After the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, two black men killed by white police officers last summer, 24-year-old VCU senior Brittney Maddox decided she had enough.
“When they got publicized back-to-back, I found that I was really tired and exhausted and I had to shut all of my social media off,” Maddox said.
On July 5, 2017, Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was shot in the chest and back by a Louisiana police officer outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. On July 6, Castille, 32, was shot and killed in his car by a police officer outside St. Paul, Minn. News of Castille’s death spread like wildfire on social media when his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter was also in the car when the shooting occurred.
When the details of both shootings emerged, people across the country shared anger, frustration and fear on social media. Yet these deaths were just two among countless high profile fatal police shootings of black men and women – including Amadou Diallo, Manuel Loggins Jr., Ronald Madison, Kendra James, Sean Bell, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
From Ferguson to Baton Rouge, Maddox said it seemed like the unnecessary killings had no end.
“I just remember feeling really tired and the videos (of the shootings) were up everywhere,” Maddox said. “I reached out to some friends to ask how they were doing to see how people were feeling about this. We realized we all kind of had the same feelings.”
Maddox, along with VCU senior Taneasha White and VCU alumni Kendall Bazemore, sought out the help of some of their professors to help interpret their reactions. Maddox said this is when the trio learned about the concept of “racial battle fatigue” – a term coined by University of Utah ethnic studies professor William Smith.
In the early 2000s, Smith defined this term while studying how racial microaggressions – relatively inconspicuous, but potent, degradation of marginalized people – affected black students at predominantly white colleges and universities.
“Racial battle fatigue is essentially a way of assessing people of color and the racial microaggressions, or racism and race-related stress that they experience and the impact of those experiences on their physiology, psychology, emotional status and behavioral responses due to dealing with racism on day to day basis,” Smith said.
Smith’s paper, titled “Challenging Racial Battle Fatigue,” discusses how students of color have difficulty concentrating and constantly feel stressed and out of place while navigating campuses and classrooms populated primarily by white students.
Bazemore said racial battle fatigue is an emotion he has felt his whole life, but had been unable to define until recently.
“This thing that we were experiencing now had a name, and once it’s given a name, we could start to approach it and figure out why we’re feeling this way,” Bazemore said.
In an interview with WCVE PBS, Yolanda Avent, Director of VCU’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, explained microaggressions can be subtle, but powerful, and are often hidden in the form of a “compliment.”
“One of my favorite microaggressions that I get all the time, sometimes when I’m speaking and people say to me, ‘you’re so articulate,’ and I think they’re well meaning in their mind,” Avent said. “But the message behind it is, ‘my expectations were so low for you probably anyway,’ or, ‘my expectations were that you were going to speak a certain way.’ So all microaggressions have a message.”
Maddox and White decided to help others make sense of this term by bringing the Black Minds Matter Project to VCU, an initiative designed to prepare 21st Century African-American youth leaders in the areas of art, education, and political activism, according to the BMM website.
In partnership with the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and VCU Res Life, students and faculty held a summit from March 20-22 with workshops, mixers and roundtable discussions to “provide a space for open discussion, education, empowerment and healing” for people of color affected by racism, according to White.
Maddox had the idea to bring BMM to campus after returning to VCU last fall feeling “uneasy” about the deaths of Sterling, Castille and others while attending a “PWI” – a predominantly white institution. White said although VCU is well-known as being a diverse university, she feels the weight of racial battle fatigue every day.
“If I’m not taking an African-American studies class I’m still one of four black people in the class, sometimes the only one,” she said.
To cope with the deaths of Sterling and Castille and the general stress she feels as a black woman at a PWI, White reached out to University Counseling Services to navigate coping methods. However, White said she found the services to be underutilized by black students. She said this is in large part due to the “stigma” against mental health in the black community.
“There are varying reasons for why black people don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental illnesses,” White said. “That was one of the reasons we felt an importance to gather a bunch of people and create a space for black people to be able to get together and talk about the way they’d been feeling and maybe provide space for frankness but also for education.”
According to a 2013 study by Mental Health America, African Americans believe mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles.
The study states African Americans hold beliefs related to stigma, psychological openness and seeking help, which in turn affects their coping behaviors.
“There’s a stigma between seeking mental health in the black community,” Maddox said. “Not only is it a conversation for black students, alumni and the faculty here, it’s also for mental health professionals who are our allies, who want to help, but they just might not know where to start.”
Maddox said she visited UCS as well, but found the facility “wasn’t prepared.”
“It’s not that they didn’t care what we were going through, they just didn’t have the mindframe or skill set to address our issues,” Maddox said.
According to the UCS website, VCU offers a wide spread of counseling options, including individual therapy, couple’s therapy, group therapy, support groups and psychiatric services.
UCS Senior Staff Clinician Megan Guinn said said mental health services are often misunderstood as appropriate avenues for support across several communities due to “diverse values and beliefs” regarding where and how to find help.
“UCS makes an effort to reach out to various historically underrepresented groups on campus and provide information about mental health services and how these services can support students,” Guinn said. “Our goal is to put a face to the agency, and develop relationships with students to increase their comfort in seeking services.”
Guinn, who has a LGBTQIA focus, agreed that starting a conversation about microaggressions and racial battle fatigue is a strong step toward alleviating the stress students of color often feel.
“More knowledge and awareness is always a good thing,” Guinn said. “Even if you don’t have the words for what you are experiencing, someone might be able to recognize behaviors like decreased motivation, withdrawing from others, missing classes, unhealthy substance use, sadness, sleep problems and other symptoms that identify someone in distress.”
In contrast, several articles from conservative commentators caught wind of BMM at VCU and focused on their disagreement with racial battle fatigue instead of mental health as a whole.
One such publication, Freedom First, discussed how students of color struggle with mental illness “due to white people.” The writer, Stacy Jayhawk, questioned what “people that struggle with actual mental illnesses” would think about this.
Stacy Jayhawk did not respond for comment in time for publication. However, Freedom First’s comment section did not hesitate to contribute opinions on the matter, either.
“I recovered from a mental illness. And this is a blatant insult to people with REAL mental illnesses that require hospitalization,” wrote Facebook user Veronica Verratti.
“Well if they’d stop being so racist, maybe they wouldn’t be so fatigued. It takes a lot of energy being hateful and bitter,” wrote Facebook user Candi Brinson. “Most whites want to live and let live and don’t care what color people’s skin color is.”
Vice President of College Republicans at VCU John Rackowski echoed similar sentiments when asked about subject.
“It may be a cliche to state at this point, but that does not take away from the truth of the matter,” Rackowski said in an email. “Some people are looking to be offended, and are, for whatever reason, drawn to the idea of being a member of an oppressed group, constantly seeking to validate their beliefs that they are indeed oppressed.”
Rackowski said as a Republican, he understand persecution and that his beliefs make him a regular target for criticism. However, Rackowski did not agree that racial battle fatigue is a problem, citing how he and those with similar views behave.
“In spite of all of this, we do not complain or wallow or get offended at minor things; instead, we laugh these things off and tell ourselves that this is ‘just the way things are’ – and if we want something to change, we actually work to bring about that change,” Rackowski said. “Having faced actual harassment, we simply laugh off minor insults or social miscues, instead of dwelling on them and internalizing them.”
Smith, the author of the study which coined the term, laughed when asked if people have expressed discontent with the concept of racial battle fatigue.
“There’s always people who will say ‘get over it,’ ‘it’s all in your head,’ ‘you’re whining, you’re crying,’ ‘put on your big boy/girl pants,’ – all these type of things,” Smith said. “But those are people who are really insensitive and/or don’t really understand the ramifications of some of the behaviors that they might participate in or others that they might know.”
It’s not just college campuses that are struggling to address diverse mental health needs. In February, Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged Virginia legislators to include in the state budget funding to conduct mental health screenings in jails and hire investigators to examine suspicious jail deaths.
According to a study by The Compensation Board, about 16 percent of Virginia’s jail inmates were “known or suspected to be mentally ill.”
In 2016, there were nearly 1.6 million Americans in state or federal prison. In 12 states – including Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois and Virginia – more than half the prison population is black, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“We need someone in those jails who can determine if someone has an issue with mental health,” McAuliffe said at a news briefing.
In a letter to legislative leaders, McAuliffe called on the General Assembly to approve his budget request for $4.2 million “to provide for training of jail staff in mental health screening and to provide grants to jails for mental health assessments.”
McAuliffe also asked for $200,000 for the Virginia Department of Corrections to hire two investigators “to review deaths and other major situations in local and regional jails.”
The request for the investigators was spurred by the death of Jamycheal Mitchell in 2015. Mitchell, a 24-year-old African-American male, suffered from schizophrenia and was placed in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia, after stealing about $5 of snacks from a 7-Eleven. Although a judge ordered that Mitchell be sent to a psychiatric hospital, he ended up staying in the jail for four months, lost 40 pounds and was found dead in his cell on Aug. 19. 2015.
When the General Assembly commenced on Feb. 25, legislatures allocated $250,000 to the Secretary of Health and Human Resources to prepare an implementation plan for the financial realignment of Virginia’s public behavioral health system.
Though both White and Maddox are graduating in May, they have plans to continue promoting BMM throughout Richmond. In addition to keeping their web presence active, Maddox touched on developing a podcast with a local radio station with a focus on Black Minds Matter.
Above all else, Smith said one of the strongest tools to combat racial battle fatigue is to simply engage productive discourse with those who both agree and disagree with the concept.
“Most rational people, even those that don’t agree with you initially, when you sit down and talk to them and you explain these things, what people of color are dealing with on a day to day basis,” Smith said. “Those who might not have agreed with you at the beginning then start to have a new appreciation for what you might be experiencing.”
Tyler Hammel, Contributing Writer
& NEWS EDITOR
Maura is a senior pursuing degrees in cinema and mass communications. This is her second year at the CT; prior to joining transferring to VCU, Maura was the news editor for two years at Virginia Tech’s student newspaper, the Collegiate Times. Maura has been published in USA TODAY, Elite Daily and other online publications. Her ideal job would involve combining investigative journalism and film. If all else fails, hopefully The Onion will be hiring.
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