Summer Walker Isn’t Here for Our Society’s Pleasure
The excessive demands on her energy and time have sinister, historical precedent
When Summer Walker canceled the rest of her tour in early November, she clearly explained her reason on Instagram. “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.” Her frequent transparency about her disorder was refreshing. Black women are so often maligned and stigmatized when it comes to expressing the state of their mental health. Walker grasping autonomy and wielding it to prioritize her well-being seemed like a radical act.
But others were upset with her decision. An acquaintance of mine took to Facebook to air her grievances in a now deleted post. There were many similar angry comments about the tour cancellation on Walker’s Instagram page. “You picked the wrong career to have social anxiety,” read one comment. Another read, “You’re literally a joke. People don’t wake up realizing that they have social anxiety…”
Fans and critics of Walker are incapable of grappling with the idea that they won’t have the access to her in the way that they desire.
The venom thrown at Walker, despite her attempts to be transparent about her mental health, while troubling, isn’t shocking. It reflects a society that is totally at odds with the idea of Black women prioritizing their own bodies and well-being over others. Fans and critics of Walker are incapable of grappling with the idea that they won’t have the access to her in the way they desire. It’s a violent extension via social media of our culture’s colonialist relationship to the bodies of Black women.
There seems to be a new age of openness and dialogue about mental health. Millennials have been dubbed the “therapy generation” — we’re seeking out therapy more often and are increasingly candid about our mental health diagnoses. Gen Zers are more likely to report mental health concerns. Social media is now a landscape for discourse about mental illness. Therapy Instagram accounts are gold mines, garnering thousands of followers as spiritual advisers dole out advice on Twitter, often touching on mental health.
But there’s a clear disconnect between this apparent “shift” in culture and when it’s actually applicable to Black women. In the case of Summer Walker, her disorder is seen as a joke. Countless comments policing Walker’s anxiety disorder populate posts where she’s recording herself having fun with her boyfriend and friends. She was recently turned into a meme, a joke about her disorder because of how she accepted the Soul Train Music Award for best new artist. And in another heavily circulated post, a fan wrote about being upset because Walker didn’t want to hug her during a meet-and-greet on her tour.
People make demeaning comments about celebrities all the time. And social media extends this ability to interact with celebrities and famous artists. Most would say that being criticized comes with the territory of being in the public eye. Celeste Viciere is a licensed mental health clinician (LMHC) based in Boston. She says people often project their own insecurities and desires onto the object of their fascination, especially celebrities. We in turn strip them of their humanity. Black women are already dehumanized by White supremacy and fans, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuate the process.
“There’s a strong Black woman stereotype that’s very pervasive, especially in the Black community,” Viciere says. She points out that a number of Black women face stigmas within the Black community, even among other Black women, when it comes to mental illness. With regards to social anxiety disorder (and mental illnesses), Viciere explains, “It’s an illness that people can’t see. So in their minds, if they can’t see it, it’s not real… Illness doesn’t have to be physically visible in order for it to be real.”
But Walker is no anomaly. Walker is part of a growing legacy of Black women opening up about managing a mental illness. Janet Jackson spoke to Essence about the depression she endured from the combined impact of being famous, Black, and a woman. In an open letter on social media, Laverne Cox laid bare her experiences with suicidal ideation and the emotional injuries she “was experiencing daily as a black trans woman in New York City.” From Mariah Carey, who was silent for almost two decades about her bipolar disorder, to Sevyn Streeter to Ari Lennox, Black women in the industry who live with illnesses like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder are becoming more and more transparent about their experiences.
“Anxiety doesn’t look a specific way. Often, it’s misdiagnosed or interpreted as something else.”
There’s temptation to compare the public’s reaction to Laverne Cox and Ari Lennox to cases like Demi Levato or Camila Cabello (who canceled appearances in 2016 because of anxiety). What it comes down to is a harmful mythology of strength that Black women have to shoulder that White women don’t. From Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening to contemporary movies like Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation, the “manic pixie dream girl” trope has provided a well-worn space in popular culture for White women to confront their issues with mental health. Black women, in contrast, often fear being seen as “weak” because “weakness in Black women is intolerable,” Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant points out in her essay “‘You Have to Show Strength’: An Exploration of Gender, Race, and Depression.”
These expectations of Black women to be “strong” and simultaneously physically available are deeply rooted in the racist and sexist labor structures of our society. “The dominant view of black women has been that they should be workers,” the Economic Policy Institute states in a 2019 post. Racism and sexism have historically placed Black women in roles that quite literally serve other people: maids, cooks, nurses, and nannies. We’re expected to not only perform our duties but to perform them graciously with a smile.
Black women with anxiety disorders like Summer Walker have “more chronic and… symptoms more intense than their White counterparts,” writes Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans at Kent State University. Symptoms vary from person to person and can manifest through things like migraines, chest pain, depression, and even asthma. “Anxiety doesn’t look a specific way,” Viciere says. “Often, it’s misdiagnosed or interpreted as something else.”
Walker’s anxiety symptoms are somehow misinterpreted as laziness. Recently, she’s been compared to DaBaby, who performed for fans on Facebook Live when a delay with his jet led to a concert cancellation. “Summer could learn a thing or two,” one comment reads, and another: “Summer Walker could never.” The implication is that she doesn’t want it bad enough or that she’s somehow ungrateful. But why do we have these expectations of Black women? Why do we require they give their art and themselves? Why are we asking a Black woman to prioritize us over her health?
Our expectations of Black women and entitlement to their bodies reflect a cultural heritage of colonialism, racism, and sexism. We are not entitled to anything more from Summer Walker. We are not entitled to her smiling and hugging fans during meet-and-greets. We are not entitled to her giving flawless, airbrushed performances that live up to fans’ wildest expectations. We do not own someone because we go to their shows or support them, especially not a Black woman. We are not entitled to her body or her time or energy. She already gives us that through her art.
At the end of the day, what is given to us, as fans of Walker’s music, is a gift.
All we have to do is let her give it.