More than 30 years after the purported end of the Civil Rights Movement, some Black students at the University of Minnesota still experience a kind of “racial battle fatigue” from attending the predominantly White institution. “I’m discriminated against every day,” says Kenya Womack, a first-year student at the university. “Every day I wake up and fight the odds of the higher majority. Emotionally it’s straining, because you can only take so much at heart. Your hope dwindles, your faith dwindles.”
Angst, nervousness, depression, fatigue: These are all symptoms and feelings that soldiers often experience upon return from wartime combat. New evidence suggests that African Americans may fight battles of the same internal magnitude every day.
Womack expresses frustration with the fact that she is one of very few Black students in her classes. She often feels the pressure of having to represent the entire race in class discussions and not being able to adequately relate to others. “Mentally I’m not prepared for it, because I come from a predominantly Black environment,” she says.
A study recently released by researchers at Penn State University suggests that chronic exposure to discrimination may be linked to race-based battle fatigue in African Americans. Of the African Americans who participated in the study’s survey, those who experienced more frequent incidents of racial discrimination had a significantly higher chance of suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
According to the PubMed Health database of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), GAD is a disorder characterized by “a pattern of frequent, constant worry and anxiety over many different activities and events.” These symptoms can occur as a product of one’s genes, or as a result of stressful life situations or learned behavior — such as the experience of racial discrimination.
GAD is known to come with psychological symptoms that are severe enough to affect everyday tasks and job performance. Affected persons face problems like chronic worrying, intrusive thoughts and difficulty concentrating.
The researchers involved in the study state that the battlefield comparison, while not exact, is one that is reasonable to make. “The results of our study suggest that the notion of racial battle fatigue could be a very real phenomenon that might explain how individuals can go from the experience of racism to the experience of a serious mental health disorder,” explains Jose Soto, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State.
“While the term is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments,” says Soto.
The study, released in March, is the latest of many scholarly and scientific works to link racial discrimination with stress and related disorders. Research in the last decade has suggested discrimination to be a factor in both mental and physical ailments among many different minority populations.
The studies have concluded that these effects can be exhibited from adolescence to college life and the workplace in the form of stress disorders like GAD and post-traumatic stress disorder, extending even to physical impacts such as hypertension and heart disease.
Rose Brewer, an African American studies professor at the U of M, believes that the study is not something that should catch people by surprise. “This is an issue we are already aware of. We know that racism affects people negatively. There are whole bodies of literature that affirm this,” Brewer says.
Arsenio Ward, a U of M junior, agrees with the notion that discrimination can lead to stress, but he doesn’t see it as overt and thinks that it is relative, dependent on the person involved. “I would say [the connection] is reasonable. People handle stress differently. It all depends on the person,” says Ward.
Ward explains that although he doesn’t experience discrimination on a regular basis and is not the type of person to take it personally, he has seen others who have been affected. “Last year, in one of my classes, a friend of mine felt discriminated against and acted out in class and caused a big scene. It took me by surprise, because that’s just not how I would respond.”
Students like Womack and Ward rely on a support structure for African American students at the U of M that may be helpful in easing the minds of students of color, but these programs have also been under threat of being reduced or eliminated.
Ward, who is the president of the U of M’s Black Student Union, emphasizes the importance of such safe spaces. “You want to be able to feel comfortable in your own environment. This is a place where you can be comfortable, and be yourself, being around people who are like you.”
Still, Womack and her peers continue to face challenges as nontraditional students at the university and as African Americans in the community. “I would definitely say I’m fighting a battle,” she says. “A never-ending battle, as long as I’m Black.”
The Penn State racial battle fatigue study can be found at http://live.psu.edu/story/51750.
Lateef D. Oseni is a student intern at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.