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What is Black Fatigue and Code-Switching, and Why Do They Matter to Organizations?

Exhausted black male sitting at computer desk feels fatigue, burnout, and stress.

Mary-Frances Winters defines black fatigue as "repeated variations of stress that results in extreme exhaustion and causes mental, physical, and spiritual maladies that are passed down from generation to generation." Even progressive workplaces must be aware of the issues black fatigue presents to ensure an equitable and psychologically safe environment.

Black fatigue can result from many sources. These include: experiencing systemic racism in the workplace; being labeled as the official representative for your community and then becoming the go-to person whenever someone has a question about people of your race; a lack of representation in leadership; and being passed over for promotion. Adding to that pressure is the frustration of communicating those existing inequalities to white colleagues and the organization.

This lack of understanding for the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of color) individuals can lead to further isolation and perpetuate feelings of exclusion. Kiana Atkins, Principal Strategist for the Black Employment Portfolio at NIH, reported experiencing this type of exclusion. Atkins expressed, “This often creates a toxic workplace for many people of color. Personally, having experienced this form of microaggression, I have felt ostracized in jobs that appeared to value my contributions in the interview and decided to hire me. However, the office was hostile and created feelings of unease, self-consciousness, and imposter phenomenon. I found myself questioning my own abilities, and self-worth.”

A recent report on women working in the tech industry authored by Joan C. Williams, Olivia Andrews, and Mikayla Boginsky highlights the hostility women of color (WOC) feel in their workplace environment, pushing them to favor a remote workspace instead. Working remotely provides a buffer for these subtle and not so subtle acts of exclusion. Williams, Andrews, and Boginsky warn how “Open racism and sexism are astonishingly omnipresent in today's workplaces.” According to the report, “81% of [WOC] said they experienced at least some racism [in the workplace], while 90% said the same for sexism."

Code switching, or adjusting one's normal behavior to fit into an environment, has long been a strategy for BlPOC individuals to navigate interracial interactions successfully. Code switching often occurs in spaces where negative stereotypes of Black individuals run counter to what are considered appropriate or professional behaviors and norms in a specific environment, and regularly happen in work settings. In the article The Costs of Code Switching, it is stressed that "While it is frequently seen as crucial for professional advancement, code switching often comes at a great psychological cost."

Organizations can help their BIPOC colleagues by adopting strategies that mitigate the effects of black fatigue. Discover what these strategies are in part three of this blog series.

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