Overcoming Racial Battle Fatigue Through Education Reform

african college students using laptop togetherThe horrific image of George Floyd taking his last breath is seared into our hearts and minds. Since that tragic event, we continue to bear witness to racial violence, police brutality, and incidents of discrimination that are played repeatedly in the news and via social media. The cumulative effect of these stressful reports can be traumatizing, and they are having a profound impact on our educators and students of color.

Racial battle fatigue (RBF), a term coined by critical race theorist William Smith, reflects the cumulative results of race-related stress. It emerges not only due to macroaggressions, but also from daily microaggressions, such as dismissive and demeaning comments directed at Black and Brown individuals. Basically, RBF is a wearing down based upon one’s racial identity. Some of the symptoms include depression, anger, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that a person of color is unable to contribute to positive change.

RBF is persistent and pervasive, and it manifests in different ways dependent upon who the person of color is and what he or she has experienced in the past. And while RBF impacts every aspect of our society, in higher education and K-12 environments, we predominantly see it’s imprint through hateful, divisive speech on social media, racial profiling in our society and our schools, and discipline policies that differ for students of color.

The Importance of Self-Care

Educators of color tend to turn their attention to the needs of their students, while putting their own emotions, fears, and concerns on the back burner. In order to address RBF, promoting a healthy well-being, addressing the trauma, and advancing mental health is critically important. Too often we do not address therapy as necessary self-care, but it is extremely important to do so as we consider the triggers often associated with visual images of social injustice.

Occurrences of racial violence, police brutality, or discrimination attract a great deal of attention, and educators of color are often asked by their white colleagues, “What should I be doing?” While they are well-meaning allies, their questioning places the burden for solutions upon those that are experiencing oppression. Being asked to put aside their own pain to address the concerns of white colleagues, and to educate them, can be taxing on educators of colors as they continue to do their job and support their students. This burden can often times lead to RBF.

Current expectations are unrealistic for teachers of color. Yes, we absolutely need more teachers of color in classrooms. However, we must create conditions in which they can be effective teachers while exceling both in their classrooms and their careers. We must address the fact that some schools serving predominantly Black and Brown students are hostile and toxic spaces for educators of color.

Reimagining Educator Preparation Programs

As education leaders, we can move beyond performative statements and truly advocate for the disruption of systems of oppression in our programs. The central question we must answer is, “Are we truly committed to an anti-racist program?” If so, what does that look like in our curriculum? Do we have policies and practices related to recruiting diverse teachers—particularly teachers of color? Do we have affinity groups within our programs, where students can connect with similarly identifying peers to create a safe community space? Do we provide professional development that reflects our commitment to anti-racism? Do our programs include trauma informed pedagogy? Or is this merely something we claim as a commitment but demonstrate a disconnect in our actions.

Until we engage in substantive change, we will continue to see students and educators experience RBF. Eliminating racial discrimination will not change overnight the more than 400 years of oppression that began with the arrival of enslaved Africans. Significant work and effort will be required, and as a community of educators, we must move beyond our good intentions and focus on education reform for racial equality.

Monika Williams Shealey, an AACTE Board member, is senior vice president of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Rowan University. She joined Rowan in 2013 as the dean of the College of Education. During her tenure as dean, Shealey led the college in deepening its commitment to social justice and equity. The College developed a Ph.D. program in education with an emphasis on addressing issues of access, success, and equity in P-20 education and launched the Center for Access, Success, and Equity, a technical assistance center for the Rowan University and broader professional community in the areas of research, professional development, and community engagement. Shealey is a proud Holmes Alumna and president of the National Association of Holmes Scholars Alumni.

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