Staff Perspective: Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF) - Helping Service Members Navigate a Grueling Reality as a Perceived Enemy Combatant

Staff Perspective: Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF) - Helping Service Members Navigate a Grueling Reality as a Perceived Enemy Combatant

Depending on your worldview, you may either struggle with the theory of Racial Battle Fatigue or be keenly aware of it. However, if you are a mental health practitioner, researcher, or advocate, then your profession almost certainly mandates not only your awareness of both mental health trends and scholarly research, but the implementation of evidenced-based interventions, despite personal convictions that may arise.

While Racial Battle Fatigue or RBF was publicly recognized in 2003, it has been an invisible persistent and debilitating disease for decades. Originally used to describe negative racial experiences of only African American Men, it was later expanded to include the negative racial experiences of all Black Indigenous Persons of Color (BIPOC) (Goodwin, 2008). According to Dr. William Smith, who coined RBF, (not to be confused with Willard Carroll Smith Sr., the mega superstar AKA Will Smith), Racial Battle Fatigue is initiated by the constant redirection of energy necessary for emergency situations, mainly for psychosocial reasons, to deal with race related stress (Smith, 2016). In academic terms, the constant loss of energy negatively impacts both psychological and physiological resources. While in shortened layman terms, you may hear individuals refer to RBF with simple phrases such as “I’m tired,” “I’m tired of being sick and tired,” or “I can’t,” depending on the generational era they come from.

Negative outcomes of RBF can include fear, anger, frustration, or resentment, extending into physical outcomes such as headaches, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders (Smith, 2016). RBF that occurs in academia or occupational settings may manifest as impatience, threats, poor performance, and eventually cause emotional detriment (Smith, 2016).

Although the military is one of the most diverse organizations in the world, Service Members are not exempt from experiencing Racial Battle Fatigue. According to the 2021 Blue Star Families’ Social Impact Research study, 57% of Service Members reported hearing peers make racist jokes or comments. While Black Service Members shared hearing the racial comments most frequently at 65%, Latino/a/x Service Members reported a rate of 55%, and Asian Service Members reported 51%. These statistics, combined with Service Members struggles to find culturally competent providers, often leave them to grapple with Racial Battle Fatigue and it's disabling effects solo.

How can we help Service Members heal as a perceived enemy combatant?
The good news is that 59% of Active-Duty Service Members agree they have allies in the workplace, however, they also want to see more of their White, Non-Hispanic colleagues and acquaintances speak out against inappropriate comments and behaviors, become actively involved with diversity and inclusion efforts, and use any influences to aid in dismantling both structural and systemic racism (Blue Star Families, 2022).

The social work lens urges practitioners not to limit our work to the investigation and interpretation of research, because we recognize the greatest rewards are often borne from the actual implementation of research. While learning to shift from perceived enemy combatant to ally may not be a one-and-done process, there are several action steps that can be a decent start for anyone who is willing to risk wounded pride in efforts to minimize the impacts of RBF on Service Members. These steps are derived from Smith (2016), the 2021 Blue Star Families’ Social Impact Research study recommendations, and Beatty, Tevis, Acker, Blockett & Parker (2020).

At the individual level:

  • See yourself as part of the team
  • Treat RBF as a social determinant of health
  • Speak out against racial injustices

Ask yourself?

  • How do you personally address anti-Black racism in higher education?*
  • Have you advocated for any policies or practices to be eradicated because they disproportionately impact Black people?*
  • Do you play any role in perpetuating anti-Black ideologies in higher education?*

*These questions can be interchanged with all BIPOC

At the organizational and educational levels:

  • Seek to improve data collection and understanding
  • Build and formalize mentorship opportunities
  • Create safe spaces to engage in challenging but beneficial conversations
  • Incorporate the following into the curriculum
    • Integrate an accurate history of racism (structural and explicit)
    • Conduct regular surveys to staff, students, faculty, and leadership
    • Revise harmful policies/procedures based on survey results
    • Create and utilize scripts, role-plays, and feedback
  • Enforce policies and clarify chain-of-command reporting

While Racial Battle Fatigue is certainly a frightening topic for many practitioners, remember, RBF is even more frightening for Service Members who are currently or have previously experienced it, and the consequences can be life altering.

“United we are rock, divided we are sand”-African Proverb

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Katrice Byrd, DSW, LCSW is a Military Social Worker with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP). She is co-chair of the North Carolina National Association of Social Worker’s Legislative Committee and is passionate about serving the village through research, policy, and programmatic changes.

Beatty, C.C., Tevis, T., Acker, L., Blockett, R., & Parker, E. (2020). Addressing anti-black racism
     in higher education: Love letters to blackness and recommendations to those who say
     they love us. Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, 6(1), 6–27.
Blue Star Families. (2022). Blue Star Families’ social impact research 2021: The diverse
     experiences of military & veteran families of color. Blue Star Families’ Department of
     Applied Research
Gilliam, & Russell, C. J. (2021). Impact of racial microaggressions in the clinical learning
     environment and review of best practices to support learners. Current Problems in
     Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care
, 51(10), 101090–101090.
Goodwin, M. (2018, December 7). Racial battle fatigue:
Hays, P.A. (2016). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and
. (3rd ed.). American Psychological Association.
Smith, W.A., (2016). Understanding the corollaries of offensive racial mechanisms, gendered
     racism, and racial battle fatigue. Center for Critical Race Studies at UCLA Research
, 2, 1-4.