Black Women & Racial Burnout. Let’s Talk About It

Photographed by Tino Chiwirro.
"I'm tired," I say with a big sigh after my partner asks how I am. It's a few weeks after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's bombshell interview with Oprah, the disappearance of Sarah Everard, which saw thousands of young women protest against police brutality in the UK, and the attacks on the Asian community in America.
I say I'm tired because, amid the chaos, I feel strain, exhaustion and fatigue after reading countless headlines and hearing commentators continuously deny that racism exists. I'm tired because Black folk have been protesting and speaking out about police brutality in the UK and US for years, only for people to be waking up to the fact now. I'm tired because, after so many years of speaking out about the fears we have as Black women, we are reminded, once again, that our voices do not matter.
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I say I'm tired because, amid the chaos, I feel strain, exhaustion and fatigue after reading countless headlines and hearing commentators continuously deny that racism exists.

Not only have Black folk come hot off the heels of a traumatic 2020 but we've had to bear the brunt of it all going into 2021. Ask any Black person how they feel and chances are they, too, will respond "I'm tired", which translates to: We are tired of not feeling safe. We are tired of watching Black people be murdered by police who are never held accountable. We are tired of people not examining the root causes of the anger. We are tired of people looking the other way and living in a bubble because of their privilege. We are tired of going to work every day and being treated differently. We are tired of being told that we're strong while our feelings are dismissed. We are tired of racism and the pain, trauma and health issues it causes. We are tired of Black Lives Not Mattering.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Black folk are experiencing racial burnout. This has been described as a condition of generalised exhaustion and apathy which has come about, in part, as a result of the protracted inability and/or unwillingness of the world to fundamentally alter conditions of racial injustice. Burnout signals what sociologist Michael Omi has called the "relative exhaustion of the traditional civil rights paradigm".
Deone Payne-James, a counsellor, psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, describes racial burnout as "a combination of burnout, defined as a prolonged response to chronic stress and systematic stressors".
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She continues: "When we talk about Black women in particular, it's the tiredness. Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on it because it's sometimes invalidated as it's hard to explain."

When we talk about Black women in particular, it's the tiredness. Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on it because it's sometimes invalidated as it's hard to explain.

deone payne-james
I'm not alone in feeling torn between tiredness and anger. Kelsea Delatango, a youth policy researcher and campaigner from south London, feels the same. "I've been in a constant state of racial burnout since last summer," she says. "So much so that I can barely put a sentence together about Sarah Everard or anything regarding social injustice."
The pressure to keep fighting against racism, she tells Refinery29, has been taking its toll. "I get angry because it's impossible for me not to say something. But the toll it's taken is so serious now I can barely sound calm, collected and articulate. So even though I feel my sanity, stability and wellbeing melt away, protecting yourself against backlash from just trying to exist is so hard."

I get angry because it's impossible for me not to say something. But the toll it's taken is so serious now I can barely sound calm, collected and articulate.

Kelsea
She continues: "Seeing groups now rattle the police also makes me worry about police strategy in general, because we know when this moment dies down, police will be back to antagonising our Black communities."
Paris Williams, 22, from London, says the level of racial trauma she experiences brings her to tears. "The most tiring thing is recounting your stories of racism and people then cracking jokes the next minute and expecting you to be okay. No, I'm not. I've just told you my racial trauma."
Recent events have made it worse. "We're constantly met with white fragility and then we're expected to explain why everything was a problem," Paris continues. "There's more to me than race and no one ever asks whether they can discuss these things with me, they just ask. I end up crying 24/7 and feeling low because people are always debating it. It worsens my ADHD."
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The most tiring thing is recounting your stories of racism and people then cracking jokes the next minute and expecting you to be okay.

paris
Stateside, the feelings are mirrored. Sydney Clarke, 23, from Brooklyn, says the topic of racial burnout fuels her exhaustion. "It's mind-boggling that Black people have to fight for respect, that we have to argue for our existence and yet, for so many, our reasons for wanting equal rights don't make sense.
"It's come to a point where I don't want to hear about last summer. I don't want to hear about any other Black person losing their life because it's a heavy feeling. It is challenging to imagine what our ancestors would think of us now with the work we've done and the work we have left to do for our community, for the work white people, governmental and educational institutions have yet to complete.

I'll never forget when Ahmaud Arbery was shot and I sat in my bathroom and cried. I didn't expect to feel anything about the incident but I sat and cried because I knew that could be my partner, cousins, my dad, even. White people never have to feel that.

Sydney
"I'll never forget when Ahmaud Arbery was shot and I sat in my bathroom and cried. I didn't expect to feel anything about the incident but I sat and cried because I knew that could be my partner, cousins, my dad, even. White people never have to feel that."
"2020 was so overwhelming for me that my doctor had me take three months off work," Laurise McMillian, Unbothered's content strategy editor, tells me. "At the time I was covering George Floyd. My depression was high."
2021 is no different. Jayde Powell, 28, a social media strategist from Atlanta, says she feels very helpless. "A bitch is tired," she says. "Recently, the attacks on the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community have hit me hard, especially as the most recent event happened in my city. It's sickening."
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She continues: "I especially hated many of the conversations I was seeing trying to put Asian Americans and Black Americans against each other. I'm not an idiot. The issue was, is and will always be white supremacy. I'm tired of hearing about mass shootings. I'm tired of people dying."

A bitch is tired.

Jayde
It has caused Jayde to experience severe mood swings. "Some days I'm fine and then I get upset all over again. It's an ongoing cycle of frustration but, in general, I feel very grateful to be alive and to have the resources and tools I need to be well," adding that she's now in therapy to help her cope.
"Therapy helped me learn how to manage my anxiety and paranoia," she continues. "I live alone so when the riots were happening, I was convinced that a police officer was going to break down my door and invade my home."
Racial burnout is different from burnout, says Payne-James, the latter often linked to having a hard time at work. "But no one speaks about racial burnout unless you're an activist," she says. "But we [Black people] are facing this every day and I'm yet to meet a Black person who isn't acutely aware of their race. It is what it is: exhaustion."

I'm yet to meet a Black person who isn't acutely aware of their race. It is what it is: exhaustion.

Deone Payne-James
Payne-James explains that because Black women are particularly subject to macro and microaggressions, racial insensitivity and asked to prove racism, it often leads to burnout because Black people's experiences and feelings are invalidated. These things can have a negative impact on both your mental and physical health. "It alerts our primary stress responses, and it puts us in flight-or-fight mode," Payne-James continues. "When you're constantly on high alert, it can lead to all kinds of health issues."
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She recommends seeking therapy and practising self-care. "It's acknowledging and finding a space where you are validated, heard and understood," Payne-James adds. "Too often we mould, change and adapt, as that's the only way we can fit in. But we're not here to educate and be responsible for that, especially when Google is free."

Too often we mould, change and adapt, as that's the only way we can fit in. But we're not here to educate and be responsible for that, especially when Google is free.

Deone Payne-James
She continues: "We have to protect ourselves and we can't be the ones to take that on. It's too painful for us to keep educating people. They need to do the work."
Payne-James also recommends taking care of yourself by eating and sleeping well, and immersing yourself in nature. "Can you take time for yourself? Can you go into your community and find a safe haven for yourself? You are the gatekeeper and it's important to find those safe environments," she says, noting that sometimes we don't choose the exposure. "It's recognising the limitations and what you're up against. That idea that things would be different because people put black squares on social media, companies publishing policies — it's all lip service. That's a reactive response, there's no work being done."

That idea that things would be different because people put black squares on social media, companies publishing policies — it's all lip service. That's a reactive response, there's no work being done.

Deone Payne-James
Rather than holding in the anger, Black women should seek out community. "Women need to come together to celebrate their childhood, their families, their hopes and dreams, challenges. Not everything has to be about race," she concludes. "We need to listen to our sighs and use that as a prompt to know that we need to be around likeminded people to connect and replenish ourselves. We need to be able to allow ourselves to cry and allow ourselves to be vulnerable."
Deone Payne-James is an integrative counsellor and psychotherapist, a member of the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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