Understanding Racial Battle Fatigue and Anti-Racist Education at the U


A protester speaks to police in the blockade at the intersection of 200 S and 1300 E in Salt Lake City, UT on October 7, 2020.(Photo by Jack Gambassi | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Kayleigh Sliverstein, Joseph Moss


Dr. William Smith’s Research on Racial Battle Fatigue

The term “racial battle fatigue” was coined by Dr. William Smith, the department chair of the department of education, culture and society and professor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah in 2003, to describe the various physiological, psychological, emotional and behavioral stress responses Black men experience when faced with racial microaggressions. 

According to Smith’s research, “Racial Battle Fatigue and the Miseducation of Black Men,” Black men at historically white institutions are more likely to face racial battle fatigue —  they are promised the opportunity to obtain the American Dream, but not provided the necessary resources to cope with gendered racism.

“Racial battle fatigue is the over-exhaustion of coping mechanisms to deal with mundane forms of racism … it’s basically over-compromising our ability to cope,” Smith said. “Instead of dealing with the energy that we need for daily life events, we are redirecting it to deal with racism.”

Racial battle fatigue is apparent in the physical stress responses of headaches, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance, hives and in many other forms. 

“The main thing is that racism should be considered a violent act. The body codes racism as violence; our body responds as if it is being assaulted,” Smith said. 

Racism in the form of profiling or microaggressions can cause detrimental health effects that compound over time and contribute to higher death rates and negative health effects on people of color. 

“When you compound that over one’s lifespan, it starts to allow us to understand why people of color die at rates higher than would be expected, and younger than would be expected,” Smith said. 

In 2007, Smith completed research entitled “Assume the Position … You Fit the Description,” where focus group interviews with Black male students showed they are placed under higher surveillance than other students. 

“So what we saw was there was this white anxiety, this white fear that would go up with the presence of Black men and to reduce that fear, police would be called in to basically arrest that threat to control black male’s bodies,” Smith said. 

While Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police have been occurring around the world over the last few months — racial profiling has been an issue for decades. 

“So now you’ve probably seen many news reports of Black people having the police called on them just for doing normal things, so that’s been the experience of Black people on historically white campuses for decades,” Smith said. 

Smith acknowledged the U is doing better than other institutions about the education of racial microaggressions, however, he stated he would like to see from the institution-specific things such as a presidential task force focused on Black males on campus. 

“We’ve had a presidential task force on the status of women of color … but for men of color, we don’t have such a task force … to better the lives of men of color on campus so that they can persist in a healthy way and graduate and become [the] people that they desire to be,” Smith said. 

Smith said there is a major retention problem with people of color; they are recruited in large numbers, but not given the support they need to be successful. One cause of this issue is when the U does put on workshops, the people who need to hear the message do not attend. 

“The people who are probably already educated on those issues are the ones showing up, and they could have probably helped with the workshop. So the people who should be there avoid it,” Smith said. 

To improve this issue, Smith believes changes need to be made by deans and department chairs. 

“So what I believe is that within your merit increase, department chairs and deans should factor in areas for equity, inclusion and diversity,” Smith said. 

On the student level, however, Smith said these issues must be addressed by stopping all forms of racism when they occur.

“Call it out whenever you see it. Don’t be a bystander, don’t stand on the sidelines, get on the field and fight against oppression,” Smith said. 

Smith is currently working on studying racial fatigue in Black women. 

“I am exclusively looking at them and how they are dealing with this COVID-19 era along with the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others. And the weight of gendered forms of racism on Black women,” Smith said. 

Smith wants people of color to know racial battle fatigue is real and experienced by many within the community. 

“People need to know that they are not the only ones; sometimes with gendered racism, people of color tend to blame themselves for the position that they’re in,” Smith said. “It’s really not them. Most of the time, it’s the systemic forms of racism that are operating.”


 Executive Order on Anti-Racist Training

On Sept. 4, 2020, the executive office of President Trump issued an executive order on the subject of “Training in the Federal Government.”

“It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda,” the order read. 

The order continues on to say the federal government is proud it employs people of all races, ethnicities and religions. 

The order explains what the executive office believes to be the two goals of training on critical race theory and white privilege: to make the United States out to be an inherently racist or evil country, and paint one race or ethnicity as inherently racist or evil. 

“The divisive, false and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government,” the order read. 

Smith says this is not the purpose of critical race theory education. 

“Critical race theory is pretty clear in its tenets and it basically says there’s a system in place that makes racism a part of the fabric of how our society operates, and if we’re going to deal with that we have to put that in the center of our conversation,” Smith said. “So, I don’t see critical race theory as a threat. I see the opposition to critical race theory as the threat.”

Smith believes the executive order to be an example of white fragility. White fragility, the term coined by sociologist Robin DiAngelo, is defined as a disbelieving defensiveness white people exhibit or feel when their ideas about race and racism are challenged — and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. 

“I think it’s a knee-jerk response by this administration to not deal with the issues that have been plaguing our society for centuries,” Smith said. 

On Sept. 17, 2020, the School for Cultural and Social Transformation led by dean Kathryn Stockton, sent out a reaffirmation of values, saying “the work we do is under attack.” 

“In point of fact, critical race theory (CRT) and other theories we embrace do not in any way teach that people, including Americans, are ‘inherently’ racist — no one enters this world as racist, nor is racism essential to human life.  So, the very premise of this government mandate is faulty at its core,” the notice read. 

Stockton said Wanda Pillow, the chair of the department of gender studies, has been crafting a resolution to put before the Academic Senate, asking them to confirm the value of critical race theory and anti-racist education and training.

“The executive order, of course, is very dispiriting. It’s really almost unbelievable that anybody would think that training made available for people of all backgrounds on anti-racism would be harmful to anybody because, of course, the focus is about the ways in which we have all been racialized,” Stockton said. 

Stockton said she was shocked to see universities such as the University of Iowa heeding the executive order and pausing their diversity training efforts.

“And that is something that we felt very strongly we cannot afford to do at the U. We need to continue apace,” Stockton said. “We want to, as a University, say we will not stand by and let these scholars be attacked for the work that they do.” 


Anti-Racism Education Moving Forward

On June 4, 2020, Stockton issued a letter entitled “Heartbreak and Reckoning,” where she mentioned Smith’s work of racial battle fatigue and addressed the collective heartbreak within Transform over the anti-Blackness revealed through the murder of George Floyd and others. 

“We cannot keep mourning—and at times forgetting—each black person murdered by police. We cannot stand by while other folx of color and indigenous people, whose names we may not know, lose their lives to racist policies and violent actions. Slow death is taking place all around us,” the statement read. 

On Oct. 15, Stockton wrote a letter nominating Smith for a distinguished research award.

“William has brilliantly, persuasively cleared a new and radically important space around this scholarship for his claims of ‘racial battle fatigue.’ Now, moreover — and this point is key for the work of Transform and ECS — William is perfectly positioned to explore the seam where gender intensifies race,” the nomination read. 

U librarians have tracked the citations of “racial battle fatigue,” his Google scholar count is over 4,000. Their search also revealed the prevalence of Smith’s research in popular culture, through conferences, radio programs, podcasts and blogs. 

“We are so fortunate to have Dr. Smith as a jointly appointed professor. We’ve got racial battle fatigue being taught in our classes,” Stockton said. “We are happy to remind everybody that that is a phrase crafted by Dr. William Smith.”


The U’s Community Response

While Smith tackles the research behind racial battle fatigue, the effects of it have begun to show within the U’s own community of color at large.

Meligha Garfield, director of the Black Cultural Center, spoke openly about the fatigue he and the BCC itself have been dealing with.

“[With] the police brutality cases and really the forefront of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and some others being brought into the spotlight, one of the biggest challenges I and the center have faced is that racial battle fatigue,” Garfield said. 

Garfield said when it comes to answering questions, educating people or giving general input on situations can be emotionally exhausting. 

“Saying like, ‘Hey Meligha, can you speak on this?,’ ‘Can you provide this input?,’ ‘Can you tell us why we need to not be racist? Or are we racist today?’,” Garfield said, giving examples.  

Garfield said although he does like the attention and the opportunity to be in his position, “It can be quite a racial battle fatigue.”

Racial battle fatigue isn’t only selective to the faculty at the U, it also applies to students who face these circumstances. Ephraim Kum, the ASUU student body president, explained why racial battle fatigue is so exhausting. 

“And what makes racial battle fatigue more unique, but also more painful is that additional qualifier and additional adjective,” said Kum. “Meaning that the reason you’re constantly tired is because you’re always constantly fighting and the reason you’re constantly fighting is because of your very existence.” 

Kum said there are multiple forms of fatigue experiences; he explained one is seeing horrific things on social media happening to people who look just like him. Ultimately, though, those experiences have a bleeding effect on “personal circumstances.”

When asked if the U is doing enough to protect its students from racial battle fatigue, Kum said, “The short answer would be no.” 

“Racial battle fatigue is linked to huge societal and systemic issues, as well as generational issues. [So] the concept of doing enough is certainly out of reach,” Kum said. “Though that also is not to excuse them. There is always more that can be done.” 

Smith thinks the U can start taking steps to change the narrative. Smith said in order to combat racial battle fatigue at the U, the counseling center needs support. 

“Because mental health is very important. And particularly for racialized, subordinated groups, they’re going to endure racial microaggressions,” Smith said. “So we know that particularly in this era, what we should do is prepare for intervention and prevention.”


[email protected] 


[email protected]