On Racial Battle Fatigue and Nice White People

Battle fatigue is an outdated term for the mental impact many soldiers experience after military combat. We’ve made up new terms throughout the years and now this type of “fatigue” is generally referred to as post-traumatic stress. The impact is real. Humans are not wired to thrive under extreme stress for long periods of time and when people get stuck in traumatic situations, bodies and minds are bound to suffer.

The terrorist attack/hate crime in Charleston, SC, this past week brought on yet another wave of vicarious trauma to millions of black Americans. People of color have been systematically traumatized by direct and vicarious (indirect) physical and mental violence for centuries in this country and with every new act of brutality, old racial wounds reopen. The mental impact hits not just the families and friends of those targeted, but millions of people who are reminded once again of the ongoing oppression and lack of safety in their own communities.

20150519_144125So while some are going through emotional pain and personal reactions to crimes that hit too close to home, the rest better pick up the slack and confront the racism that allows this to happen over and over again. And by “the rest”, I mean white people and people with enough energy left to fight racism in America. Racism is not relevant only to black Americans. It is a massive, insidious, systematic, social problem and each and every one of us is tangled up in it.

Talking won’t fix racism. Direct social and political action is needed and white folks must realize that this is where most of our collective energy needs to be channeled. Talking, however can challenge personal biases that contribute to the larger problem.

So here is where it gets sticky. Nice people don’t want to rock the boat. In fact, nice white people who witness other nice white people act or speak in racist ways, “let it go” all the time because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. As ironic as it is, research suggests that highly agreeable people are more likely than less agreeable ones to engage in behaviors that harm others – if they are expected to do so. In other words, agreeable, nice folks may be less likely to stand up for others if doing so means going against social expectations. And speaking against racism in a social setting where you are not “supposed” to be confrontational flies right in the face of social expectations.

Niceness isn’t bad in itself, but if being nice means sitting politely while people of color are being oppressed, kept in poverty, excluded from positions of power, ridiculed, assaulted, shot, and killed, then what? It’s like bullying. If you’re a bully, you cause harm. If you witness someone else being bullied and choose to do nothing, you allow harm to be caused.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo wrote a great satirical summary of the “rules of engagement” when confronting white people on their racism. These rules are a part of the unspoken social contract that states that we must not talk about uncomfortable things like racial oppression if we can possibly avoid it. This social contract makes it close to impossible to give any kind of racism feedback to a white person, without being seen as completely rude and inappropriate (check out another great article here on White Fragility). As Dr. DiAngelo pointed out, these rules rest on two basic misunderstandings:

  1. “that racists are bad people”, and
  2. “that racism is conscious dislike”.

So, if I challenge a friend on a racist remark, chances are that friend will feel highly uncomfortable, confused, and offended, as if I were suggesting that he/she is a bad person who consciously dislikes people of color. Most of the time that is not the case and we have to stop acting as if we are allergic to feedback.

An English guy in the 18th century once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If we are ever to get out of the racism swamp, we MUST challenge each other to do better and stop perpetuating this mess. And this means allowing our fellow humans to hold up a mirror for us so we can see our own shortcomings. It will be uncomfortable – but that’s how we grow.

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2 comments on “On Racial Battle Fatigue and Nice White People

  1. You are right to the point Bjorg. We and by that I mean a majority of nice people, allow it to happen. We tolerate degrading commentary about other people from our family members and friends. We don’t stop them because doing so will create tension. That is because we are nice. How many lives do have to lose to come to the point where we stand up? Then there are those who actually perpetuate it.

    Let me give you an example.

    I was returning from Kuwait, after a six months deployment with the US Army. Only 20 percent of the chartered plane seats were filled so every body had a chance to occupy up to five seats. I noticed that a little late and by then I was sitting beside another person. I stood up and moved to the seats that were empty so that I could stretch in the long flight over the Atlantic. The person in-charge of seating commanded me to return to the same seat while the 80 percent of the plane was empty. I complained saying that why were some allowed to occupy more seats while I had to cram up in the seat I had before. Right there – there were probably five other guys, all white, started yelling at me saying I should stop using the Race Card.

    It had never occurred to me that I actually had the option of using a so called Race Card. At that moment, I was not thinking black and white or brown (my skin color is in middle). I was stunned. There are those who allow racism. Then there are those who stand to defend racism. Then there are those who twist the conversation to make it sound like talking about racism is the same as playing victim.

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  2. Björg says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I appreciate your perspective. And I like the way you phrased this: “There are those who allow racism. Then there are those who stand to defend racism. Then there are those who twist the conversation to make it sound like talking about racism is the same as playing victim.”

    Liked by 1 person

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