Racial Battle Fatigue’s Impact On Black Educators & Our Families
“The first thing he starts with me is about racism and how he believes in the bootstrap kind of idea of everything. And that’s what he teaches the students here at the school, and he starts asking me all these questions. And I told him, I said, Jose, you know I’m with NAACP and, you know, I am a member of ACLU.” – Mia Street, Former School Administrator
In recent years, there has been an uptick in Black educator recruitment strategies across Colorado. With less than 1000 Black Educators in the state, according to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE, 2023), it makes sense that the retention of Black educators would be urgent to school districts. However, what tends to be missing from recruitment conversations and strategy sessions is a consideration for those Black educators already serving children in classrooms and main offices (Kelly, Gayles & Williams, 2017). Where are our Black educators going? Why are they leaving the field of education?
Working in educational institutions can be challenging, especially after COVID-19, the rise of housing and food costs, and the general stress in and out of classrooms and ECE-higher education. On top of a thick layer of mundane educator stress, educators of Color and Black educators, specifically across the United States, experience forms and manifestations of racism-related stress (Harrell, 2000) within higher education (DeCuir-Gunby, Johnson, Edwards, et al., 2020; Kelly, 2007; Mustaffa, 2017) and ECE-12 workplaces (Jay, 2009; Duncan, 2019). Harrell identified six manifestations: racism-related life events, vicarious racism experiences, daily racism micro-stressors, chronic contextual stress, collective experiences of racism, and transgenerational transmission. These displays of racism-related stress impact Black educators emotionally, physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally.
Racial Battle Fatigue
“I think that it took me a while to recognize that and get to a point where I was like, okay, I have to go. I realized I was the problem. I was becoming that grouchy teacher that wasn’t hanging out with kids. I wasn’t sitting down on the floor playing with them as much. I wasn’t putting my all into my lesson plans, into my activities, and I just knew that if I stayed, I would be doing the children in my class a disservice.” -Enola Garland, Former ECE Educator
“Racial battle fatigue addresses the physiological, emotional/behavioral and psychological strain exacted on racially marginalized groups and the amount of energy lost dedicated to coping with racial microaggressions and racism. The concept of racial battle fatigue synthesizes and builds on the extensive discipline-specific research literature and studies of stress responses to racism and its impact on health and coping.” (Smith, 2007)
It can be easy to point to other reasons why Black educators leave. For example, pay across the country for educators is abysmal. However, low wages have always been a problem and is not necessarily the deciding factor as to why they exit.
When thinking about racial battle fatigue, it is important to focus on the energy loss that Black educators and their families experience when combating the six areas of racism-related stress Harrell discusses.
Energy loss and coping has been the main reason why many Black educators that I speak to leave teaching. Psychological, physiological, and social/emotional responses to racism-related stress include apathy, inability to sleep, impatience, loss of self-confidence, panic attacks and quickness to argue.
Crossover and Spillover: From the Schoolhouse to Our Homes
“And I will never forget that first ER visit. All my tests came out normal, and I spoke to the doctor. I said, I’m happy that all my tests came out normal; what do you attribute the chest pain to? I knew it wasn’t in my head. He looked at me, and he said, so, how’s work? Oh, and I wept. It was instant. And he knew exactly what question to ask me. As soon as he asked me that question, I just burst into tears.” – Janet Stickmon, Ethnic Studies Professor, Author, Wellness Consultant and Coach The Crossover (Westman, 2001) of racial battle fatigue happens when the racial battle fatigue responses the Black educator experiences are carried out of the workplace and into the home. This could look like thinking about a racialized event happening to educators across the country or the inability to sleep due to overthinking about an experience with a non-Black administrator.
Spillover occurs when a racialized incident or emotions from the workplace extend beyond its boundaries and affect family members, close friends, community members, and others. In the context of Black educators, this might manifest as sending a text to a partner or friend during the workday to discuss a racially charged encounter with a colleague, hoping to find solace or humor. It can also involve coming home and withdrawing from family activities, causing strain within the family dynamic compared to the past when they actively participated. For other Black educators, spillover entails protecting the children they are helping to raise by sharing aspects of their work life and words of wisdom (Mosley-Howard & Evans, 2000). This strategy is common amongst Black families as these stories provide an early defense mechanism that children can use to identify racism in their lives.
So Now What?
“People try to guilt me, people talk, oh no, we need you to stay. You know who needs me? My kids need me. They need a mother who is whole; that’s what they need a mother who is happy, who is not stressed out. That’s what they need.” – Ronda Haynes-Belen, Former Family Liaision. It can be easy to look at Human Resources or Equity Departments as the spaces where solutions for the end of racism-related stress and racial battle fatigue in the workplace can be found. Unfortunately, based on data collected from the Black teaching perspective, this is not necessarily the case (Pizarro, M., & Kohli, R., 2020; D’Amico, Pawlewicz, Earley et al., 2017). “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” a quote by poet and mother scholar Audre Lorde succinctly explains why looking at ourselves as the first line of defense against harm will always be a good idea. Black educators must look beyond “the district” or “department” as the place that will provide peace in the workplace.
What would it mean for Black educators to put their refuge from racial battle fatigue into their own hands, accepting once and for all that they are in charge of their bodies? Dr. William Smith, the coiner of racial battle fatigue, in a 2021 interview on The Exit Interview: A Podcast for Black Educators, made five suggestions for combating racial battle fatigue:
- Make sure that your home is a place of refuge from racial battle fatigue.
- Eat healthy foods and exercise. Connect with nature.
- Develop or reconnect with Black consciousness.
- Pick your battles. Take care of your emotional health.
- Leave traditional education spheres in exchange for spaces that reflect Black love and excellence.
In Smith’s list of recommendations, there is no mention of creating an equity task force or book club for the folks in our buildings. There is no mention of adding extra work to work plates at all. Instead, his suggestions allow educators to reflect on what they can do for themselves. Dr. Smith suggests that Black educators remember their power and utilize it for their healing and wellness. His ideas would ask them to consider how their surroundings outside the workplace must be a sanctuary.
In the end, addressing racial battle fatigue and its impact on Black educators and their families requires a collective effort from
individuals, institutions, and communities. It is a call to recognize the importance of well-being, self-care, and creating spaces that celebrate Black excellence in education. By taking these steps, we can build a more inclusive and equitable educational system for all.
Dr. Asia Lyons is the founder and lead designer at Lyons Educational Consulting (LEC) LLC. In partnership with communities, organizations, and schools, Lyons Educational Consulting supports co-creating truly inclusive environments that assist youth toward self-actualization.
Dr. Lyons was a K-12 educator in the Denver Metro Area as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado – Denver School of Education and Human Development. In addition, she has served as the school-partner specialist working with schools and other non-profits across the Denver Metro Area to provide communities with resources to help close the access gap for Black children and children of Color.