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Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit



Mary-Frances Winters discusses the impact of Black fatigue not only on Blacks but on society as a whole.


Mary-Frances Winters, founder and CEO of The Winters Group, Inc., a 36-year-old global organization development and diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm, truly believes that diversity and inclusion work is her "passion and calling."

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Winters: My name is Mary-Frances Winters. I'm president and CEO of The Winters Group, a 36-year-old Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consulting firm. I wrote the book, "Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit" to recognize that the generations of inequities, the generations of racism take its toll. Shall need to talk with you about moving from a capitalistic to more of a justice based way of thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion, and already talked about an equity design. I think that's what we need. I'm going to talk about why we are fatigued at really trying to work towards justice and work towards equity.

The Cycle of Black Fatigue

What is black fatigue? We need to start there. It's repeated variations of stress caused by centuries of racism resulting in extreme exhaustion, causing physical, mental and spiritual maladies that are passed down from generation to generation. There is a cycle and that cycle starts with unmitigated systemic racism, moving to intergenerational stress and trauma, which causes inherited racist disparities in health. Then generations of oppressively inequitable life's experiences and outcomes. The cycle just continues to repeat itself. Doing this work, I was really struck before I started to write this book, by many millennials and Gen Z's who were in organizations, and they were saying, "We're exhausted. We're tired." I would say, you're 30 years old, how are you tired already? I'm a baby boomer. However, they'd look at me and say, we're really tired. It's what really prompted me to start thinking about the impact of living while black, every single day. This presentation is going to share some of what that looks like.


First, we need to do some grounding, some foundational concepts in terms, because I think that oftentimes when we try to talk about race, we can't effectively talk about it, because we're not talking about the same thing. Let's start with diversity. Diversity just is. We don't have to do anything to create diversity. What do I mean by that? I mean that, if you have two people in a room, you have diversity. No two of us are exactly alike. I think what happens is, when we think of diversity, we think of race, we think of gender. We think that certain people are left out, mainly white men. I oftentimes hear white men say, I don't feel that I'm a part of the diversity equation. We're all a part of the diversity equation. It is simply the ways in which we differ from each other, and ways that we are alike each other, our intersecting identities. Diverse is not an adjective for a person, a diverse hire. If we're all diverse, then every hire is a diverse hire. I think we use that as a euphemism for race or for gender. We need to be specific, if we're talking about, we need an African American hire or want an African American hire, or a woman hire, someone of Asian descent, somebody who has a disability. We need to be very specific and not use diverse as a euphemism for what we're really talking about. It's hard to talk about these concepts, much easier to just put that diverse in front of it.

When we talk about diversity, it is all of the ways that we are similar and different. It is our color, our generation, our gender identity, our ability, our sexual orientation. Those are in the center of the circle, because those are things that typically they're more visible, not always, but oftentimes they are. There are also things that we cannot change. The second ring in teal, those are things that are very important to us. For the most part, we can change those. We can change our political affiliation. We can change our educational background, but they are still aspects of who we are. That outer ring really represents our cultural norms, how we communicate. Are we direct communicators or indirect communicators? Do we think more of the individual or are we more collectivist? Some societies absolutely think we first before they think I? How do we interpret rules? How do we make decisions? All of those are determined by our cultural norms.


Let's go from diversity to inclusion. What do we mean when we talk about inclusion? If we have an organization where there's a low sense of belongingness, people don't feel like they belong, and they don't feel that their uniqueness is valued, that would be exclusion. We have organizations where there's a high sense of belongingness, we want people to fit. However, our uniqueness may not be valued. In essence, you're forced to assimilate, to be like everybody else. Differentiation and uniqueness is not valued. We might have an organization where they highly value uniqueness but individuals don't feel like they belong. Oftentimes, companies will hire people as contractors because they know that they're not going to fit, but they absolutely need that particular skill. Where we're trying to get is to inclusion. Inclusion is where one feels that they belong, and that their uniqueness is valued. In many of the interviews and the focus groups and the listening sessions that we've held, not just recently, but over the years, oftentimes, black people, people of color do not feel that they are included. They do not feel that they belong. They feel isolated. They feel tokenized. They feel like outsiders. They feel that assimilation is required. We've got a long way to go to help people to feel that they're included. This is what causes black fatigue. If I feel that I have to fit, I have to change myself, there's a lot of stress associated with that. Who do I have to be? How do I have to look? How do I have to behave in order to fit into this organization? Rather than looking at a cultural add. What do I add? What does my uniqueness bring?

Now we can think about the difference between equality and equity as we continue to try to understand different terms that we may not be familiar with. Equality means that we give everybody the same thing. Equity means that we give people what they need in order to succeed. In this diagram, you see that equality was giving all of the children the same box in order to be able to have access to the game. Equity means that you give the little girl toolboxes because that's what she needs. The child in the wheelchair needs a ramp. We live mostly in a society of equality, where we believe everybody is the same, and that we can all reach our full potential if we all have the same things. Sometimes we don't have that, we didn't start with that. We need to play some catch-up.

Making the Connections

Let's make some connections. Diversity is quite simply the mix of differences. Inclusion is, how do we make that mix work? We can't do that if we're not what we call culturally competent. That means that we have knowledge, understanding of people who are different. We know what others might need. We know the history. We understand what those inequities have been, because our goal is equity. We cannot achieve equity if we don't have inclusion. We cannot achieve inclusion, if we don't have the knowledge, the skills, the aptitude, the understanding of how cultures differ from each other.

America's 400-plus Year History of Racism

Let's move to understanding some of the racial injustice imperatives. Let's look at history and language, because our history and our language matter. We just went over some of the definitions, but we're going to go further into that as well. Let's briefly look at America's 400 year history of racism. If we just start with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the 13th amendment abolished slavery, the 14th amendment gave citizenship rights, and the 15th amendment was voting rights. Only men at that time. However, let's just take the voting rights. The Voting Rights Act was initially in the 1860s right after slavery was abolished. However, in 1965, it was required that we have a voting rights act, because there was a lot of voter suppression. We continue to see voter suppression today. There's a 2020 bill in Congress we're passing, around voter suppression. If you're listening to the news today, you're hearing a lot about voter suppression, and that voter suppression disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black people.

The KKK was started during Reconstruction, and today we still have white supremacy. Scientific racism, that was the idea that black people were not even human, and that they were closer to apes. We saw that with Roseanne Barr being fired from her sitcom, because she likened Valeria Jarrett, one of President Obama's advisors, to an ape. We have made progress, but we haven't made progress. Racism still looms large. We had affirmative action, and affirmative action is an attempt to level the playing field. It is an attempt for equity. However, there's a lot of controversy around affirmative action. The civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate in employment, and made it illegal to segregate public places. We thought in 2008, with the election of President Barack Obama, that we now live in a post-racial world where racism was no longer an issue. We know that that is not the case. In 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement started as a result of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Actually, since 2012, 83 unarmed black men have been killed by police.

Then Is Now - Socioeconomics

When we think about it, we can think about it from the perspective of then is now. We have not made progress. Let's look at a few data points. In 1976, 44% of black people owned their own home. That number decreased to 43% in 2015. You can see that for all other groups, there was an increase. Let's look at median household income, over a 10 year period. From 2007 to 2017, the median household income of black people only increased by $62, not even enough to be on the chart. You can see for all other groups, except Asian Americans, it increased. Asian Americans tend to have higher incomes because they live generationally. Let's look at unemployment. Unemployment is historically higher for black workers than white workers. In recession time, it's even worse. Even when you have a college degree, there is a difference between unemployment, and that delta is still twice. It may be a lower amount, but it's still twice. Then is now, and we have not leveled the playing field. Oftentimes, we think that what will level the playing field is education. We think that what levels the playing field is socioeconomic equity. Racism, oftentimes, has a higher priority. Even when you're educated, even when you have done what we say you're supposed to do to achieve success, racism still looms large.

Let's look at some other, then is now, to make my point. Black women have significantly higher maternal mortality rates. Actually, it's twice that of white women, regardless of socioeconomic level and regardless of education. We know about the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 that black people are twice or even three times more likely to die from the disease. Black Americans receive 36% fewer callbacks than equally qualified white applicants, and paid an average of 28% less than white employees with the same positions. Let's look at the fact that black men in particular are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested, charged and serve longer sentences. The likelihood of prison is six times that of white people for black people.

Let's look at schools. Schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954. As a matter of fact, the Brown versus Board of Education landmark decision that said segregated schools were illegal. Today, we have more segregated schools. Black children are significantly more likely to be disciplined, suspended, and expelled than their white peers. This is what we call systemic racism. It's systemic racism because there is a system that disadvantages one group over another. Another example of systemic racism, which are the ID requirements that disproportionately impact people of color when we go to vote. Again, I mentioned this already about voter suppression. When you look at who is not able to and who does not have the same access to voting, oftentimes, that is people of color, and oftentimes, it is black people.

Then Is Now - Blacks in Leadership

Let's look at blacks in leadership. In 1984, the year that I started my own business, there was a headline in The Wall Street Journal, "Many Blacks Jump off the Corporate Ladder: Feeling Their Rise Limited." Progress Report on the black executive, "The Top Spots Are Still Elusive," 1984. Ten months ago, here's another study, "Study Examines Why Black Americans Remain Scarce in Executive Suites," New York Times. Another study, "Blacks in Corporate America Still Largely Invisible." Then is now, we have not made the progress.

Emotionally Taxing

In trying to work towards equity, it is emotionally taxing. It is emotionally taxing in organizations. What we hear from the research that The Winters Group does, but also other research that's been done by McKinsey, and Catalyst and other national think tanks and organizations, black people in companies and their jobs feel that they have to be on guard all the time. That's fatiguing. They feel that they have to cover, cannot bring their full selves to work. They feel that they have to code switch, change their behavior in certain settings. Think about how I need to present myself so that I'm not threatening to white people. Minimize who they are. Go along to get along. Assimilate in an organization. Apologize. Apologize just for being. There's a fear associated with coming to work while black. I might be accosted. I might be stopped. All of those things build up and create black fatigue.

White Supremacy

Let's talk about what some of the black fatigue actually is about when we think about our society. White supremacy is a term that people don't like to use because when we hear it we think that we're talking about the KKK, we're talking about Neo-Nazis. White supremacy is actually an idea, it's an ideology that white people and their ideas and thoughts and beliefs and actions are better or superior than people of color. This may be unconscious but it is the way our system works. That racism is that system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on race, based on how one looks. Unfairly disadvantaging some groups while advantaging other individuals and community. A culture of white supremacy is the dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied in most institutions. It is just the way it is. I'm not saying this to blame or shame anybody. I'm not saying this to say that one group is inherently better than the other, one race is inherently better than the other. I'm saying that we still live in a society where we can predict outcomes based on one's race.

Racial Equity

We know that we have equity when we can no longer predict outcomes based on one race, and that there's an elimination of a racial hierarchy. We know that there's a racial hierarchy because we see it in the outcomes. Racial justice therefore is the systematic fair treatment of people of all races and the proactive reinforcement of policies. We don't have the proactive reinforcement of policies today. We have to keep coming up with new laws to enforce laws that had already been passed as a result of the elimination of slavery. We have the laws on the books but the laws are not being enforced, and so it's requiring other laws. It's fatiguing to have to continue to fight for racial justice.

Levels of Racism

There are levels to racism. There's internalized racism. Internalized racism is when the group, when black people as an example begin to believe the stereotypes about them. We have interpersonal racism which happens from person to person. Institutional racism where organizations and companies have policies that systematically exclude, systematically discriminate. We have structural racism. Structural racism is that deeply embedded racism in systems and policies. We have to think about all the different levels of racism because when we hear that word, that's another word, people do not like to hear that word racism. I am not a racist. We're not calling you a racist, what we're saying is that we live in a racialized world where there is a hierarchy. We can prove that there is that hierarchy because of the outcomes that are disproportionately negative for certain groups, disproportionately disadvantage certain groups.

How We Experience Difference - Monocultural Mindset

Let's think about why this is. We can think about why this is when we think about how we experience difference, how we think about difference. How we individually and collectively think about difference. Do we have a monocultural mindset where we only see the world from our own culture or do we have enough experience and enough understanding and enough knowledge that we have an intercultural mindset meaning that we understand the world vis-à-vis others? We see those inequities. We understand those inequities. If we have a monocultural mindset, we are likely to deny that racism even exists. What's the problem? There's a tool that goes along with this called the intercultural development inventory, and that inventory registers and measures how much experience we have had across difference and our worldview towards difference. If our worldview is denial, we would say, what racial problem? About 2% to 3% of the people who take the tool would have that worldview.

The next is polarization, and that's 13% to 15% of the population who would say, in defense, defending their own culture as better, they're a threat to our way of life. If we're in reversal we'd be ashamed of our own culture but we wouldn't know what to do about it because we have a very simplistic way of understanding it. It's an understanding that's basically an us and a them. As we move along this continuum and learn more, we get to minimization. About 68% of the people who take this tool fall there because we've been taught not to see difference, I don't see color. Many of us go through the world thinking that being color blind is the way to be, to being color blind is what we want to achieve. While that might be aspirational, we do not live in a world that is color blind. We know that because of the disparate outcomes. I want you to see my color. I want you to acknowledge that I am a black person.

When we get to acceptance where 13% to 15% of the people are, we have a better understanding of how racism impacts people. We have a deeper understanding. We wouldn't say all lives matter even though that's true, but we would understand that black lives have mattered differently and we would take that into consideration. At adaptation, which is 2% to 3% of the population, we see how all systems are exquisitely designed to get the results that they're getting, and we want to work to dismantle racism. That's an intercultural mindset. Look at that, only 2% to 3% of the people recognize that and are able to operate at that level. We've got a long way to go if we are to dismantle racism. It's fatiguing to know that most people are at minimization. It's fatiguing for black people to have to try to continue to share these inequities, the microaggressions, and what it's like to be different, what it's like to be the only, what it's like to be tokenized. That's fatiguing.

Minimization May Sound Like

Minimization might sound like this in an organization. Cultural fit, they're a good fit. What does that mean? Probably means minimization, probably means they're more like us. We're a meritocracy. I don't see color. I treat everybody the same. We've always done it that way and it's worked. We have always recruited from the top schools. Who gets to decide what those top schools are? I've laid out for you how racism plays out. I've laid out for you that it is a system. I am not saying that the people who are listening here are racists. I am saying that we live in a racialized world where there is a racial hierarchy, and that there are some races, namely white, that are seen as supreme. It's not our fault that we are where we are but it is our responsibility to try to dismantle racism.

What We Can Do Now

What can we do now? We need to understand that this work requires a radical reorientation of our consciousness. Rather than saying I am here to fix and dismantle racism, we might want to say, I recognize that I must understand who I am in relation to a system of racism in order to disrupt it. It really is about self-understanding first. It's about interrogating yourself. It's about self-reflection. It's about recognizing that our uniqueness equals our identity, and that we are all unique and we have intersectional identities. We are not just one thing. Certain aspects of our identity may afford us more privilege and more power and more advantage than other parts of our identity. We must self-reflect and ask ourselves, what aspect of my identity do I think of most often and why? What aspects do you think of least often and why? How does my race, religion, socioeconomic class, my gender influence how I see the world and how others may see me? What does it mean to be white? What does it mean to be black, indigenous person of color? What is my race story? What narratives or cultural scripts have I learned about race? What have I learned about education? What have I learned about nationality, appearance, communication style? We have to understand who we are and where our power is. This is me. I have all of these different identities. The ones that are white, being black and being a woman do not afford me privilege, because historically, black has been undervalued, and we still see inequities. My blackness does not afford me power or privilege. My gender as a woman does not afford me power or privilege. Again, we have undervalued women in this world. However, because in our society, in the United States Christianity, my religion affords me some sense of power. I'm college educated. I'm middle class. I'm straight. I'm not a part of the LGBTQ community. All of those aspects of my identity afford me power, and these are places where I might be able to be an ally. Where can you be an ally? Where do you have your power?

Other Understanding: The 4-E Approach to Cultural Competence

We first have to understand and have more exposure to those differences, because we don't know about them, we're not going to be able to be an ally. How much exposure do we have? How much contact do we have with those who are different? Exposure is not enough, we have to also have meaningful experiences across those differences so we can go deep. Part of that is education. Developing new knowledge and skills and ways of thinking about difference because we've advanced from minimization to acceptance or adaptation. Those three E's lead us to empathy. If I don't know anything about you, I cannot empathize with you. In fact, we don't know a lot about each other. This was another study that was done by Public Religion Research Institute which said that 75% of white people, 65% of black people, and 46% of Latinos reported that their circle of friends with whom they have and discuss important matters are of their same ethnicity. Only white people are talking to white people. Only black people are talking to black people. It's hard to create allyship, which many of us want today. We talk a lot about being allies. We can't be an ally if we don't know anything about people who are different from us. Becoming an ally is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized people who actually see your allyship as meaningful.

Developing As an Ally

What ally can you be? You can be a self-interested ally where the goal is to protect them, the savior mentality. Altruism, that type of ally is to empower them. The motivation is dependent though on one getting acknowledgement and praise, and we feel guilty at that stage to be an ally. What we really want to get to is allies who are doing it for justice, an ally to an issue not a particular individual or a particular group. They accept their own privilege. They seek critique and admit mistakes. They've accepted that there are isms in this world, and the goal is to empower all of us, empower everybody so that we can achieve an equitable world. The goal and the understanding is that we're all responsible for eradicating racism. Part of the problem is that in our society the responsibility and the onus and the burden is on black people, and that's why we're fatigued. The burden and the onus should really be on white people. What can white people do because white people created racism? Being silent is being complicit. If you're an ally, you're not complicit. If you're an ally, you are active in anti-racism, not just being a non-racist. A non-racist just says I'm just not one. An anti-racist says, what am I going to do in order to alleviate, in order to ameliorate and eventually eradicate racism?


If you are black or other people of color who are experiencing and managing the impact of racism, we say AFFIRM. Allow yourself time to grieve and process during this time. Find your community and lean into your village. Focus on your sphere of influence. We all want to make a difference. We all want to make a change. However, seemingly small wins, pat yourself on the back for those, and make change where you can. The I stands for identify self and communal care practices that work for you. These are very difficult times. There's a lot of stress. We need to focus on our well-being. We need to set boundaries. We may not want to talk about and continue to talk about racism, continue to talk about the [inaudible 00:28:42] because it just continues to exacerbate black fatigue. In identifying those self and communal care practices, part of that might just be setting boundaries that we're not going to talk about. White people should understand that there may be times, there may be situations where it's just too much of a burden for us to have that conversation. The R stands for reject oppressive norms and systems that compromise one sense of self. White supremacy is real. It's not going anywhere. Think critically about and build your capacity to name the systems at play instead of internalizing them. The M stands for meditate and practice mindfulness. Figure out a way that you can continue to be whole in the wake of all of this. For me, it's deep breathing, it's yoga, it's walking. Find what it is that you can do so that you are not fatigued. Affirm that you are whole. Affirm that you are worthy. Affirm that you are enough.


If you're white and for other non-black people of color aspiring to be allies, we say, DARE. DARE to step into this. Decenter yourself and listen. Avoid centering your feelings or jumping to the defense. The A stands for act in the face of inequity and exclusion. When you hear or experience an unfair statement, or learn of a policy that is negatively impacting a group, say something, do something, speak up. The R stands for reflect on your whiteness and your other identities where you have power, and interrogate the ways in which your social and positional power may contribute to the lack of awareness or insensitivity. Are you complicit in upholding systems of racism? The E stands for educate yourself. Again, be intentional about engaging in your own learning journey. Do not perpetuate the emotional burden. You want to talk with your black friends, your black colleagues, make sure that it's an invitation and not an expectation. Make sure that you're not contributing to the burden. There you have it, DARE. For black people, AFFIRM. For white people and non-black people of color who want to be allies, we say DARE. There's a long journey ahead that we have, but if we're all in this together, I know that we can make significant progress.


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Recorded at:

Apr 16, 2021