Summer Walker’s Battle With Social Anxiety Is A Teachable Moment For Fans And Critics

The pressure for the ‘Over It’ singer to bury her mental health issues reveals a lack of empathy for Black women.

A clip of R&B sensation Summer Walker’s performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk went viral this past week after critics labeled it lackluster. Not only did that assessment dismiss the decidedly somber aesthetic the singer has crafted over time, it also exemplified a widespread disregard for Black women struggling with their mental health.

During Walker’s set, which was released last Friday, the relatively new star sat on a stool with her shoulders slumped as she nervously sang “Playing Games,” a song off her debut album, Over It. She held on tight to her pink stuffed animal named “Friend,” a form of emotional support during the performance. “Look, I’m really freaking excited to be here, but I have social anxiety like a motherfucker,” the 23-year-old disclosed. “So, yeah. I’m freaked the hell out. I’m sweating. But this is so exciting for me.” 

Tiny Desk is a popular platform for artists to bring their showmanship to an intimate space, so viewers probably expected Walker to emotively sway her body back and forth, and embellish her lyrics for dramatic effect. When she did the opposite, many wrote her off as disengaged and ungrateful for the opportunity. One critic wrote in a now-deleted tweet, “This is exactly why I refuse to go up for the new R&B girls.” Another tweeted, “I don’t care how good y’all think her album is or isn’t... performances like this is disrespectful to R&B.” One person commented on her attitude, tweeting, “Summer walker’s attitude is ridiculous lol I understand she doesn’t like the fame but u took that chance when u wanted to become a singer. Fix your face sis.”

But if Walker has admitted to suffering from social anxiety, which evidently affects her demeanor during live performances, is it fair to conflate her presentation with a lack of effort based on a 47-second viral clip lifted from a near 15-minute-long upload?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines social anxiety disorder (SAD) or social phobia as “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” The disorder affects 6.8 percent of the population. Although white Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, Black women researchers like Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, found that it is under-diagnosed and understudied for African-Americans, especially Black women. Because of common stereotypes Black women face, their anxiety is often wrongly perceived as anger or a “bad attitude.”

Some fans also shared a screenshot of an Instagram post Walker had apparently written about having social anxiety in the past (the date is not shown in the now-deleted post). “It affects your occupational performance,” she wrote. “It affects romantic relationships, friendships (which I have none ) & pretty much throws you into depression.” Later in the post, well-aware of her public image, Walker confesses, “This ain’t a sob story, just a lot of plp (sic) don’t know me so they take me as being rude or difficult to [get] close to.”

“SAD (social anxiety disorder) is far more complex than simple shyness and occasional anxiety,” Dr. Lekeisha A. Sumner, Ph.D., commented via email Monday (Oct. 21). According to Dr. Sumner, an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences, social anxiety disorder “can be chronic, debilitating and cause sufferers to avoid threatening situations or endure high levels of distress. It can potentially impede functioning in one's social, [professional], educational and [romantic] activities. And if left untreated, those affected are at higher risk for other psychological disorders.” 

We know now that Walker is not merely timid or flippant, and that her issues can not be prescribed rest and recovery, or even vocal or media training. To presume that the artist’s condition is something that can be simply “fixed” in the first place dismisses the very real possibility that the issue may be chronic. With Black women’s bodies, behaviors and emotions policed more than that of any other group, if Walker’s struggles with social anxiety aren’t already chronic, the stressors of the music industry are bound to create an environment in which they’re at least persistent. 

To add, the demands of an artist in the digital age are unique, in that musicians are now expected to deliver faster and be more visible. There are several cautionary tales of Black women artists fading to the background before their time, unable to manage their mental health issues under stress of the machine that consumed them. Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill and Azealia Banks are a few examples. Listeners don’t have to enjoy Walker’s reserved form of artistry, but her harshest critics should be mindful of the fact that she’s facing something more complicated than they realize.

“I view her as courageous to disclose her human vulnerabilities,” Dr. Sumner explains, “and I sense that far more people are with her than are critics. Like so many other celebrities who have disclosed their emotional challenges, she is giving voice to those suffering from SAD. Some artists desire an audience who will appreciate their talent alone and refuse to compromise their values or contort themselves for the whims of the high-pressured, dizzyingly world of celebrity.”

Those who empathize with Walker’s condition say that the scrutiny she’s facing is rooted in misogynoir, and the specific contempt Black women face in society due to their race and gender. 

“Y’all want Black women to perform for y’all so badly,” writer and editor Brooklyn White wrote on Twitter Saturday (Oct. 19). “Y’all complain and beg us to alter our entire being, set our comfort zones ablaze, and conform to ideas of what we ‘should be’ so y’all can be pleased and comfortable.” 

Filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu also chimed in adding, “Our Blackness does not make us inherent wind-up dolls, perpetually boisterous for your consumption.” She continued, “We are allowed to be meek, anxious, subdued… I just rarely see the default projection of ‘attitude’ placed on lethargic white/white proximal singers.” 

To Jusu’s point, brooding white singers Lorde or Billie Ellish have also spoken openly about how anxiety affects their performances—testimonials that have been met with overwhelming support. Rarely do we ever see the same sort of understanding offered to Black women artists with similar struggles. For the most part, the public largely remains silent on the issue of Black women’s mental health, only to then celebrate their success stories.

Earlier in her career, Beyoncé famously discussed embodying her alter-ego Sasha Fierce to conquer her nerves before going onstage. Today, the HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM performer is considered one of the most electrifying live acts on the planet. But Walker’s journey should be given space to be unique, as experiences with anxiety may vary for different artists depending on their triggers and how severe their condition is. 

Symptoms of social anxiety specifically can manifest in extraordinarily high levels of distress that include “ruminations, negative thoughts and beliefs, difficulties with concentration and regulating attention, speech block, trembling, nausea, diarrhea, heart palpitations and a crushing sense of doom,” according to Dr. Sumner. Any situation that involves potential social evaluation and social harm, especially by strangers, can be triggering to someone living with the condition. “A person has to determine whether unclear environmental stimuli and events are threatening,” Dr. Sumner added. 

The NPR performance was the most open Walker has been about how her condition affects her. Though fans who have been following the singer closely this past year know she’s alluded to struggles with visibility in previous interviews and on social media, often confessing she prefers solitude.

She echoed this again in October to fellow songbird Ari Lennox in their Apple Music conversation, aligned with the central theme of Walker’s album, Over It. Less manufactured than most series in which two artists who otherwise don’t know each other are forced to interact, Lennox and Walker’s chat feels like two new-yet-close friends bonding as they sip wine and reveal everything in life they’re currently “over” and done with. Topics range from men, to waxing, to lace front wigs.

Toward the end of the conversation, Walker reveals she’s also “over” performing live. In response to Lennox asking “What are we gonna do outside of this?” Walker quips, somewhat tragically, “Go home and live a lovely, normal life.” If that’s the price Black women artists have to pay for suffering from social anxiety, the public has undoubtedly failed them as fans, critics and consumers.

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