“Black women and Black men are fatigued.”
So writes Mary-Frances Winters, CEO and President of the Winters Group and author of the recently published book, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit. She has put into words what so many of us have privately talked about with other Black leaders and practitioners. There have been times when it seemed as though we couldn’t even find words to describe just how burdened down and tired we felt from the weight of racism in all of its manifestations.
When I think of fatigue I think of a weariness in the very core of the soul. Many of us felt that deep-seated weariness when the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd all collided with a global pandemic that was killing Black people at disproportionate rates due to systemic inequities in health care. Righteous anger erupted into prolonged protests and calls for systemic change. The fatigue didn’t lift, though.
I think of the seemingly small stressors and the large stressors that build up over time to wear so many Black people out. The stressors that come from living while Black that have caused so many friends, family members and colleagues to die prematurely or just wear out. Winters draws an analogy from metal sciences and notes, “metal fatigue is a weakness in materials…caused by repeated variations of stress.” Seemingly small day to day stresses build up to the point that the metal just cracks.
There’s a saying in the Black community based on the protective melanin in Black people’s skin that mitigates the effects of aging and weather exposure that “Black doesn’t crack.” Well, just like the metal that eventually gives way due to the build-up of numerous small cracks, I declared a few years ago after the death of one of my closest friends that Black does crack…from the inside out.
Similarly, Winters defines Black fatigue as “repeated variations of stress that result in extreme exhaustion and cause mental, physical, and spiritual maladies that are passed down from generation to generation.”
It’s the fatigue of “enduring unrelenting racist systems.” It’s the fatigue that comes with holding in our true emotions and feelings so as not to be seen as angry Black women or angry Black men. It’s the fatigue that comes with White people who “claim sublime ignorance.”
Repeated variations of racism. Repeated instances of racism. Repeated experiences of racism. It wears on Black people and wears us out!
Winters envisions systemic racism as a deeply rooted tree with branches she labels
- Health disparities
- Racism in the workplace
- Racial profiling
- Economic Inequities
- Environmental Racism
From each of these branches hands the fruit of racism that has consumed Black people.
- Lower life expectancy
- Disproportionate disease death rates
- Lower pay
- Place-based fear
- Mass incarceration
- Lack of access to clean water
- High poverty rates
- Low net worth
- Food deserts
Mary-Frances Winters provides data and stats to document racism and racial disparities in health care, the justice system, and the environment, but it is from her three decades of work in corporate spaces that her messages are most clear about the need to attend to racial justice in the workplace now.
Winters, again, puts into words what so many of us have felt:
“I have been concerned for some time that the modern-day diversity movement, especially in corporate America, obfuscates racial issues that are unique to Black people. So often, I have been cautioned not to focus too much on race in diversity sessions. Of all the popular diversity topics (age, sex, gender identity, disability), white people, by and large, are most uncomfortable talking about race—especially Black people. It may be because of internalized white guilt. My hope is that, as a result of the new racial justice movement, the corporate world will no longer minimize the issues of Black people.”
Winters is leading the charge to call corporate leaders to task and incorporate a justice agenda into their DEI strategy. For the lack of progress of Black people in all industries is not just a diversity issue for individual companies, it is a systemic or structural issue of (in)justice in our nation.
Consequently, Winters writes with two purposes in mind:
- To educate White people on the history of racism and motivate each reader to become an antiracist, an ally, and a power broker for systemic change.
- To educate and affirm Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), and to also provide for each reader from these backgrounds a resource to refer people to so as not to exacerbate their own fatigue by having to be the resource for all things pertaining to race.
Winters examines the many layers of fatigue and the intersectional nature of Black fatigue. From her own experiences as a Black woman, she reminds us:
“Whether we work in an entry-level job or have made it into leadership, our identities as Black woman shape narratives that are very different from those of other identity groups. For example, stereotypes that Black women must overcome in the workplace include being aggressive, opinionated, and angry. We are criticized for our appearance.”
She continues from her own experience:
“When I was in the corporate world, I spent a lot of time trying not to be too aggressive, yet assertive enough so as not to be labeled too passive; both are characterizations that I received.”
“I was told that I should straighten my hair when I sported a short Afro style.”
The fatigue of trying to change herself to fit some “archetype of the corporate culture” led her to leave her company. The emotional and psychological “work” it takes to fit in all while performing the real work is fatiguing! And according to a survey by the Center for Talent Innovation, 36% of Black women intend to leave their current employment, I dare say due to this fatigue. I left corporate and academic employment some twenty years ago for similar reasons, and I celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of many Black women like myself. Yet, I can’t help but ask, “wouldn’t it make sense for corporate leaders to work on transforming workplace cultures to retain more of this Black talent?”
Yet, Winters doesn’t just name the systemic stressors that lead to Black fatigue, she names and claims the sources of Black resilience that yet give us hope. I wouldn’t recommend a book that merely analyzed the problem but didn’t provide hope and solutions.
From her chapter on Black fatigue and women, Winters names a number of vehicles from which we draw strength to lessen the effects of racial stressors. From our faith traditions, to Black women supporting other Black women, to movements such as “BlackGirlsAreMagic, Winters celebrates our spiritual and cultural resources from which we draw strength to mitigate Black fatigue. But mitigation is not enough. The will to address root causes is in order.
She does similar analyses for Black men’s fatigue and Black children’s fatigue.
Yes, this book is a must-read for all, but especially for anyone doing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work—especially in workplaces. It’s for anyone who wants to learn more about the struggle and help become the solution for eradicating Black fatigue.
As we go into the weekend, let me also add one additional thing that Winters reminds us of in her chapter on Black women’s fatigue:
“Black women must unapologetically prioritize rest as part of the movement toward equity and liberation.”
That goes for Black men as well. Let’s carve out space to rest so we don’t crack. Then let’s get back up and continue the work from an internally rested place.