Racial Battle Fatigue: What is it and What are the Symptoms?


Defining racial battle fatigue, what causes it, and what are the symptoms.

Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF) was a term coined in 2003 by social psychologist Dr. William Smith; it was originally used in reference to the experiences of African American men in America but is now expanded to describe the negative and racially charged experiences of all people of Color (PoC’s) in the United States.

William defines racial battle fatigue as

“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.”

Smith decribed RBF as a “public health and mental health illness”. Smith believes that racial battle fatigue stems from racism and microaggressions, and in order to view these acts in today’s society

“. . . one must not look for the gross and obvious. But the subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of today’s racism”

Racial microaggressions are a form of psychological warfare and are defined as:

1) subtle verbal and nonverbal insults directed at people of Color, often automatically or unconsciously

2) layered insults, based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname

3) cumulative insults, which cause unnecessary stress to people of Color while privileging whites.

People of Color experience daily battles of attempting to deflect racism, stereotypes, and discrimination in predominately white spaces and must always be on guard or weary of the next attack they may face.

Racial Battle Fatigue causes people of Color to experience various forms of mental, emotional, and physical strain which can lead to psychophysiological symptoms. Symptoms of RBF are suppressed immunity and increased sickness, tension headaches, trembling and jumpiness, chronic pain in healed injuries, elevated blood pressure, and a pounding heartbeat. And when people of Color with RBF anticipate racially motivated conflicts, they may experience rapid breathing, an upset stomach, or frequent diarrhea/urination.

Other possible symptoms are constant anxiety, ulcers, increased swearing or complaining, insomnia or stress/anxiety dreams, rapid mood swings, difficulty thinking or speaking coherently, and emotional and social withdrawal in response to racial microaggressions or while in environments of mundane racial stressors. These stressors can lead to long-term health issues and cause PoC’s to lose confidence in themselves and their self-worth.

Racism is often preserved as a personal threat/battle and after facing that threat/battle continuously in predominately white spaces, people of Color may experience RBF and are left mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. And when RBF goes untreated or dismissed this stress-related psychological and physiological disease can be lethal and can kill gradually and stealthily through hypertension and poor health attitudes and behaviors.