Main Writer: Flow Masengesho
Co written: Koketso Thema
Edited by: Dineo Matloga
Social Anxiety in black people
He said this with conviction: “Being yellow and ugly is a waste of skin because yellow bones are meant to be beautiful.”
He chuckled while looking at my hands. “I read somewhere that dark girls love bright colours but you shouldn’t wear them. You shouldn’t have painted your nails pink. Try darker colours next time.”
“I fetishize yellow girls but I’ll kick it with you since you ain’t like other dark girls,” as I read through my messages.
“Why you playing hard to get?! Dark girls are always ready to get it,” he said with a smirk on his face.
We live in a world filled with numerous factors that not only cause physical and emotional pain, but also an array of mental illness issues left undiagnosed because of the lack of awareness of one’s mental health. From the burden of diseases that force their way into various communities, to the growing level of unemployment and poverty, as well as the beauty standards that pressure women into conformity, these are but a few of the many things that cause depression- and anxiety-related disorders that go undetected. Due to lack of resources and the stereotypes that surround what mental health is and who is more vulnerable to succumb to this psychological war, many people live in an incorrigible state of mind where they fail to conceptualise the reasons behind their disarray.
Social anxiety can be defined as the fear of interactions in a social setting. One’s fear of being negatively judged by peers can cause overwhelming self-consciousness or isolation as a way to prevent others from evaluating ones physical appearance or noticing ones lack of engagement. Fixations on scenarios where one’s embarrassed or mocked in public may plague one’s mind on a daily basis. This is coupled with low self-esteem or depression. But, which factors might lead to this classification of anxiety? Observations have been made on the different ways in which social anxiety can manifest itself in people, particularly black women. There is not enough evidence on this ailment simply because it is not researched thoroughly, not just by doctors and psychologists, but also the people mostly affected by it. The only reliable survey found was conducted in 2001-2002 among 40,000 people. Of those surveyed, black people were amongst the highest to suffer from social anxiety disorder, with the majority being black women. Most black women who suffer from social anxiety might be unaware of this simply because, in most predominantly-black communities, mental illnesses are labelled as the “white man’s disease”.
There is another misconception surrounding social anxiety. You don’t have to be poor and trying to survive for you to be affected by it; you can also be privileged while marinating in self-hate and made-up transgressions. Take the middle class, for example. Their biggest fear is not being able to afford their current livelihoods, like tertiary education for their children, keeping up with the lifestyle they portray or even conforming to beauty ideals. How does this cause social anxiety? Simple: black people still believe in the “educated, pure, and beautiful” black girl narrative. But this notion isn’t placed on all black women; “purity” is a birthmark given to women of lighter shades, and the same goes for education and beauty. The black woman is pressured by society and her own race to conform to a set of rules governing beauty, behaviour and education. This collective pressure often leads to desperation that causes anxiety-related disorders which are often disguised as being “introverted” or “shy” by the victims themselves.
Black women grow up in environments where social standards and beauty ideals are measured on a Westernised scale. The assumption is that the darker you are, the less desirable you may be, not only to different races or ethnic groups, but to black men within certain social demographics. This self-inflicting enormity is persistently forced into our belief systems by mass media and people who share these malicious ideologies. Women of darker shades across a broad racial spectrum are subjected to judgment based on racial and colorism stereotypes which include the notion that lighter women are undoubtedly more beautiful than darker women; darker women are loud, angry, and less pure and innocent.” Other races are also shaped to see black women a certain way and, yes, with different cultures and demographics come different anxiety-related issues pertaining to being a black woman, which makes social interactions with people even less enjoyable.
Social anxiety disorder as well as low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders and various other issues relation to emotional and mental health can be largely influenced by one’s understanding of what beauty is. A staggering amount of women live their lives feeling heavily pressured to be a certain way so as to avoid judgement or embarrassment that may arise because of their skin. The standard by which beauty is measured fails to accommodate women of all forms, creating a hierarchy in which women are placed, from their bodies to their hair. Black women of darker shades are often subjected to psychological abuse. This includes being called derogatory slurs and being portrayed negatively in the media. Lighter-skinned women, too, face pressures within society to be a certain type of way. They are often subjected to bullying by darker-skinned girls, are highly favoured by boys only because they are light-skinned, and they may also face the pressure of wanting to be darker so they could blend in with everyone else. This is slowly becoming an epidemic that is going undetected as some women use this socially constructed hierarchy to place themselves where they comprehensively believe they belong. As a dark-skinned girl, my mother bought me lightening creams in my adolescent years, convincing me that “beautiful” is only as light as you can make your skin appear. I wallowed in self-hate and resentment, not realizing that she, herself, is facing the same battle as most women of darker skin tones. As a dark girl I grew up with the predisposed notion that my skin positioned me deeper into the stereotype, leading me to partake in less social interactions even with people I knew.
William “Willie” Lynch was a British slave owner who wrote The Making of a Slave in 1712. In the letter he wrote describing ways to control slaves, he called for a division of the slaves: the house negroids against the field negroids, men against women, old against young, and so forth. The house negroes were either mixed-race or light-skinned, while the field negroes were darker-skinned and consequently became even darker from working in the sun. Soon, house slaves were favoured because, unlike field slaves, they had features that more closely resembled those of their masters. But, they were both still slaves, except, of course, house negroes were not subjected to as much abuse as their cotton field-working counterparts because they were “lucky” enough to work in the house closer to the slave master. House slaves were thus conditioned to feel privileged for their role less than their master but superior amongst their own race. Field slaves desired this same type of recognition, presuming that they were at fault due to the colour of their skin. These divisions among black people have only grown wider through the centuries, and have made their way into the modern day construct where underlying stereotypes about black people and black women persist.
The persistence of racist ideologies into contemporary society have been worsened by the role of the media. The problem with the media is that when it constructs the “ideal” woman, it considers the Westernised one-dimensional view. Not only are young girls psychologically affected by this, but young boys are also exposed to this ideology, therefore placing women on pedestals while weighing morals, behaviour and emotions by complexion. We often hear phrases like, “Why are you acting light skinned?” or, “Dark girls spread their legs faster”, and women are scaled down “from graduate to welfare” or “from main chick to baby mamma” granted, of course, the lighter women are the coveted graduates and main chicks. It is also taught that natural hair and dark skin is not synonymous to beauty, hence statements like, “You’re pretty for a dark girl” or, “Are you mixed?” This implies that beauty cannot possibly stem from the part of a person that is purely black, and that lighter shades with blonde hair and blue eyes are generally whats acceptable. Light-skinned women are considered the “rule” while women of darker skin live their lives as the exception. Media distorts what beauty is and forces women, as well as men, to conform to an ideal that is unrealistic and biased. The idea that a woman is either a disappointment or surpasses beauty expectations because of her skin tone is a broken mentality as we are blaming the dark woman for being undeserving of her beauty and the light woman for being undeserving of the colour of her skin.
When it comes to beauty standards, society has a made a norm of being widely influential in shaping how one sees others and how one also sees oneself. We are slowly blurring the lines between what is acceptable and what isn’t, and we currently live in a time where the “real woman” ideal has changed its meaning to accommodate all women and where it has become widely acceptable to embrace who you are. Yet, some still feel the pressure to be “perfect”. This is because, despite the slow progress, young minds are still being subconsciously instilled with images of the “perfect” woman. Magazine covers, billboards, runways and music videos all paint a picture of an idealised woman as pop culture and hip hop music slander darker women while lighter-skinned women are embraced. We are often bombarded with imagery of lighter women fitting into positive social roles while darker women, and darker-skinned people in general, are blatantly disrespected for humour.
Social anxiety disorder can be caused by many factors surrounding an individual, it can easily go undetected long enough to assume it is nothing else but timidness or introverted qualities. When it comes to women they generally feel the pressure to be beautiful and excepted. The standards of society has black women fighting negative stereotypes just to be labelled as normal, while they keep pushing the black girl narrative into our belief systems.
Hoffman SG, Asnaani A. Cultural Aspects in Social Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder. Depression and Anxiety. 2010;27(12):1117-1127.