It wasn’t therapy. It wasn’t a time to sleep or nap. It wasn’t a pity party.
It simply was a time to be.
As the director of multicultural affairs at a predominantly and historically white college, I, daily, had to navigate feelings of hope, dread, anxiety, fear, celebration, fierceness, sadness, compassion, anger, love, defensiveness, offensiveness, push-in, pull-back, humor, excitement and seriousness.
And, as a person of color at a PWI, that can happen in one 60-minute meeting.
Throughout the day, I could cycle through any – and all – of those emotions numerous times.
Those highs and lows, even in just one day, does a number on someone. And, we oftentimes needed to just decompress.
So, years ago, my staff and I initiated “couch time.” We, at any point during our day or week, could get out of our individual offices, go into the middle of the multicultural center, and just sit on the couch. No one would ask you, “Why aren’t you working?” No one would ask you, “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?” No one would look at you strangely, question your presence, or make you do anything. And, no one would ask you to explain anything.
We just knew.
We knew, collectively, that, as a person of color at a PWI, you had just come out of battle — a meeting, an interaction, an advising session, or a class — and you needed a time-out.
Sometimes, though, students came into the center and sat on the couches because they needed an escape from the racial battle — the battle of roommates making microaggressive comments about why they “had to speak Spanish when they were on the phone and why couldn’t they just speak English and why are you talking about me in Spanish….”; the battle of classrooms where they were one of a few students of color and the lesson plan for the day was about race and racial issues in the United States and they could “feel the stares of everyone in the class”; the battle of overhearing someone complain that all the students of color were taking up the financial aid that they, themselves, “deserved money more than those Black kids who just got in because they were Black.”
That’s when it got tough.
That’s when our personal-staff couch time became a time to absorb and process the pain and frustrations of our students. After all, we got into this field to help, support, and build up students of color to be leaders, change agents, and activists.
The other day, a colleague of mine who works at a prestigious university that was going through some campus racial issues, emailed to see if I had any articles she could pass along to her faculty about “how to support students, and ourselves, through racial battle fatigue.” I Googled. I Google Scholar’ed. I went through all of my books about critical race theory, racial tensions, and navigating difficult conversations. I thought about all the workshops I had presented nationally about race and racism. But, there wasn’t anything I could pass along about “supporting our students, and ourselves, through racial battle fatigue.”
Well, because so long as we live in a society that is fearful of talking about race; in which people must prepare to battle rather than prepare to believe; in which some people must bear the burden of absorbing and process, then I’m afraid we won’t find those resources and solutions.
So, how do we create that space?
Well, sadly, I walked away.
I left that multicultural center. I left the couches. I left the students who needed me to absorb and process when I barely had enough room to breathe. Cycling through those emotions every single day led to my own serious weight gain, high blood pressure, stress-related insomnia, depression, and a short-fuse which I only felt safe lighting at home with my family. And, so, by default, my young family suffered from the side effects of my own racial battle fatigue.
This, for me, was the cost of fighting every single day. This, for me, was the cost of racial battle stress. This, for me, was the outcome of a system that didn’t acknowledge or support that people of color experience an environment differently than people who are white.
So, I left.
I’m in a new environment now — still doing strategic, personal and faculty diversity and equity work. But, I’m doing it in a place where my voice matters, where my experience matters, and where my desire and action to shape a better community is not mine alone. I am surrounded by people who not only say they want to “make a difference”, they actually show up with their sleeves rolled up and ready to work.
I no longer have a couch.
Instead, I have two comfy chairs — just enough room to sit and decompress.
But, instead of people needing to recover from battle fatigue, people have come in to get energized, to be a part of a movement, and to ask how they can help. They want to change the system, they want to tweak, they want to rebuild and activate equity. And, they don’t want me to do it alone.
The system is different.
How do we support ourselves through racial battle fatigue? We call attention to the systems that make racial battle fatigue exist. We call attention to the way that racial battle fatigue is an outcome of the well-oiled machine of racism. And, we find ways to not just include those voices and experiences that have been marginalized, we make them central.
We can all create “couch time.”
Truly, those couch times saved some of my students. Couch time was often the only way i could make it through a day. Couch time was the reason why my students didn’t transfer out, why they chose leadership positions on campus, and why they continue to make changes long after I have left that institution.
Couch time validated how we were feeling, our frustrations, and our belief that we weren’t the “only ones” that saw or heard something racist. Couch time allowed us to not have to defend our position or educate others. Couch time meant that we could rebuild ourselves after we had been on the brink of destruction all before lunch time. Couch time meant that you were seen, that you were visible, and that you belonged somewhere even when the rest of the world was trying to push you out. Couch time meant you could take care of yourself, even if just for a few minutes, so that you could go on getting your job done. Couch time meant you were asking for help, and that, if you wanted it, you would get it.
How do we support ourselves and our students through racial battle fatigue? See them, hear them, give them a space to cycle through all of those emotions without having to justify their purpose, and believe them when they do not have the energy to rebuild.
Make that time for others. Make that time for yourself. Acknowledge that there is a compelling system that creates racial battle fatigue. Find a way to slowly dismantle the machine.
And forgive yourself when you simply can’t do it alone.
Peace and love,