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Equity Fatigue and How It Affects Leaders of Color

 

Two baby kittens laying belly side up on top of a mattress.
Image Description: Two baby kittens laying belly side up on top of a mattress.

After every training, we ask the fellows—all people of color—in our leadership program for feedback. Halfway through the program, a criticism that rose to the surface was that the constant discussion of systemic injustice, racism, and oppression was getting exhausting. No one was saying that we should stop having conversations about these serious issues, but after being inundated with these concepts for months, across every training and retreat and brown-bag lunch, our fellows needed a break. They were getting Equity Fatigue. “Can we just do something simple like learn how to write a grant proposal?” one joked.

What is Equity Fatigue and what causes it?

After reflecting on our fellows’ experience, we noticed that other leaders of color in the sector were also getting tired during and after conversations around equity and systemic injustice. The term “Equity Fatigue” has been around, but it often just refers to when people are tired of talking about equity. But fatigue is more than just tiredness. It is a condition of physical and mental exhaustion, and this is something many leaders of color face because inequity is relentless. While our white colleagues may be able to walk away if they get tired of these conversations, we can’t take a break; we can’t walk away; we will always be of color. The world will always see us as “of color,” even when it claims to be “color-blind.”

So for the sake of this topic, we are defining Equity Fatigue, or “Equatigue” if you’re feeling feisty, as:

The feeling of exhaustion, frustration, and occasional hopelessness experienced by systemically marginalized individuals and communities after prolonged periods of thinking and talking about the oppression they face.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to Equity Fatigue. Here are a few we can think of:

The expectation on us to educate: Constantly having to help colleagues become more “woke” by sharing our stories and perspectives is draining. Many allies now, to their credit, are taking it on themselves to learn important concepts (from readings, from talking to other allies) without burdening people from oppressed communities. But still, many of us leaders of color—willingly or unwillingly—have to serve as teachers on a daily basis. Sharing our stories to help others, while it can be cathartic and healing, is also often emotionally depleting. 

The assumption that we represent entire communities: There is a not-so-funny-joke among many of us that when a crime is committed and it’s starting to be reported in the news, we think, “Please don’t let this person be [Black, Asian, Muslim, etc.] because it will reflect badly on the entire group.” Whereas white community members are distinguished as individuals, people of color are often unfairly defined as part of an entire group. And this permeates everything we do, including all conversations and around race, oppression, equity, etc. We have to watch our thoughts, our words, our actions, to make sure we are not seen as representing our whole community. It is tiring.

The constant state of hypervigilance: Imagine that you live in a neighborhood that is often not safe. Everywhere you go, you have to be on alert at all times, because danger can come from around any corner and could happen to your family, your friends, your neighbors. Now imagine that every day someone emails you a story about a crime that happened in your neighborhood. For many leaders from marginalized communities, oppression in various forms is a daily occurrence, and hypervigilance is a default. So to be inundated with conversations about it at work, at school, and in the news can be taxing.

The fear that you’re not up-to-par with the language and concepts: This work is complex, and there’s so much to learn. In addition, there is in many conversations a lack of acceptance regarding the admission of ignorance or mistakes. There is also the pressure to conform with radical ideas. If you’re not aware of the latest concepts, or if you express an opinion that is controversial, there may be backlash.

The observation that nothing seems to be changing: Analyzing and talking about systemic injustice can be cathartic and validating. But after a while, it can also seem hopeless. “Nothing much has changed. People still get shot. Women are still underpaid. Native Americans still experience the highest rate of homelessness. What’s the point of having these conversations then?” These discussions after a while just seem like kicking the social justice can down a dusty path. Sometimes it seems better not to bring up these things at all than to face the hopelessness of not seeing much in terms of progress.

How do we prevent or address Equity Fatigue?

Be aware of Equity Fatigue and discuss it in advance: Often, we are so busy discussing inequity and how to address it, that we do not take time to think about the emotional, mental, and spiritual toll it takes on us. I was reaching a point where as soon as I see words like “equity,” “injustice,” etc., online, I needed to look away. It is helpful for us to be aware of how these conversations and articles are affecting us, and try out strategies to prevent fatigue before it happens, and to deal with it when it does.

Focus on what’s going well, not just what’s terrible: There’s a lot of terrible stuff happening and because we’re problem solvers, we often delve into these problems and try to figure out solutions. That’s great. But it must be balanced with hopeful stories and success stories. We must talk about what’s going well, what’s working, and what “bright spots” there are. It helps to lift us up to see that not everything is hopeless.

Have a balance between adaptive and technical solutions: Our fellow’s joke about just learning to write a grant proposal made my organization realize that it can be easy to go too far on one side or the other of the technical/adaptive continuum. So often, our sector only focuses on technical solutions and does not see the complex, adaptive, and systemic challenges we face. On the other hand, we can also go too far in the adaptive end and not discuss concrete technical actions that we need to take. Either end of the continuum is exhausting. Finding the balance is crucial. So let’s talk about race and intersectionality. But let’s also focus on budgets, data analysis, and writing a good appeal letter.

Be thoughtful about asking people to share their experience: Be aware that sharing stories and experiences can be extremely draining, making people vulnerable. This is not to say that we should never request people to share of themselves, but be thoughtful about it. Is it everyone sharing, or is it only certain people sharing, and everyone else gets to just sit back and benefit? Understand that personal stories are a gift, and foster a sense of appreciation among the listeners.

Use external case studies and facilitators: In trying to increase a sense of involvement and ownership, RVC in the beginning of our program often asked our fellows to lead some heavy conversations, providing opportunities for the staff at their host sites to learn from them. We got feedback that, while it was helpful to the colleagues at their host sites, it was draining, unfair, and upsetting to some of the fellows. With that feedback, we were more thoughtful about using case studies and facilitators who were outside of the fellowship program, so that we did not burden our fellows.

Create an atmosphere that’s supportive and sets boundaries: At an Undoing Institutional Racism training we attended, there was a heavy discussion on the history of racism. It was, as expected, emotionally charged. Right before the break, the facilitator said, “I know some of you may want to talk to your colleagues of color and get their perspective during break. But don’t do it. We ask you to respect that they might want this time to themselves.” It put many people at ease and actually allowed them to take a break.

Take a break: If you find that you have Equity Fatigue, think about taking a break from having conversations about these topics and from reading these articles. It’s OK to do that. You don’t have to feel guilty that you just don’t want to read an article someone sent you. Take care of yourself. Watch your favorite show. Go on a walk. Do nothing. Know that you are not alone, that many of us are exhausted too. Recharge your batteries and re-engage when you are ready. We need you doing this for the long-run.

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