what we’re doing.”

Allyship has to “move to the streets, homes, tangible spaces for us to see the fruit of work being done.”

Anti-racism work is not done until we prove that indeed Black lives matter.

Rachel Cargle spoke at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in December 2020. This article is based on her talk.


More from the February 2021 Newsletter

Tips for Being a Successful Entrepreneur and Leader – From Issa Rae

It’s been 10 years since Issa Rae became a sensation with her YouTube series Awkward Black Girl.

Since then, Rae has been on the fast-track, proving herself not only a brilliant producer and actress but successful entrepreneur and leader of a growing media conglomerate.

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated star and creator of the HBO series Insecure joins Laysha Ward, Target’s EVP & chief external engagement officer, on this month’s episode of Women Amplified, the podcast from the Conferences for Women.

What follows are highlights of the conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Listen to the full conversation with Issa Rae and Laysha Ward.

Laysha Ward: How did you learn how to be a successful entrepreneur and leader?

Issa Rae: “I think once people see that you are serious about you, you’re serious about your product, serious about your journey, they are more inclined to come along for the ride with you.”

She also added that it has helped to be a lifelong learner, know what she doesn’t know and be confident about what she does, work with passionate people, and be very collaborative. .

Ward: What are some of the most important things you learned about being a leader, especially in what remains a male-dominated industry?

Rae: “Relying on my female peers. I foster a community of women who support one another. I think that’s essential because we’re constantly pitted against one another and underestimated and I think there’s nothing more valuable than a support group of women who understand and whose power, whose intelligence, whose drive you also respect and appreciate.”

Ward: You have been so successful about bringing other women along. What has been your secret to success?

Rae: “I’m drawn to other women because I appreciate the leadership values. A lot of the women that I’ve worked with in the past have been extremely ambitious but also very lax, and intelligent and knowledgeable. They’ve always had to do more. They’ve always had to compete and prove. I just seek out people who want this, who are innovative, are excited. I am just naturally drawn to passionate people because I feed off of that. I feel women have a special skill in terms of motivating people around them.”

Ward: Some people do worry that as time goes on and we focus on recovering from COVID and a disrupted economy, the energy to confront racial injustice is going to take a backseat. What do you think we need to do to keep it alive amid all of these important priorities?

Rae: “Unfortunately, part of the frustration is we’re going to have to do a lot of the work. I think black people have been doing the work to be recognized and to achieve equality and fairness for centuries now. But, while we continue to do that work, we have to have allies, white people specifically looking around and deciding to take action, deciding to hold one another accountable.

“Progress is only going to come when white people can recognize that we’re not equal. We don’t have the same opportunities. We’re operating at a deficit. It’s up to the people who understand existing systems to understand that and do something about it, and want to do something about it.”


More from the February 2021 Newsletter

Women of Color Blazing Trails: A Conversation with Issa Rae & Laysha Ward

Show Notes:

This episode is a special way to kick off Black History Month by bringing you an extraordinary keynote conversation between producer, actress and writer Issa Rae and Target’s EVP and chief external engagement officer Laysha Ward. This conversation happened at the October 2020 Texas Conference for Women.

Featuring two pioneers who are blazing trails for women of color and all women and girls around the globe, Issa Rae and Laysha Ward talk about many timely issues—including leadership, breaking barriers, race, justice and women supporting women.

“Unfortunately, part of the frustration is we’re going to have to do a lot of the work.

I think Black people have been doing the work to be recognized and to achieve equality and fairness for centuries now. But, while we continue to do that work, we have to have allies, white people specifically looking around and deciding to take action, deciding to hold one another accountable.

Progress is only going to come when white people can recognize that we’re not equal. We don’t have the same opportunities. We’re operating at a deficit.

It’s up to the people who understand existing systems to understand that and do something about it, and want to do something about it.”—Issa Rae

 

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