What Is Black Fatigue, and How Can We Protect Employees from It?
For almost four decades, I have been telling leader after leader about the inequities faced by marginalized groups in their organizations. My diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy, the Winters Group, has conducted thousands of focus groups with Black and brown employees who report more toxic environments than their white coworkers. In addition, the results of our cultural audits often show statistically significant disparities for Black and brown people in hiring, promotions, involuntary terminations, and performance reviews.
By Mary-Frances Winters
The Winters Group consults with just about every industry—and the voices from Black employees in every industry carry the same emphatic messages of feeling undervalued, disrespected, and very much like an outsider. I wrote my new book, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit, in response to what I heard from Black employees in corporate spaces. They have been mostly millennials who told me of aggressions that ranged from small, often unintentional implicit biases to blatantly racist behaviors, such as racial slurs. However, for the most part, these Black employees remained silent for fear of being labeled as overly sensitive, not being believed—or even losing their jobs.
I conceived and wrote Black Fatigue before the current focus on anti-Black racism ignited by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. As a result of the renewed interest by organizations in every conceivable industry in listening to the lived experiences of Black people, Black employees have been given “permission” to share their stories without past concerns about retribution. Here are some of the things I’ve heard from employees who, until recently, hadn’t felt able to speak up at work:
- “I look around and don’t see anybody who looks like me in top leadership positions. I have worked really hard, get excellent reviews, and continue to be given one excuse or another as to why I was not promoted. Things like it takes a while in this company or there are so few positions at the top. These excuses when you see people who have not been here as long as I have, and you have seen top spots open up with retirements.”
- “I am invisible here. I feel like people avoid me because they don’t know what to say to the only Black person in the department.”
- “I am always on guard. I don’t feel I can trust my coworkers with my authentic truths and I feel like they somehow see me as a threat.”
- “When I did say something about somebody calling me by a nickname that I did not give them permission to use, I was accused of being too sensitive, so I just grin and bear it now because I do need this job.”
- “There is no such thing as being ‘casual’ if you are Black—being considered in any way non-professional. I don’t dress or talk or look in any way that might give them a reason to see me as anything but what they consider professional. It is exhausting.”
- “All of this rhetoric about bring your whole self to work—inclusive culture—creating a sense of belonging. I can tell you as one Black person, I would not think of bringing my whole self to work. I don’t even know if they would want that, and as far as a sense of belonging, not even close. I definitely feel like an outsider, sometimes an outcast.”
- “Discussions about race? Are you kidding me? Until the George Floyd incident, nobody would talk about race. If you brought it up, there was a palpable awkwardness and very quickly the subject got changed.”
For the most part, white people have expressed shock and concern, claiming that they did not know that about these injustices—in the book, I refer to this as “sublime ignorance.” White people, by and large, were either not listening or minimized the impact of Black people’s experiences until something like the recent Black Lives Matter protests made them pay attention. There are at least two reasons for this persistent ignorance.
1. We do not talk about race or racism in the workplace. In my book We Can’t Talk About That at Work: How to Talk About Race, Religion, and Politics, I argue that we have not talked about race for a variety of reasons: guilt, shame, don’t know what to say, afraid of saying the wrong thing. In Inclusive Conversations: Fostering Equity, Empathy, and Belonging Across Differences, I point to a need to face our fear and fragility. In order to correct this reluctance and discomfort with race, we need to learn how to talk about it by focusing on understanding our own and other cultures. If we do not do the pre-work that is necessary to engage in bold, inclusive conversations, they can be very harmful to Black employees, perpetuating microaggressions and an emotional toll and stress, as Shanna Tiayon points out in her recent Greater Good piece, “How to Avoid Doing Harm When You Discuss Race at Work.”
2. Too many times we have submitted our audit findings and recommendations only to learn that the report was essentially ignored. As an example, when we scheduled meetings with the CEO of a large manufacturing company to review the findings of an audit, they were postponed and ultimately never happened. This was not the first time that the “gatekeepers” (HR and legal) questioned the validity of the findings, requested that we reword or take out certain unflattering content, or did not share the results with top leadership. If leadership is unaware of the toxic environment that Black people experience, obviously nothing will change.
As a result of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, we are again being asked to conduct a number of audits to help organizations better understand the climate for racial equity. I hope that this time leadership will really take notice and hold all leaders accountable for correcting disparate outcomes. Here are eight specific recommendations I have for organizations that are embarking on a diversity, equity, and inclusion process:
- Acknowledge the emotional toll of racism, whether in the form of implicit bias, microaggressions, or overt racism. The impact is the same, and repeated experiences lead to Black fatigue, which can manifest as physiological and psychological health issues.
- Before you embark on conversations about race, assess your readiness. If you identify as white, do you even know enough about Black people’s different lived experiences? Do you know enough about yourself and your worldview toward race? Do you subscribe to the “colorblind” ideology? Do you have meaningful cross-racial relationships? If you assess that you are not ready for the dialogue, just listen.
- When an organization commissions an audit, build in the expectation that top leadership will not only review and understand the results, they will be required to act on them.
- Commit to being transparent and share the results with all employees so that everybody in the organization can hold themselves and their leaders accountable.
- Hold listening sessions for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) on a regular basis and provide ways for employees to anonymously give feedback on their experiences.
- Believe what you hear from BIPOC employees. Do not rationalize or defend, sugarcoat the results, or, worse, dismiss the concerns all together. Acknowledge that your lived experiences may be very different and that you may not be able to completely empathize.
- Continue to listen and learn until you can really empathize. You cannot empathize if you do not know anything about the person or group with whom you wish to offer empathy. You can sympathize, which often leads to pity and patronization. Empathy takes work. When you can empathize, you will be more likely to take action.
- Do your own learning, not expecting BIOPOC to be your teacher, as it can compound the emotional toll.
My hope is that, as a result of the new racial movement, the corporate world is really “woke” now—and Black people’s fatigue is alleviated and ultimately eliminated.