Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at
Ethnic and Racial Studies
ISSN: 0141-9870 (Print) 1466-4356 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rers20
Fighting racism, battling burnout: causes of
activist burnout in US racial justice activists
Paul C. Gorski
To cite this article: Paul C. Gorski (2019) Fighting racism, battling burnout: causes of
activist burnout in US racial justice activists, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42:5, 667-687, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2018.1439981
Published online: 20 Feb 2018.
Submit your article to this journal
Article views: 430
View Crossmark data
Citing articles: 1 View citing articles
Fighting racism, battling burnout: causes of activist
burnout in US racial justice activists
Paul C. Gorski
School of Integrative Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, USA
Social movement scholars have identified activist burnout –when the
accumulation of stressors associated with activism become so overwhelming
they compromise activists’persistence in their activism –as a threat to
movement viability. This phenomenological study on the causes of burnout
among racial justice activists in the United States was designed to bolster
understandings of burnout and inform strategies for sustaining racial justice
movements. Thirty racial justice activists who had experienced burnout were
interviewed. They described four primary burnout causes: emotional-
dispositional causes, structural causes, backlash causes, and in-movement
causes. Implications for activist and movement sustainability are discussed.
ARTICLE HISTORY Received 5 November 2017; Accepted 6 February 2018
KEYWORDS Burnout; activism; racism; anti-racism; racial justice; social movements
Racial justice activists in the United States face challenges that could deterio-
rate their abilities to remain engaged in their activism. Some are retaliatory,
like the threat or reality of state violence in response to their activism (Daven-
port, Soule, and Armstrong 2011). Others are internal, related to activists’
empathic tendencies (McDonald 1997) and understandings of the scope of
systemic racism (Blaisdell 2016), which can render them susceptible to
emotional exhaustion or hopelessness.
Although these and other challenges are not uncommon in the history of
United States racial justice activism, President Trump’s association with white
supremacists (Mathis-Lilley 2017), racist policy initiatives (Huber 2016), and
encouragement of violence against activists (Mickey, Levitsky, and Way
2017) may have exacerbated threats to the sustainability of racial justice acti-
vists. Add efforts by corporate and government interests to criminalize racial
justice activism, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s recent “crack-
down”on what it called “Black Identity Extremists”(Beydoun and Hansford
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Paul C. Gorski firstname.lastname@example.org
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES
2019, VOL. 42, NO. 5, 667–687
2017), and the context of anti-racism activism in the United States becomes
clearer. As racism grows more explicit and anti-racism progress recedes, acti-
vists may feel less protected than racism’s perpetrators and less hopeful about
the possibility of progress.
Although scholarship on the impact of these conditions for racial justice
activists is thin (Szymanski 2012), a growing body of scholarship examines
their impact for feminist (Bernal 2006), educational justice (Gorski and Chen
2015), and other activists. These studies suggest that over time these chal-
lenges can result in activist burnout (Plyler 2006; Cox 2011), a chronic con-
dition in which activism-related stress becomes so overwhelming it
debilitates activists’abilities to perform their activism effectively or to
remain engaged in activism (Chen and Gorski 2015). The result can be devas-
tating for activists, often forcing them out of movements to which they once
dedicated their lives (Rettig 2006).
However, the impact does not end with individual activists. Social move-
ment scholars have argued that activist burnout is among the most formid-
able barriers to sustaining social movements (Cox 2011; Pigni 2013). The
lack of sustained leadership due to burnout can create fragmentation
within movement organizations, impeding movement effectiveness (Plyler
2006). Burnout begets burnout. Pogrebin (1994) thusly characterized activist
burnout as the deterioration of activists’emotional and physical health result-
ing in the deterioration of social movements.
Although scholars have studied activist burnout in other movements
(Gomes 1992; Pines 1994; Gorski and Chen 2015), no published studies
examine it among racial justice activists in the United States or elsewhere.
This is a significant hole in activist burnout theory. It is hard to imagine a
useful conceptualization of activist burnout in a United States context not
informed by how it operates in racial justice movements. The present study,
an examination of burnout among United States racial justice activists, is
designed to strengthen conceptualizations of activist burnout by incorporat-
ing experiences of racial justice activists. Additionally, better understandings
of activist burnout among racial justice activists can inform strategies to
sustain racial justice activists and thus bolster the sustainability of racial
In service to these purposes, thirty racial justice activists in the United
States who have suffered activist burnout were interviewed. Of most interest
was how they characterized the causes of their burnout. Through a phenom-
enological analysis of semi-structured interviews, this study explored the
question: How do racial justice activists in the United States who have experi-
enced activist burnout describe the conditions that caused their burnout?
In this study, and consistent with how scholars framed activism in previous
activist burnout scholarship (Pines 1994; Chen and Gorski 2015), racial justice
activists are people who identify racial justice activism as their central life
668 P. C. GORSKI
passion. Following Szymanski’s(2012) research on racial justice engagement,
activism refers to purposeful action to cultivate social or political change. This
does not mean racial justice activism was each participant’s source of employ-
ment. Some worked in activist organizations. Others worked in non-activist
jobs but still identified activism as their central life commitment.
The present study is the first to document causes of activist burnout among
racial justice activists. It is rooted theoretically in activist burnout theory as
it currently stands, built around studies of other movements. It is also
informed by studies on activism engagement among racial justice activists.
Following a synthesis of conceptualizations of activist burnout, the literature
on causes of activist burnout is synthesized. Research on the experiences of
racial justice activists is incorporated into this synthesis to bridge activist
burnout theory with scholarship on racial justice activists that attends more
implicitly to burnout.
Conceptualizing activist burnout
Freudenberger (1974) pioneered the study of vocational burnout, wherein
people once passionate about their work grow exhausted, cynical, and
detached from it. Scholars have modified conceptualizations of vocational
burnout to document burnout among environmental (Kovan and Dirkx
2003), feminist (Bernal 2006), and social justice education activists (Gorski
and Chen 2015). These scholars documented characteristics of social justice
activists that distinguish causes of their burnout from vocational burnout
(Rettig 2006; Bunnage 2014), leading to the theorization of what came to
be called activist burnout (Cox 2011; Chen and Gorski 2015).
For example, unlike people in most vocations, social justice activists are
susceptible to state violence in response to their activism (Jones 2007; Cox
2011). Also, according to Maslach and Gomes (2006), activists’emotional con-
nections to social causes elevate their susceptibility to burnout. The nature of
activism, they explained, requires activists to sustain deep awareness of struc-
tural oppressions larger society is “unable or unwilling to face”(43). Shoulder-
ing this burden over time causes many racial justice activists to put
unreasonable pressure on themselves, not just to respond to individual suffer-
ing, but to create massive structural change. This can lead to chronic frustra-
tion, exhaustion, and feelings of isolation (González 2015). For example, racial
justice activists carry the burden of understanding the scope and impact, not
just of interpersonal bias, but also of structural racism (Eichstedt 2001). Com-
plicating matters, many racial justice activists of colour are targets of the injus-
tice against which they act (Steinfeldt et al. 2012). They carry the burden of
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 669
structural understanding on top of the challenge of coping with the grind of
racism in their own lives, often referred to as racial battle fatigue (Smith 2004;
Amos 2015). Specifically for activists of colour, research has shown their
engagement in racial justice activism often is directly associated with the
accumulative trauma of the racial battle fatigue they experience; those who
perceive the most traumatic accumulative experiences with racism are most
likely to become activists (Szymanski 2012; Talcott 2014). This makes their
context unique when compared with other contexts in which burnout is
heavily studied, such as in human services professionals.
Certainly, human services professionals like social workers –common sub-
jects of vocational burnout scholarship –can experience stressful pressures to
address individual or community suffering. However, research indicates their
primary sources of burnout revolve not around these pressures, but around
issues like job autonomy, workload, lack of organizational funding, and work-
place personnel shortages (Bakker and Costa 2014; McFadden, Campbell, and
Taylor 2014). No study has identified these conditions as common causes of
Causes of activist burnout
Causes of activist burnout have been theorized around three themes: (1)
internal causes related to activists’unique characteristics, (2) external causes
related to individuals’and institutions’hostility towards activists’causes,
and (3) in-movement causes related to how activists treat one another.
Although burnout has not been studied in racial justice activists, scholarship
on racial justice activists’dispositions and motivations suggests that many
conditions underlying common causes of activist burnout in other move-
ments exist in racial justice movements. In this section, I synthesize scholar-
ship on causes of activist burnout in other movements, but also bridge
these causes with related conditions observed within racial justice
Activists are driven by deep senses of morality and strong emotional connec-
tions to causes (Goodwin 1997; Jasper 1998). They expend emotional labour,
which Taylor and Rupp (2002) characterized as “channeling, legitimating, and
managing one’s own and others’emotions and expression of emotions”(142).
Caring deeply about a cause presses many activists into activism (Kovan and
Dirkx 2003). Their intense commitment and resulting emotional labour expen-
ditures make them uniquely susceptible to emotional exhaustion and over-
work, causes of burnout (Pines 1994; Chen and Gorski 2015).
Intertwined with intense levels of passion and commitment are activists’
deep understandings of structural oppression (Lowan-Trudeau 2016). As
670 P. C. GORSKI
Kovan and Dirkx (2003) explained based on their study of environmental
movements, activists embrace “consciousness in an unconscious world”
(107), determined to redress conditions others refuse to acknowledge.
Based on their study of animal rights activists in Sweden, Jacobsson and Lind-
blom (2013) found that participants recognized and internalized individual
instances of violence and the massive accumulation of violence against
animals, hastening emotional exhaustion.
The combination of structural awareness and intense commitments leads
activists to apply immense pressure on themselves to produce significant
change (Rodgers 2010). As a result, they often work themselves to exhaustion
(Bernal 2006). They feel guilty about taking a break or experiencing joy while
others are suffering (Effler 2010; Norwood 2013). As activists become more
entrenched in their activism and less attentive to individual and collective
well-being, the threat of burnout intensifies (Gorski 2015).
Although these conditions in racial justice activists have not been linked
empirically to burnout, they are addressed in racial justice scholarship.
Racial justice activists tend to have a structural orientation to racism, under-
standing its scope beyond interpersonal tensions (Eichstedt 2001). On
average, they have deep senses of personal responsibility to eliminate
structural racism (Warren 2010; Case 2012). In fact, studies show that acti-
vists of colour who have the deepest insights about structural racism
based on their own experiences of racism are most likely to become anti-
racist activists (Talcott 2014; Szymanski and Lewis 2015). As González (2015)
explained based on her observations of the organization, United Coalition
for Racial Justice, the combination of structural understanding and respon-
sibility leads many racial justice activists to work themselves “until their
bodies cave in”(16).
Activists can become targets of violence in response to their activism. They
have been subject to police violence, harassment, and character assassina-
tion (Barry and Dordević2007; Jones 2007). An experience of violence can
contribute to activist burnout; however, the continuous threat of violence
also can cause the emotional and physical exhaustion that precede
burnout (Cox 2011). Although studies have not attached this threat
among racial justice activists to burnout, studies have documented how
racial justice activists often are targets of physical violence (Jacobs and
Taylor 2011; Steinfeldt et al. 2012), including police violence (Davenport,
Soule, and Armstrong 2011).
Notably, these threats are not equally distributed. Marginalized-identity
activists are targeted at higher rates than privileged-identity activists
(Bernal 2006; Norwood 2013), a condition that has been documented
within the racial justice literature. For example, based on an analysis of
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 671
15,000 protests in the United States, Davenport, Soule, and Armstrong
(2011) found that police officers interpreted racial justice activists of
colour as more threatening than white activists. They responded with
greater levels of arrest and physical violence at majority African-American
protests than majority White protests.
Marginalized-identity activists often are not safe from oppression even within
their movements (Vaccaro and Mena 2011; Leondar-Wright 2014). Lorde
(1988) explained based on her experience as a woman of colour collaborating
with white feminists, “I was accused of ‘brutalizing’the organizers by simply
asking why Black women were absent”(74). This treatment can result in
burnout as Gorski and Chen (2015) found in their study of educational
justice activists. Nearly every activist of colour they interviewed attributed
their burnout in part to racism from white activists.
Although it has not been associated specifically with burnout, studies have
shown how racial justice activists of colour are subject to racism within racial
justice movements, as well. Studies of white racial justice activists have
revealed that they often become mired in guilt and shame involving their
whiteness, constantly re-centering their needs for validation from activists
of colour, draining organizational energy and disrupting movement progress
(Mallett et al. 2008; Warren 2010). White activists tend to coopt racial justice
movements and usurp organizational power from activists of colour
(Jonsson 2016) so that activists of colour are forced to expend energy
fending off these attempts (Jacobs and Taylor 2011). This can deepen their
susceptibility to burnout.
Another in-movement burnout-exacerbating condition is a culture that
quiets concerns about the toll activism can take on activists. Rodgers (2010)
called this “the ubiquitous discourse of selflessness”wherein “displays of per-
sonal strain, sadness, or depression …are viewed …as unnecessary and self-
indulgent”(279). Burnout is worn like a badge of honour (Pigni 2016); it is
expected, a sign of commitment (Rodgers 2010). Hargons et al. (2017)
pointed to similar conditions in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Notably, much of the popular activism literature spotlights internal burnout
causes. Much of the popular discourse about burnout related to racial justice
activism pushes “self-care”as the remedy (see Khan 2015; Ross 2017).
However, research suggests in-movement causes may be more responsible
for burnout than internal or external causes (Gomes 1992; Maslach and
Gomes 2006; Plyler 2006). It is worth mentioning again that these findings
were not based on research on burnout in racial justice movements; no
such research existed prior to the current study. Only an analysis of burnout
among racial justice activists can determine whether these patterns hold in
racial justice movements.
672 P. C. GORSKI
Using a phenomenological approach, semi-structured interviews of thirty
United States racial justice activists were analysed to answer, How do racial
justice activists in the United States who have experienced burnout describe
the conditions that caused their burnout? Phenomenological research is best
suited to capturing the nature of a phenomenon as experienced by people
who experience it (Finlay 2009). Creswell (2013) argued phenomenology is
especially useful when examinations of a phenomenon can inform effective
policy and practice –an important consideration given the author’s interests
in strengthening activist-sustaining practices in social justice movements.
Participants were selected based on three criteria. They (1) identified racial
justice activism as their primary life’s work, (2) engaged in their activism in
the United States, and (3) had experienced activist burnout. Attempting to
clarify the third criteria, recruitment messages defined activist burnout as
facing one or more of the following symptoms because of your racial justice acti-
vist work to an extent you were forced to disengage from activist activities at
least temporarily: (a) emotional exhaustion, (b) physical exhaustion, or (c) cyni-
cism or hopelessness.
Recruitment messages were emailed to the researcher’s network of racial
justice activists and posted on relevant social media sites. Potentially inter-
ested activists were instructed to email the researcher, who then re-inquired
about the participation criteria. Eventually, thirty-eight people volunteered.
Thirty were interviewed. They are summarized in Table 1.
Interviews of 60–90 minutes were audio-recorded in person or via telephone. A
semi-structured interview protocol consisting of open-ended questions elicited
participants’burnout stories. Items were informed by scholarship on activist
burnout. Three social movement scholars provided feedback on the protocol.
It was then piloted by five activists. Revisions reflected their feedback.
Following questions about the nature of participants’activism, they were
asked about symptoms of their burnout (how burnout manifested in them),
causes of their burnout, and their recovery from burnout. This study
focused on how participants characterized causes of their burnout. Often
causes and symptoms were discussed simultaneously even though the proto-
col included separate questions about each. All responses were considered
viable data for this study. In some cases, follow-up interviews were requested
to seek clarity on specific responses.
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 673
Table 1. Participant demographics.
Name Race Gender
Primary focus of racial
Alejandro Latino Male Middle class 13 Educational
Amy White Female Middle class 25 American Indian
Male Middle class 20 Youth justice
Anna Latina Female Middle class 30 Chicanx justice
Female Working class 50 Foreign policy
Male Working class 25 Community
organizing in Black
Female Working class 30 Healthcare
Male Poor 15 Judicial system
Cristina Latina Female Middle class 12 Black Lives Matter
Female Poor 15 Black Lives Matter
Felicia Latina and
Female Middle class 31 Educational
Male Middle class 15 Police violence
Jason White Male Middle class 20 Racial justice
organizing in white
Jeff White Genderqueer Middle class 51 Community
Male Middle class 16 Education
Male Middle class 30 Food justice
Female Poor 8 Science, technology,
math (STEM) access
Linda Latina Female Middle class 59 Latinx educational
Lisa White Female Middle class 16 Racial justice
organizing in the
Meredith White Female Middle class 30 Racial justice in
Female Working class 18 Mass incarceration
Male Middle class 18 Private schools
Female Middle class 26 Education system
Rochelle Female Middle class 24 Juvenile justice
674 P. C. GORSKI
Participants were offered the option of reading their transcripts and provid-
ing clarifications. Following this process, identifying information was wiped
from the transcripts and pseudonyms were assigned.
Following phenomenological coding practices, data were mined for what
Creswell (2013) called significant statements. These included chunks of
responses that illuminated causes of burnout related to participants’racial
justice activism. Significant statements were organized into big themes or
clusters of meaning (Creswell 2013) such as “burnout associated with conflict
within activist communities”. These clusters were reanalysed to uncover
deeper intricacies in activists’descriptions of their burnout. Data were orga-
nized into sub-clusters through several readings and reorganizations.
Participants’burnout revolved around four cause themes: (1) emotional-dis-
positional, (2) backlash, (3) structural, and (4) in-movement. All participants
attributed their burnout to conditions described by at least two of these cat-
egories. Most attributed it to at least three.
Of thirty participants, twenty-nine attributed their burnout to emotional-dis-
positional causes. They struggled with profound personal responsibility for
eliminating racism, a deep emotional relationship to racial justice, and feelings
Participants understood the scope of structural racism and felt responsible
for eliminating it. Gerald (an African-American man in his forties) shared, “I
Table 1. Continued.
Name Race Gender
Primary focus of racial
Rosa Latina Female Working class 15 Undocumented
Scott White Male Working class 8 Housing
Female Middle class 41 Employment
Sofia Latina and
Female Working class 11 Health disparities
Vince White Male Working class 15 Police violence
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 675
can’t see myself not being involved in this work”, whatever implications might
come. Gregory (African-American man, forties), called his activism “a calling”.
Meredith (white woman, forties) explained, “There is something in me that
can’t let injustice live …I was put here on this planet to do exactly what I’m
doing.”Their sense of responsibility led them to prioritize activism over
other aspects of their lives, contributing to burnout.
Their sense of responsibility was related to intense emotional relationships
with their activism. This made them susceptible to emotional exhaustion and
cynicism regarding the slowness of change. It contributed to physical exhaus-
tion from overworking. Like many participants, Barry (African-American man,
forties) described how noticing conditions invisible to his peers since child-
hood intensified his emotional connection to anti-racism. For him these obser-
vations accumulated over time, affecting him “cognitively, physiologically”
until his body shut down. Lisa (white woman, thirties) described how similar
conditions affected her: “This work basically asks people to be in pain and it
asks people to acknowledge the pain of others.”These connections were elev-
ated for participants of colour like Sofia (Latina and white, forties), who shared,
“I grew up and lived and experienced [racism], so …I have deep empathy for
being on the other side of an oppression.”
Both their sense of responsibility and emotional connections to racial
justice informed participants’feelings of isolation in a society where their
passion is mocked and minimized. Alejandro (Latino man, forties) attributed
his burnout to “human isolation, having to be the one naming things …carry-
ing a lot of everybody’s stuff”. Participants lost friends. They watched relation-
ships deteriorate with family members who did not understand their passion.
Rochelle (African-American woman, thirties) shared, “I don’t have a huge bank
of people I can call on …And even the people who love me the most, who
don’t want to see me suffer …At times it is too much for them.”Lila (Arab-
American woman, forties) lamented, “I feel isolated. I feel like I’ve lost a lot
of friends …That …physically hurts.”
Participants responded by doubling down on their commitments, seeing
their isolation as evidence that if they were not confronting racism, nobody
would confront it. Nearly every participant linked these emotional-disposi-
tional conditions to a tendency to drive themselves to exhaustion. Scott
(white man, thirties) commented, “It doesn’t matter how many things I do.
There’s always more that I didn’tdo…And Ithink that in the aggregate,
there is an unyielding pressure to participate in everything.”Participants
struggled to turn off the racial justice lens. Sofia shared,
The hardest thing for me is just to disconnect …just going out and watching a
movie with friends. I can’t. I’m watching the movie and the whole time my
head is going through all these things that are happening in the movie …all
676 P. C. GORSKI
Many described similar examples of self-imposed martyrdom syndromes tied
to their passion and emotional investment.
Taken together, these conditions made participants vulnerable to
emotional exhaustion. They put immense pressure on themselves. They
traded well-being for participation in activism, making them ripe for
burnout. For participants of colour, these conditions overlapped with racial
battle fatigue, the accumulative impact of experiencing racism (Smith 2004),
further undermining their abilities to remain engaged and effective activists.
Nineteen participants attributed their burnout to backlash from their activism.
Often this backlash put their employment or bodies at risk.
Professional vulnerability was a significant stressor. Even if their job sites
were not their primary activist sites, participants’commitment made it
impossible to quiet their activism at work. Norman (Asian-American man,
forties) shared that simply bringing up racism as a person of colour in his
work place made him professionally vulnerable. Gregory described blowback
from his supervisor for challenging racism at work: “I had difficult conversa-
tions with my supervisor. And then after trying to educate him, I became
…[in] his words ‘an outlier, not a company man’”. The inability to turn their
activism off rendered many participants economically vulnerable and as a
result, full of stress. Rosa (Latina woman, thirties) shared how professional vul-
nerability begot economic vulnerability:
I feel very vulnerable economically by choosing to do the work I do. There isn’ta
lot of free time. And if I’m doing [racial justice work] then I wouldn’t necessarily
expect to be paid to do everything that I need to do. And so I am keenly aware
that if I operated in a different sector and did different work that I would do
more than be able to live paycheck to paycheck.
Others carried the stress of knowing every job was “temporary”due to their
outspokenness about racism.
Those whose work lives interacted more formally with their activism also
felt professionally vulnerable and minimized. Alejandro, an anti-racism com-
munity educator, lamented, “When you hire somebody to fix the toilet, you
trust them. But when you bring somebody to do [racial justice] work, there
is no trust …I remember being really exhausted having to talk about my cre-
dentials.”Rosa shared, “The thing that causes the greatest challenge is not
actually the work on the ground, but …not hav[ing] that work be valued.”
Participants felt their activism was appreciated by some other activists but
demonized by everyone else, contributing to emotional exhaustion and
Beyond professional and economic backlash, many participants felt phys-
ically vulnerable. Several attributed their burnout to physical “threats”and
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 677
“warnings”to cease their activism. Kevin (African-American and Native-Amer-
ican, thirties) shared,
It doesn’t matter whether you’re unarmed with your hands up. It doesn’t matter
if your back’s turned. It doesn’t matter if you just plain didn’t hear somebody. It’s
their policy to execute you. So there is always that pressure …At this next rally,
at this next protest, is someone going to kill you?
Over time these stressors drove many participants to the brink of burnout.
“Structural causes”revolved around what participants characterized as the
impossible task of creating change against unbendable white supremacy.
On top of this challenge, identified by 22 participants as a cause of their
burnout, participants of color attributed their burnout to everyday experi-
ences of racism outside their activism, a condition from which white partici-
pants were protected.
Speaking to how battling unbendable racism hastened his burnout,
Gregory explained his activism as:
where the unstoppable force hits an immovable object so there’s just this
massive neutralization that takes place. You feel like, the harder I go the
harder the counter response is so …it doesn’t matter …what you try to do,
there’s still going to be …rac[ism].
Speaking to the accumulative toll of this battle, he continued, “It’s a mental
and emotional exercise. It gets so heavy you just want to say, ‘Today I’m
not going to engage’.”
Several participants felt hopeless recognizing, in Nicole’s (African-American
woman, forties) words, that the “power structure”comprises people intent on
protecting white supremacy. They feign interest in racial harmony, but only
without racial justice, solidifying their “coalitions of power”. Sofia grew
exhausted battling the dominant discourse that paints white people as
victims. “That’s bullshit to me”, she said. This structural resistance slows the
pace of change. Participants understood the implications of this slowness. It
weighed on their emotional well-being.
Equally impactful were endless interactions during their activism with
white people who refused to acknowledge racism. Jonathan (African-Ameri-
can man, forties) described exhaustion he felt having “the same damn conver-
sation over and over and over again”with white people who denied racism’s
existence. Several referred to the “All Lives Matter”movement –a response by
white people intent on minimizing anti-Black racism (Carney 2016)–as an
example. Andrew (African-American man, forties) shared, “Those are …the
areas that …provide the most fatigue. Having these conversations [about
Black Lives Matter] over and over again where you’re justifying your perspec-
tive, and the knee-jerk resistance.”
678 P. C. GORSKI
Several participants specified a particularly disappointing cause of their
burnout as “white liberals”. These were people –non-activists –participants
identified as embracing a celebrating diversity orientation towards race, but
who ultimately protected their privilege by balking at more serious consider-
ations for racial justice. Vince (white man, thirties) explained, “The people who
have been most difficult to deal with are [white] people who say that they’re
liberal …” Participants described “white liberals”derailing conversations
about racism, lobbying activists to “soften”their anti-racism goals, and prior-
itizing their comfort over racial justice progress.
On top of these burnout sources, most participants of colour referred to
everyday experiences with structural racism as contributing to their
burnout. Unlike white participants, participants of colour coped with racial
battle fatigue (Smith 2004), the accumulative impact of structural racism on
their lives inside and outside activism. Although this study focused on
burnout causes related to racial justice activism, participants of colour
struggled to distinguish stressors created by structural racism in their every-
day lives from stressors associated with their activism. They recounted
many stories about this racism. Andrew shared,
I’ve been stopped on my street …saving my neighbor who was choking …The
people who called the police saw me and know me …They are literally my next-
door neighbors. But they saw me giving our other next-door neighbor the Heim-
lich maneuver …and they called the police.
This is an example of how white supremacy operates even in the context of
racial justice activism, elevating the threat of burnout for activists of colour.
Unfortunately, activist burnout theory has yet to account for this complexity.
All thirty participants attributed their burnout to how activists treat one
another. Many became worn down attempting to navigate activist commu-
nities in which in-fighting and ego clashes were commonplace. They
entered racial justice movements to work with like-minded people, but
found movements full of competition, not cooperation. Anna (Latina
woman, thirties), shared,
The competition is ridiculous. And it’s tiring. And it takes energy to deal with
some of that. So we do have a lot of people in this town who stay away from
working with community organizations for that very reason …That has led to
Participants described competition related to who had “street cred”, who
adopted the most radical language, and who withstood the most oppression.
The result, according to Amy, was that “people who should be allies often-
times were hurting each other …That for me really led to this feeling of
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 679
almost being paralyzed”. Lisa described the in-ﬁghting as “devastating …
exhausting …suffocating”. Participants grew disillusioned watching fellow
activists jockey for attention and undermining movement initiatives. Alejan-
There was this activist who would always smile at me and undermine what I
wanted to do. He was not even passive-aggressive, not even that veiled …He
had been at the [organization] for 32 years. He had a lot of power, but pretended
not to have a lot of power. I was undermined by this white dude.
Barbara (African-American woman, sixties) similarly shared how her burnout
resulted from activists “cutting each other off at the knees”.
Particularly troubling, fourteen of twenty-two participants of colour attrib-
uted their burnout to racism they experienced from white racial justice acti-
vists. Unlike the general frustration with non-activist “white liberals”, this
source of burnout was related to fellow activists, white activists, many of
whom also adopted a white liberal stance and impeded movement progress.
Gerald shared, “I got burned from so-called white …allies who were on board
until it meant they needed to do self-reflection.”In several cases, participants
of colour expressed more intense exasperation describing treatment by white
activists than any other source of burnout. Andrew described “being shut
down consistently by …well-intentioned, progressive, [white] people who
think they are lovers of justice”.
Similarly, several participants experienced sexism, heterosexism, and class
bias from other activists, igniting burnout. Eight women participants
described sexually harassment or assault by male activists. Felicia (Asian-
American and Latina woman, thirties), described “sexual objectification”she
experienced from male activists while Meredith was exhausted by “male dom-
inance”in activist communities. Jeff (white genderqueer person, fifties)
burned out working with a racial justice organization “because of their hetero-
sexism, ableism, and sexism”.
Overall, participants were drained of energy and hope knowing they were
not safe from oppression and ego clashes within communities of activists.
They entered movements hoping for meaningful collaboration. Once in
movements, they often felt beaten down by how they were treated by
other activists, leading to burnout.
In some ways, activist burnout causes uncovered in this study supported exist-
ing understandings of burnout. Participants had emotional ties and deep
commitments to racial justice (Jacobsson and Lindblom 2013; Chen and
Gorski 2015), coped with in-fighting within activist communities (Barry and
Dordević2007), and they were injured by the threat or reality of retaliation
680 P. C. GORSKI
for activism (Cox 2011). As in studies of burnout among peace activists (Pines
1994), feminist activists (Bernal 2006), and educational justice activists (Gorski
and Chen 2015), causes to which participants attributed their burnout could
be categorized as internal, external, and in-movement causes.
In terms of big-level understandings of burnout causes, the findings com-
plicate “external causes”. Participants attributed their burnout to emotional-
dispositional causes, backlash causes, structural causes, and in-movement
causes. Although “backlash causes”and “structural causes”both might be
understood as external causes, participants characterized them differently.
Backlash causes related more to cumulative stress as activism rendered par-
ticipants physically, economically, or vocationally vulnerable. Participants
associated structural causes with exhaustion and hopelessness regarding
the tenuousness of racial justice movements and frustration over what they
characterized as the impossibility of significant change in the face of structural
racism. Their attribution of burnout to structural causes was closely connected
with internal causes –what I renamed emotional-dispositional causes because
it felt more descriptive –such as intense commitments to racial justice. They
experienced emotional exhaustion due to these commitments and physical
exhaustion when these commitments led them to work themselves to
exhaustion. When that did not produce evidence of more justice, they experi-
enced hopelessness and cynicism, completing the burnout recipe.
Furthermore, as suggested in theoretical work about activist burnout
(Maslach and Gomes 2006; Plyler 2006), the findings support the often-
posited but rarely empirically evidenced notion that the most impactful
burnout causes revolve around how activists treat one another. Participants
spoke about emotional-dispositional, backlash, and structural causes as
though they were expected. They expected backlash. They recognized their
propensities for working to exhaustion. These were predictable burnout
On average, participants spoke most incredulously about in-movement
burnout causes –in-fighting, undermining, and oppression among activists.
This is not quantifiable using qualitative data, but traces of evidence can be
observed in participants’words. Gerald felt “blindsided”by how fellow acti-
vists treated him. Deborah, undermined by white activists who refused to
take direction from activists of colour, shared, “Clearly there’s tons of freaking
white people who don’t get it.”They expected resistance from structures of
power, but their responses to fellow activists’behaviour were more specific
and personal, characterized by words like “narcissistic”and “passive-aggres-
sive”. Participants expected –or desperately wanted –activist communities
to be safe from the oppression they experienced elsewhere. They found
oppression reproduced with great precision in their movements.
This finding is particularly important considering the popularity of “self-
care”as a burnout remedy. Further study should examine whether this
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 681
individualistic approach to burnout might reflect the competitive, uncoopera-
tive conditions within movements to which many participants attributed their
burnout. Some scholars and activists have advocated shifting from a self-care
to a community-care burnout orientation. Referring to racial justice activists,
González (2015) urged a shift from self-care to community-building and the
cultivation of “collective strength, wisdom, and beauty”(16) among activists.
It is not just a matter of activists attending to their individual needs, but rather
of movement leaders attending to the activist community’s needs. It is not just
about activists reflecting on their own martyr syndromes, but also about
reflecting on how they and their organizations contribute to a martyr syn-
drome epidemic. The shift starts with examining cultures within racial
justice activist spaces, attending to the threat of burnout as part of activism
rather than as something activists pursue outside activism (Perry 2014), as
Hargons et al. (2017) argued in relation to Black Lives Matter. Findings of
this study add credence to these shifts.
The findings also add nuance to understandings about how burnout might
manifest differently in marginalized-identity activists –in this case, racial
justice activists of colour –than in dominant-identity activists. With few excep-
tions, activist burnout scholarship has been silent on this matter. Those excep-
tions involve studies of or commentaries on burnout among activists in which
scholars briefly mentioned ways marginalized-identity activists contend with
burnout-inducing conditions from which dominant-identity activists are pro-
tected (Barry and Dordević2007; Vaccaro and Mena 2011). For example, Cox
(2011) suggested that marginalized-identity activists are more likely to experi-
ence police violence and physical attacks, elevating their burnout risk. Studies
confirm his assertion: racial justice activists of colour in the United States are
more likely than white activists to face police violence (Steinfeldt et al. 2012).
Others are related to in-movement causes. Mirroring findings of the
present study, Gorski and Chen (2015) found that education activists of
colour often identified racism from white activists as among the biggest
causes of their burnout. Other previous studies, although not linking it to
burnout, have detailed ways white activists assert their whiteness within
racial justice movements, harming activists of colour and weakening move-
ments’effectiveness (Jacobs and Taylor 2011; Case 2012). Future research
should examine these dynamics and their relationship with burnout more
Another important finding complicating understandings of activist
burnout was that many participants of colour attributed their burnout, not
just to conditions related to their activism, but also to racial battle fatigue
(Smith 2004;Amos2015): the accumulative effect of racism people of
colour experience in their everyday lives. Activist burnout theory, built on
examinations of activists’experiences during their activism, has not been
framed to consider how activists’lives outside their activism interact with
682 P. C. GORSKI
their activist lives, despite research showing that activist persistence is related
to the extent to which activists understand their everyday lives as interrelated
with their activist lives (Rettig 2006) and despite research showing a corre-
lation between high levels of perceived experiences with racism and anti-
racism engagement (Szymanski and Lewis 2015). Considering this reality,
activist burnout theory must evolve to consider how burnout in racial
justice activists of colour is informed more generally by racism’s impact on
The present study focused on racial justice activists in the United States, so
the findings are not directly applicable to activists in other regional contexts.
However, the findings can inform movement leaders in other contexts about
the kinds of conditions that may perpetuate burnout. It is worth noting again
how fashionable it has become for bloggers and journalists to write about
self-care as a cure for burnout (e.g. Adams 2013; Obear 2017) while only
rarely addressing how activists treat one another or differentiating the experi-
ences of activists of colour from white activists (e.g. Corvid 2017). In every
context in which structural racism persists, movement leaders should
attend to its implications within racial justice movements. Similarly, every-
where activists of colour are still subject to racism outside their activism,
racial battle fatigue will impact their activism. Even if specific dynamics
related to causes of activist burnout differ across regional contexts, these
broader conditions will persist.
Although this study was the first to examine causes of activist burnout among
racial justice activists, scholars who have studied burnout in other movements
have described it as a formidable barrier to movement sustainability. With
activist burnout theory still evolving, one purpose of this study was to compli-
ment understandings of burnout causes by examining them within racial
justice activists. Findings uncovered patterns of burnout causes found in
other social justice movements, but also complicated those patterns by dis-
tinguishing two types of external burnout causes: backlash causes and struc-
tural causes. Findings also advanced calls for evolving conceptualizations of
activist burnout to consider ways it operates differently in activists of colour
and white activists.
Some limitations should be noted. Although this study’s sample size was
substantial according to phenomenological research standards (Creswell
2013), it is not large enough to generalize racial justice activists’burnout.
Further study could use quantitative methods to reach broader understand-
ings of the scope of activist burnout and allow for comparisons by identity
and other factors. Additionally, findings of this study should be understood
as reflecting a moment in time. Although racism always is rampant in the
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 683
United States, President Trump’s incitation of violence against racial justice
activists may have informed some participants’characterizations of causes
for their burnout.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Adams, C. 2013.“Activist Burn-out Is Real.”Bluestockings Magazine Online, July 16.
Amos, Y. 2015.“‘Alien’Troublemakers and Nonthreatening Pets at a Predominantly
White University.”In Racial Battle Fatigue: Insights From the Front Lines of Social
Justice Advocacy, edited by Jennifer Martin, 67–79. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Bakker, A. B., and P. L. Costa. 2014.“Chronic Job Burnout and Daily Functioning: A
Theoretical Analysis.”Burnout Research 1 (3): 112–119.
Barry, J., and J. Dordević.2007.What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance?
Boulder, CO: Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights.
Bernal, M. 2006.Self-care and Self-Defense Manual for Feminist Activists. New Delhi:
Beydoun, K., and J. Hansford. 2017.“The F.B.I.’s Dangerous Crackdown on ‘Black Identity
Extremists.’” New York Times Online, November 15. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/
Blaisdell, B. 2016.“Schools as Racial Spaces: Understanding and Resisting Structural
Racism.”International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 29 (2): 248–272.
Bunnage, L. A. 2014.“Social Movement Engagement Over the Long Haul:
Understanding Activist Retention.”Sociology Compass 8 (4): 433–445. doi:10.1111/
Carney, N. 2016.“All Lives Matter, But So Does Race.”Humanity and Society 40 (2): 180–
Case, K. A. 2012.“Discovering the Privilege of Whiteness: White Women’s Reflections on
Anti-Racist Identity and Ally Behavior.”Journal of Social Issues 68 (1): 78–96.
Chen, C. W., and P. C. Gorski. 2015.“Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights
Activists: Symptoms, Causes, and Implications.”Journal of Human Rights Practice 7
Corvid, M. 2017.“I Am Critiquing Your Protesting Because I Don’t Want You to Burn
Out.”The Establishment, January 23. https://theestablishment.co/why-i-will-not-
Cox, L. 2011.How Do We Keep Going? Activist Burnout and Sustainability in Social
Movements. Helsinki: Into-ebooks.
Creswell, J. W. 2013.Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five
Approaches. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Davenport, C., S. A. Soule, and D. A. Armstrong. 2011.“Protesting While Black?.”
American Sociological Review 76 (1): 152–178. doi:10.1177/0003122410395370.
Effler, E. S. 2010.Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes: Emotional Rhythms in Social
Movement Groups. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Eichstedt, J. L. 2001.“Problematic White Identities and a Search for Racial Justice.”
Sociological Forum 16 (3): 445–470.
684 P. C. GORSKI
Finlay, L. 2009.“Debating Phenomenological Research.”Phenomenology and Practice 3
(1): 6–25. doi:10.1007/978-94-6091-834-6_2.
Freudenberger, H. J. 1974.“Staff Burnout.”Journal of Social Issues 30: 159–165. doi:10.
Gomes, M. 1992.“The Rewards and Stresses of Social Change.”Journal of Humanistic
Psychology 32 (4): 138–146. doi:10.1777/0022167892324008.
González, J. A. 2015.“Anti-Racist Activism and Community Self-Care at the University of
Michigan.”Souls 17 (1–2): 11–19.
Goodwin, J. 1997.“The Libidinal Constitution of a High-Risk Social Movement: Affectual
Ties and Solidarity in the Huk Rebellion, 1946 to 1954.”American Sociological Review
Gorski, P. C. 2015.“Relieving Burnout and the ‘Martyr Syndrome’Among Social Justice
Education Activists: The Implications and Effects of Mindfulness.”The Urban Review
Gorski, P. C., and C. W. Chen. 2015.““Frayed All Over:”The Causes and Consequences of
Activist Burnout Among Social Justice Education Activists.”Educational Studies 51
Hargons, C., D. Mosley, J. Falconer, R. Faloughi, A. Singh, D. Stevens-Watkins, and K.
Cokley. 2017.“Black Lives Matter: A Call to Action for Counseling Psychology
Leaders.”The Counseling Psychologist 45 (6): 873–901. doi:10.1177/00110000
Huber, L. P. 2016.“‘Make America Great Again!’: Donald Trump, Racist Nativism and the
Virulent Adherence to White Supremacy Amid US Demographic Change.”Charleston
Law Review 10: 215–249.
Jacobs, M. R., and T. Taylor. 2011.“Challenges of Multiracial Antiracist Activism: Racial
Consciousness and Chief Wahoo.”Critical Sociology 38 (5): 687–706.
Jacobsson, K., and J. Lindblom. 2013.“Emotion Work in Animal Rights Activism.”Acta
Sociologica 56 (1): 55–68. doi:10.1177/0001699312466180.
Jasper, J. M. 1998.“The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions In and
Around Social Movements.”Sociological Forum 13: 397–424. doi:10.1023/
Jones, P. 2007.Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World: A Guide for Activists
and Their Allies. New York: Lantern Books.
Jonsson, T. 2016.“The Narrative Reproduction of White Feminist Racism.”Feminist
Review 113 (1): 50–67. doi:10.1057/fr.2016.2.
Khan, A. 2015.“Activist Burnout Is Real –And You Probably Need to Read These 4 Ways
to Manage It.”Everyday Feminism, May 27. http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/05/
Kovan, J. T., and J. M. Dirkx. 2003.“‘Being Called Awake’: The Role of Transformative
Learning in the Lives of Environmental Activists.”Adult Education Quarterly 53 (2):
Leondar-Wright, B. 2014.Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing
Class Cultures. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
Lorde, A. 1988.A Burst of Light. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
Lowan-Trudeau, G. 2016.“A Rose by Any Other Name: Repressive Tolerance,
Burnout and Hope in the New West.”Canadian Journal of Environmental
Education 21: 57–71.
Mallett, R. K., J. R. Huntsinger, S. Sinclair, and J. K. Swim. 2008.“Seeing Through Their
Eyes: When Majority Group Members Take Collective Action on Behalf of an
Outgroup.”Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 11 (4): 451–470.
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 685
Maslach, C., and M. E. Gomes. 2006.“Overcoming Burnout.”In Working for Peace: A
Handbook of Practical Psychology, edited by R. MacNair, 100–113. San Luis Obispo,
Mathis-Lilley, B. 2017.“How Trump Has Cultivated the White Supremacist Alt-Right for
Years.”Slate Online, August 14. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/08/14/
McDonald, K. B. 1997.“Black Activist Mothering: A Historical Intersection of Race,
Gender, and Class.”Gender and Society 11: 773–795.
McFadden, P., A. Campbell, and B. Taylor. 2014.“Resilience and Burnout in Child
Protection Social Work: Individual and Organisational Themes from a Systematic
Literature Review.”British Journal of Social Work 45 (5): 1546–1563.
Mickey, R., S. Levitsky, and L. A. Way. 2017.“Is America Still Safe for Democracy? Why
the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding.”Foreign Affairs 96: 29.
Norwood, G. 2013.Promoting Self Care and Well-Being Among Feminist Activists and
Women’s Rights Defenders: Reflections from Burma and Palestine. Santa Fe, NM:
Upaya Zen Center.
Obear, K. 2017.“5 Practical Strategies to Overcome Burnout When You’re a Change
Agent.”Alliance for Change Website, October 3. https://drkathyobear.com/life-
Perry, B. D. 2014.The Cost of Caring: Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Impact of
Working with High-Risk Children and Families. Houston, TX: ChildTrauma Academy.
Pigni, A. 2013.“Practising Mindfulness at the Checkpoint.”Open Democracy, July 17.
Pigni, A. 2016.The Idealist’s Survival Kit: 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout. Berkeley, CA:
Pines, A. M. 1994.“Burnout in Political Activism: An Existential Perspective.”Journal of
Health and Human Resources Administration 16 (4): 381–394.
Plyler, J. 2006.“How to Keep on Keeping on: Sustaining Ourselves in Community
Organizing and Social Justice Struggles.”Upping the Anti 3: 123–134.
Pogrebin, L. C. 1994.“Staying Fired Up: Antidotes for Activist Burnout.”Tikkun 9: 35–38.
Rettig, H. 2006.The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way.
New York: Lantern Books.
Rodgers, K. 2010.“‘Anger Is Why We’re All Here’: Mobilizing and Managing Emotions in
a Professional Activist Organization.”Social Movement Studies 9: 273–291. doi:10.
Ross, R. 2017.“Avoid Activism Fatigue and Burnout in General.”HuffPost, March 21.
Smith, W. A. 2004.“Black Faculty Coping with Racial Battle Fatigue: The Campus Racial
Climate in a Post-Civil Rights Era.”In A Long Way to Go: Conversations About Race by
African American Faculty and Graduate Students at Predominantly White Institutions,
edited by D. Cleveland, 171–190. New York: Peter Lang.
Steinfeldt, J. A., B. D. Foltz, J. R. LaFollette, M. R. White, Y. J. Wong, and M. C.
Steinfeldt. 2012.“Perspectives of Social Justice Activists: Advocating Against
Native-Themed Mascots, Nicknames, and Logos.”The Counseling Psychologist 40
Szymanski, D. M. 2012.“Racist Events and Individual Coping Styles as Predictors of
African American Activism.”Journal of Black Psychology 38: 342–367. doi:10.1177/
686 P. C. GORSKI
Szymanski, D. M., and J. A. Lewis. 2015.“Race-related Stress and Racial Identity as
Predictors of African American Activism.”Journal of Black Psychology 41 (2): 170–
Talcott, M. 2014.“”Together We Have Power: Personal Traumas and Political Responses
Among Activist Oaxaqueñas.”Latin American Perspectives 41 (1): 72–88. doi:10.1177/
Taylor, V., and L. Rupp. 2002.“Loving Internationalism: The Emotion Culture of
Transnational Women’s Organizations.”Mobilization 7 (2): 141–158.
Vaccaro, A., and J. Mena. 2011.“It’s Not Burnout, It’s More: Queer College Activists of
Color and Mental Health.”Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health 15 (4): 339–
Warren, M. R. 2010.Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice.
New York: Oxford University Press.
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 687