The reaction to Summer Walker shows we don’t take black women’s mental health seriously
30 Nov 2019
Photography via Imran Malik PR
Summer Walker’s transparency about her social anxiety this month has been widely reported. Summer announced to her 1.9 million Instagram followers that she would be cancelling a series of upcoming dates on her current First and Last tour. The 23-year-old Atlanta-born singer candidly cited that the reason behind the cancelled dates was due to her ongoing battle with social anxiety. The backlash the US musician has received since speaking out speaks volumes about the societal views surrounding black women and mental health.
Her debut album earned her the accolade for most streams by a woman artist with Over It – figures unseen since Beyoncé’s Lemonade album drop in 2016. Despite the album’s wild success, Summer has consistently opened up about her overwhelming difficulties with fame and her mental health. The ‘Playing Games’ singer said on her Instagram: “I truly appreciate all the support and love. As you know, I have been very open about my struggle with social anxiety. I want to continue to be healthy and to make music for y’all, so I have decided to cut down some of the dates on the tour.”
“When fans are able to interact with their idols in real-time and spew a barrage of comments should they see fit, it undoubtedly brings up the complexities of fan entitlement”
In an era where musicians are able to be more open about their daily struggles thanks to social media, it would seem as though we’re coming on leaps and bounds. However, when fans are able to interact with their idols in real-time and spew a barrage of comments should they see fit, it undoubtedly brings up the complexities of fan entitlement. Following her tour announcement on Instagram, Summer’s comments were quickly flooded with enraged fans declaring her condition was a facade – so much so that the star was forced to defend herself on her Instagram stories numerous times and turn off her comments. During the latter part of this month, the R&B singer went on to score a Soul Train Award for Best New Artist, a win that should have been a monumental moment for the star – unfortunately, it was clouded with negativity and judgement.
Evidently out of her comfort zone, her acceptance speech rapidly became yet another major talking point on social media. Many were speculating the authenticity of her speech and labelled her condition “an act” and that she only “has anxiety when near her fans and not near famous people.” The barrage of comments also led the soul-singer to detail the events leading up to the Soul Train Awards. Delving a little more into her daily grapples on Instagram, she recalled having to “pat my underarms from sweating” and – unlike some of her more seasoned peers – her internal battle almost consumed her; “I couldn’t get a speech out like everyone one else from being so nervous & was shaking BUT I pushed through my #socialanxiety today and I’m really glad I did.”
The widespread reaction to Summer’s declaration about her mental health is symbolic of a much larger issue. In the UK, government statistics report that black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are more likely to suffer from further issues and stigmas as a result of having a mental health disorder. Furthermore, according to women’s mental health support platform, Agenda, anxiety and depression is more prevalent among black women. 29% of black women are likely to encounter a common mental disorder, compared to 21% white British women, and 16% white other women.
So, how exactly is social anxiety defined? Dr Cosmo Hallstrom from the General Adult Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists tells gal-dem that it is “an extreme form of shyness in specific social situations, such as public speaking, eating in public, meeting new people, being the centre of attention. It can often be triggered by a minor or random event, such as an offhand remark or choking on some food in an important meeting.” He notes that there is no explanation: “We don’t know what single thing ‘causes’ social anxiety disorder, as there are likely to be many genetic, psychological and social factors involved. We know that it is about twice as common in young women than men.”
“The ‘strong black woman’ trope is often tossed around in the black community – it lends itself to the idea that black women are supposed to be consistently strong for their peers, partners, family and within the workplace. It’s a harmful rhetoric that doesn’t allow for vulnerability and fragility”
There is a long stemming complex relationship with mental health in the black community and – newsflash – for many, receiving treatment is a myth. The Race Disparity Audit further revealed black British adults were least likely to have undergone any form of prior treatment, with a minuscule 7% of adults receiving help in comparison to 14% of white British adults. The “strong black woman” trope is often tossed around in the black community – it lends itself to the idea that black women are supposed to be consistently strong for their peers, partners, family and within the workplace. It’s a harmful rhetoric that doesn’t allow for vulnerability and fragility.
These are sentiments shared by 28-year-old ex-styling consultant, Jamilah. Forced to change careers due to her social anxiety, the London native tells me: “It was okay for the socially awkward ‘Caucasian’ person to not engage in debate, and they would still be booked for weeks on end; I wasn’t granted the same fortune.” This led her to rethink her career path, she continues: “The prejudice I received would occur due to my inability to converse in industry small talk and so my bookings would decrease. I was later headhunted to work for a digital marketing company and had to unlearn all of the doubts I had – many of which were all fears I had generated on my own. It encouraged me to try new things and be happy.”
Echoing similar dissatisfaction with the “fan” to “artist” dynamic, Chicago rapper Fatimah ‘Noname’ Nyeema Warner implied she would soon be quitting music after the release of her second album, Factory Baby. In the now-deleted tweet, she stated, “To be honest with you my heart isn’t fully in it anymore. The relationship between ‘artist’ and ‘fan’ is really fucking unhealthy. Yall like what y’all like and hate what y’all hate.” She then mentioned her next album would ultimately be her last, “After factory baby it’s ✌.”
“The entitlement and expectations over black women’s mental health and overall wellbeing is reflected in the way that black women’s bodies are heavily policed due to the patriarchal system”
It isn’t coincidental that two black women musicians have been on the receiving end of a stream of taunting within their respective fandoms due to their outspokenness and wanting to navigate their own narratives. The entitlement and expectations over black women’s mental health and overall wellbeing is reflected in the way that black women’s bodies are heavily policed due to the patriarchal system – Atlanta-based rapper T.I’s recent abhorrent views about his daughter’s virginity and “hymen-gate” springs to mind.
Addressing the scrutiny under her Instagram posts, Summer blasted the parents allegedly leaving unsavory comments, saying, “You know the scariest shit I’ve been witnessing is that most of the women leaving negative comments like ‘it’s an act’ HAVE CHILDREN, these women have children” – while noting that kids suffering from mental health issues need to be acknowledged, adding, “It makes me feel soo bad cause it’s clear that if the children are developing or struggling with any type of mental disorder such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, it’ll be brushed to the side and will never receive any treatment because it’ll just be ‘an act’”.
Sometimes you have to make others uncomfortable to be comfortable – but this is a luxury that isn’t always afforded to black women in mainstream media or day-to-day life. Summer’s direct approach – whether it be calling out people berating her or shedding a light on kids suffering from mental health issues – is exactly the kind of honesty that is sorely lacking in the conversation. Summer Walker’s revelation about her social anxiety has opened up further conversations around mental health and that, at least, is something worth revelling in.