The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on the Mental Health of Black Women

First-gen Afro-Latina Dr

Black women mental health

Photo: Unsplash/ kevin turcios

First-gen Afro-Latina Dr. Angel Jones is an educator, activist, and critical race scholar whose research explores the impact of racism on the mental health of Black students with a focus on racial microaggressions, Racial Battle Fatigue, and gendered-racism.  

​Despite claims that the elections of President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris signify a transition to a post-racial society, racism is alive and well in this country. On a regular basis, we can turn on our TVs and see Black lives taken and reduced to hashtags. Within three months, we saw Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd murdered before our very own eyes. And during that same time period, Breonna Taylor’s life was also taken. And while we didn’t see her murdered on video, I see her face when I close my eyes. Every day, I am provided with reminders that being Black in this country means my life is always at risk, a reality that is mentally and emotionally taxing. For example, during my doctoral program, every time I posted about my journey on Instagram, I would include “#DrAngelJones”. A year after graduating, IG shared one of those posts with me as a memory and I teared up immediately. At that moment, I realized that my name after a hashtag, something that I originally created as motivation for the next chapter in my life, could also represent the end of it. It was a jarring realization that has remained at the forefront of my mind.

Racial Microaggressions

However, even though we witness explicit acts of racism on a regular basis, racial microaggressions are what we experience a lot more often. Racial microaggressions is a term that was coined by psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce and is defined as, “automatic, subtle, stunning, seemingly innocuous messages” that target an individual based on their race. There are a couple of things about microaggressions that I want to highlight. First, they can be verbal or non-verbal. For example, a verbal microaggression that I have heard, as well as many other Black women, is “she’s really pretty, for a Black girl.” An example of a non-verbal microaggression is when a white woman sees a Black man entering an elevator and suddenly clutches her purse. Although she didn’t say anything, her actions spoke volumes. Second, microaggressions are often unintentional and many people are unaware that they are doing it. However, it is important to understand the difference between intent and impact. Even though the intention may not have been malicious, the impact can still have negative consequences for the person experiencing it. Lastly, I want to make it clear that the “micro” in microaggression does not mean that their impact is insignificant. As described in the definition, they are “seemingly innocuous” but very dangerous.

Racial Battle Fatigue

To acknowledge the severe consequences of microaggressions, Dr. Pierce described them as “psychopollutants,” a concept that has been extended by the work of Dr. William A. Smith, who coined the term Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF). Racial Battle Fatigue is a framework that addresses the physiological and psychological strain exacted on racially marginalized groups and the amount of energy lost dedicated to coping with racial microaggressions and racism.” Some of the psychological consequences of microaggressions include decreased self-esteem, increased anxiety, increased depression, and increased suicidal thoughts. Some of the physiological consequences include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, tension headaches, and stomach ulcers. Research has shown that there is nothing “micro” about the effects of microaggressions on the psychological and physical health of the Black community. This was recently supported by the CDC which identified racism as a public health issue. When people think of the fatal impact of racism on the Black community, they tend to only think about us being murdered by the police. However, Racial Battle Fatigue shows us that our lives are at risk in many other ways as well.

Microaggressions and Black Women

My work specifically looks at the experiences of Black women with gendered-racial microaggressions (GRMs), a term coined by Lewis et al. (2013) which refers to “the subtle and everyday verbal, behavioral, and environmental expressions of oppression based on the intersection of one’s race and gender.” Looking at the impact of gendered-racial microaggressions is critical because, although all Black people experience racial microaggressions, Black women have unique experiences due to their multiple marginalized identities. A recent study I did explored how Black women respond to and cope with GRMs. When I asked one of the women in the study what they feel like, she responded:

“It’s very tiring, I think I just sometimes have a mentality, to be honest, of, ‘I give up. Like this is just how it is. Nothing I say is gonna matter.’ …I’ve always felt like, as a Black woman, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole… and then to have these things that happen to you every single day that reinforce it, it’s just exhausting.”

Her statement showed that she is struggling with some of the symptoms of Racial Battle Fatigue including emotional exhaustion and hopelessness. Unfortunately, she was not the only one. Another woman in the study shared:

“I really don’t know how to make it pretty on the plate, but I just don’t like being here. And it’s like, ‘how do other people like it here?’ Like seriously, ‘how?’ And people will say ‘find pockets of joy’ — my pockets are empty. It’s just lint…. I feel like I’m waking up every day thinking, ‘Is this how I want to spend my life?’ but what are my other options? And, again, back to the sadness. Honestly, if they did a statistic here, I feel like 90 percent of the Black women on this campus probably have depression.”

It is imperative that we take racial microaggressions seriously because they have the ability to take the joy, peace, and lives of Black women. It is also important to realize that, while most microaggressions are unintentional, their impact is detrimental to our health. Not knowing is not an excuse. As Maya Angelou said, “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” You now know better, so do better.

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angel jones black women Featured gendered racism Mental Health microaggressions racial battle fatigue racism
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