Let’s be clear, Summer Walker is shedding light on what a lot of black women have been struggling with for their entire lives. Social anxiety, or social phobia, is a misunderstood mental health condition. Social anxiety disorder has the ability to cause a person to avoid doing very “normal” things — like going to a friend’s party, making small talk with a stranger or even avoiding walking across the room in a crowd.
When Does It Happen
Social anxiety impacts every individual differently, which is why it is often misunderstood. However, here are the common ways that it manifests and common situations that people have difficulty doing because of the disorder:
- Entering rooms
- Making eye contact
- Going to parties
- Entering a room in front of other people
- Walking in front of other people
- Talking to strangers
- Public speaking
- Using public restrooms
- Starting conversations
- Going to school and/or work
Here’s the thing, all socially conscious people have their individual reasons as to why they struggle with the certain situations mentioned above. Generally, it is because they have a fear of one of these outcomes:
- Being judged by others, especially strangers
- Being the center of attention
- Accidentally offending someone
- Being embarrassed or humiliated, and it showing through sweating, shaking or blushing
How Does It Feel?
As mentioned, social anxiety manifests differently for everyone. However, generally those suffering from this disorder have physical symptoms, such as:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Inability to catch breath
- Frequent urination
- Stomach uneasiness (and/or diarrhea)
- Muscle tension
- “Out of body” sensations
A person with social anxiety will worry about being social and going to social events days to even weeks before they are set to do it. After they have been in the social situation, they ruminate over things they said and how they acted by criticizing themselves on what they could have done differently.
How It Appears To Others
Summer Walker, an R&B singer who made her commercial debut this year, had a performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk. Tiny Desk is a platform for artists to showcase their music in an intimate space to their fans with a live band. During her performance, she held onto a stuffed animal, which was for emotional support. Although Summer Walker made it clear that her social anxiety had her sweating and that it was impacting her showing her excitement for her Tiny Desk performance, she was still judged harshly on social media.
Social anxiety disorder effects 6.8 percent of the population. Here’s the thing, the research on how this impacts women of color was very limited and rarely diagnosed. In fact, it was documented by the National Institute of Mental Health Awareness, until 2010, that black people were less likely to experience anxiety than whites. Historically, Western science has documented that black people have a higher tolerance for pain. In turn, black bodies were mutilated, cut open and discarded all in the name of science. The mental health of black people was no different.
Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, a director for Kent State’s Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans, has made it one of her life’s goals to shed light on how this disorder impacts black people.
“Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States and impacts African-Americans at a higher rate than any other group — especially African American women,” she mentioned.
Dr. Neal-Barnett mentions that in black families this is sometimes referred to as “nerves or other issues”. Anxiety is commonly misunderstood because of the common stereotypes that plague black women and mental health. Black women aren’t given the room to be imperfect or struggle with their mental health. They either have an attitude, lazy or labeled as being angry.
After her performance on Tiny Desk, Summer Walker responded to the harsh comments via her social media Instagram account:
The rest of the caption read: “self love, but I know no one gives a shit about what I am saying so yeah. peace love & light.”
Summer Walker’s reaction to people’s responses to her social anxiety was normal. Yes, her wanting to defend herself and retreat back to her safety net of obscurity is a common reaction for those with social anxiety. Black women’s behaviors and emotions are policed more than any other group, especially by their own people. Although, majority of the comments are critiques and judgment of her and her disorder, there are people that empathize with her condition.
“Re: Summer Walker & Black women with anxiety — Ya’ll want Black women to perform for y’all so badly. Y’all complain and beg us to alter our entire being, set out comfort zones ablaze, and conform to ideas of what we “should be” so y’all can be pleased and comfortable,” writer and editor Brooklyn White wrote on her Twitter account.
Summer Walker decided to announce her retirement after her tour because of fan’s criticisms of her performances, criticisms of her not wanting to hug every fan and her overall disposition because of her social anxiety.
Not too long after that she appeared online playfully enjoying herself with her partner/music producer London On The Track and people were confused. They did not understand how she could be so free and excited, but exhausted and afraid of touring her music. She took to Instagram to explain that social anxiety is because of fear of social situations. Again, social anxiety is misunderstood because people assume that because you are comfortable in a room with your phone that you should be comfortable being in front of thousands of people that you have never met and knowing that you are going to be judged. She has even shared memes teasing herself, which is a common thing that those with social anxiety do to break the ice.
Let’s be clear, Summer Walker is not the first artist to come forward about their social anxiety. Most recently, Zayn Malik, a member of One Direction who eventually went solo, has commented on how his social anxiety has caused him to cancel shows. Let me make this even more clear, Zayn Malik was a member of an internationally known boy band and he toured the world with them. When it was time to tour and perform his own music, his anxiety got the best of him. See, people with anxiety can engage in social situations, but that does not negate the fact that it can be a battle on a consistent basis.
So, now that you are all caught up, here is what I would like to see from everyone (especially black people): EMPATHY! As a black woman who is recovering from social anxiety, I have primarily been given empathy and understanding by those who have an awareness of mental health. Mental health impacts us all. Everyone has mental health and challenges that they face due to their individual life experiences. However, this does not mean that everyone suffers from a mental illness or disorder. People that have awareness of their own mental health are likely to be more understanding of others because of awareness of self. When you do not tap into self and/or know self, that tends to reflect onto how you judge others.
I have been in many situations where my social anxiety has gotten the best of me. I have not gone to birthday vacation invitations because I was anxious about being around people I didn’t know personally. There have been many events I have talked myself out of going to because of my anxiety. Don’t get me started on social anxiety and school/workplace settings as well. My anxiety manifests in me becoming more observant and/or sweating as a result of it. However, in 2015 I started to challenge myself and move past my anxiousness. In 2016, I saw myself flourish into another version of my being. Although I was pushing myself, I still had small battles throughout this time.
I remember being confronted by a guy who wanted to date me and he said that he didn’t understand how I was so active and extroverted on social media, but proclaimed to have social anxiety. I communicated that “I am comfortable and safe in my own personal space with the capability to still interact with other people.”
It is really that damn simple.
Of course he took our conversation and used it as a way to ridicule me on his social platforms. See, there are people that have the power to shed light on issues in the black community, but choose to do it with malicious intent when it concerns black women. Let me make myself clear as I did in above, I have been given empathy and understanding by people (within and outside of my community), but mental health is a huge topic that is overlooked in the black community.
I can be comfortable in my own skin and display that on social media, but not want to be judged for it in social situations.
Black woman have been accepting and healing to those that are broken for so long. Yet, we are not given the space to be open about our own personal issues. We are expected to appear perfect, dress how instructed and act “like a lady” that is waiting for a man to choose her. One of the worst parts about all of this is that women can be complicit in this misogynoir as well. Overall, giving black women the space to be imperfect and vulnerable without judgment is so damn necessary.
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