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Microaggressions and straight-up racism are exhausting Black people

Mary-Frances Winters has been a diversity consultant for major companies for decades. One refrain she's been hearing from young Black workers: “We are exhausted.”

When New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams opened up about his emotional fatigue from racism, his shift in candor during the press conference last year hit home for many who empathized with him.

“I am not OK. I am not OK today," he said.

It was shortly after George Floyd was killed by then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, even as Covid-19 ravaged the city and political strife continued to amp up.

The author Mary-Frances Winters.Timeless Arts Photography

"I want to give the Black community permission to say I am not OK," he continued. "I am tired. I am tired. I have not watched the video of Ahmaud Arbery. It is too much. I have not watched the video of George Floyd. It is too much. Black people have to go to work the next day and be alright. I am not OK. I am tired. I am tired of racism.”

The author Mary-Frances Winters documented this moment in “Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit," because it captured the essence of her book.

Winters, founder and CEO of The Winters Group Inc., a global firm specializing in diversity and inclusion consulting, uses this scene to name and describe a phenomenon that she believes countless Black Americans know all too well. She terms it “Black fatigue.”

In nearly 300 pages, the book delves into the history of white supremacy and racist systems that have led to intergenerational Black fatigue. Winters also contends that in every aspect of life -- from education and socioeconomics to the workforce, criminal justice and health outcomes — racism is literally killing Black people.

Berrett-Koehler Publishers

"Science has proven that racism is a direct cause of physiological and psychological maladies," she writes. "Black people suffer disproportionately from diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, obesity, among others. Many of these health issues are uncorrelated to socioeconomic status. In other words, contrary to what might seem intuitive, education and income are not mitigators. Further, experts have recently made connections to how chronic stress impacts us the cellular level and is passed down generationally."

Winters spoke with NBC News about how efforts to make the nation more equitable and inclusive for generations have not yet been actualized — and how that affects the health of Black Americans and people of color.

NBC News: This is your sixth book. What led you to this specific topic?

Mary-Frances Winters: In my consulting business, I encounter people in the workplace on a regular basis in training sessions and focus group research. I was hearing over and over again, especially from Black millennials and Generation Zers: “We are exhausted.” This refrain was common no matter what industry or size of organization.

The source of the exhaustion came from the constant microaggressions in the workplace, the need to teach white people about what was not appropriate behavior or language, such as 'Can I touch your hair?’ or 'You are so articulate’ — the feeling of isolation, invisibility and tokenization. The exhaustion inside the workplace is exacerbated by the constant killing of unarmed Black people outside the workplace that engenders fear, stress and even trauma. These sentiments were being expressed long before George Floyd and the racial protests of 2020. 

I wrote another book last year, “Inclusive Conversations: Fostering Equity, Empathy and Belonging Across Difference.” When I submitted it to my editor at the publisher Berrett-Koehler, he said, "You actually have two or even three books here."

When the George Floyd murder happened last May, I incorporated the many incidents that occurred in 2020 into the manuscript as the concept of Black fatigue exploded. Over and over in the media, people were declaring, “We are tired.”

How did you come to define the term "Black fatigue," and how was it informed by your personal journey?

Winters: I coined the term "Black fatigue" in part in answer to Robin DiAngelo’s [2018] book “White Fragility.” White fragility is a major source of Black fatigue. I define “Black fatigue” as “repeated variations of stress that results in extreme exhaustion and causes mental, physical and spiritual maladies that are passed down from generation to generation.”

As a Black, cisgender, heterosexual Baby Boomer, I have lived Black fatigue. From the time I was 5 years old, when a little white boy called me the N-word, I have experienced microaggressions and blatant racism.

Black fatigue, has in a sense, been normalized to the point where it may not be easy to correlate feelings of stress, depression and even physical ailments with the toll of living while Black. Black fatigue has provided that connection and recommendations for how to manage the fatigue. For white readers, I have got feedback that it provides a historical framework that they did not have. 

NBC News: Chapter 6 is titled "Say Her Name, Black Women's Fatigue." There are Black women across the country who may relate to what you write. Can you share a favorite passage from that chapter?

Winters: “I don’t claim to have lived the experiences of my similarly hued sisters. I speak from my life and do not represent all who identify as Black women. I know that there are similarities from decades of relationships with Black women from different walks of life and the stories we share with each other very often carry the same threads. They are messages of pride and power often juxtaposed with deep feelings of self-doubt and helplessness. They are stories of achieving against all odds and stories of exasperation from not being able to find our way out of the perpetual maze of anti-Black racism unique to Black women. They are stories of faith, strength, resilience and hope along with stories of neglect, abuse and violence. They are stories of passion and 'magic' against a backdrop of labels like angry and less innocent. Black women have amassed a treasure trove of wisdom from living with our identities but too often our voices are silenced, ignored or denied. We too are fatigued.”

NBC News: The nation is experiencing a painful racial reckoning. What does this book bring to the current dialogue?

Winters: I have been concerned for some time that the modern-day diversity movement has in some ways obfuscated racial issues that are unique to Black people. So often, I have been cautioned not to focus on race in diversity sessions. When we lump all of the historically subordinated groups together, we are essentially saying that all concerns are basically the same. It is like saying let’s just study cancer and not concentrate too much on breast cancer. That argument, as we know, makes little sense as does one that assumes you can understand the experience of different groups by putting them under the broad umbrella of diversity. As people read this book, I would ask that they stay focused on the nuances and idiosyncrasies unique to the Black experience.

NBC News: Does the book have a specific target audience? Who should read this book?

Winters: During the initial meetings with the editing team at Berrett Koehler, I was asked, “Who is the book for?" I thought that an odd question and without hesitation, I responded, “Of course, it is for white people. Black people already know that we are fatigued.” However, what I am finding is that Black people are appreciating the book because it is affirmation and validation of feelings that they have had and maybe we're not able to quite articulate.

I ask white people to read this book to not only be educated on the history of racism, but to also be motivated to become an anti-racist, an ally and a power broker for systemic change. For Black people who read this book, I hope that it will be educational and affirming and that when one of your white colleagues asks you to educate them, you can refer them to this resource.

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