My Momma Taught Me How to Fear

African-Americans and phobias.

Posted Nov 04, 2011

Animal and social concerns in African-Americans

"It's going to be alright baby!"

Historically, very little research has focused on the prevalence of anxiety and related disorders in ethnic minority samples, particularly African-American samples. Fortunately, the tide has turned for the better, with more work being conducted in this area. Along these lines, many studies, including my own work, examining racial and ethnic differences in African-Americans as compared with non-Hispanic Whites have found that both African-American adults and children endorse more symptoms of specific phobias than their White counterparts.

To be clear, there are four diagnostic categories of specific phobias including: animal type (dogs, snakes, rats, and mice); natural-environment type (storms, water); blood-injection injury type (self-explanatory); situational type (elevators, air travel), and the "other" type (can include costumed characters and other objects/situations that don't fit cleanly in the listed diagnostic categories). Of the items pertaining to these phobia categories, research studies suggest that African-Americans endorse more fear of animals, specifically strange dogs, snakes, spiders, as well as rats and mice than non-Hispanic White counterparts. Fear of water is often endorsed, but we will save this for later. Social fears of not being a success, being self-conscious, looking foolish, and being criticized are endorsed more heavily in African-Americans than in non-Hispanic Whites. Aside from the needed genetic component to experience the process of anxiety in a chronic fashion, there are a number of sociocultural considerations that may contribute to these findings.

Sociocultural factors influencing these findings:

Let's not be naïve. There is an abundance of factors that account for why some groups may be more likely to endorse symptoms of certain conditions as compared with others; Black folks are no exception. In terms of phobia development, we know that, generally speaking, an individual typically develops a phobia through either witnessing (vicarious conditioning) or receiving misinformation about an object or situation ("Dogs can bite you and kill you." "Stay away from Mr. Jenkins' yard because he has that big dog!") This is in the context of already having a tendency to be fearful or anxious.

We also know that most anxiety is transmitted from parent to child through this "misinformation" and genetic predisposition. For instance, everyone has heard this saying from at least one female adult: "Boy, put a coat on or you will catch phemonia!" Why can't I just catch a cold? I will let you think about your own experiences. In the context of both social fears and specific animal fears, particularly dogs, one could assert that many African-Americans exposed to racial hostility during, for example, the Civil Rights movement, could potentially associate fear and anxiety with dogs. Again, the genetic component has to be in place and only a minority of individuals develop a phobia from a traumatic conditioning experience in the first place (being attacked by an animal).

An additional sociocultural consideration is the number of African-Americans in the United States concentrated in urban areas where: (a) you may not own certain animals and (b) some animals are accompanied with a sign that reads "Beware of the Dog." That was certainly the case for me growing up in an urban environment. Why would you approach a dog named Bear or Monster (perhaps I'm being too sensitive here). Finally, recall my point about family transmission: A child learns how to perceive himself, the world, and others from his parents. If my parent transmits through me that certain objects or situations are gross (in the case of cats, rats, mice) or dangerous, then I will learn to associate fear and anxiety with these objects or situations (see previous comment about many African-Americans, particularly my parent's generation, not associating certain animals with pleasure.)

In terms of social anxiety—specifically fears of not being a success, being self-conscious, looking foolish, and being criticized—it is important to note the well-documented finding of kin support networks being essential to African-American culture. Moreover, one must consider the historical context of racism and discrimination against African-Americans. Being consistently scrutinzed, mislabeled, attacked, stereotyped, and often isolated would undoubtedly contribute to a perception of having to "prove oneself," particulalry in light of being highly social/community-oriented to begin with. Personal success is often reflective of "our" success as an extended network, which is consistent with collectivist cultures, while being in direct contrast to most Western culture. As such, the threat of being stereotyped by White-Americans, or potentially scrutinized for performance situations (giving a speech, being employed in an occupation comprised of predominantly non-Hispanic Whites) could plausibly contribute to endorsing these fears. The irony, aside from specific phobias being relatively easy to treat, is that most people rarely seek treatment for a specific phobia. Why? Because I have chronic worry, OCD, and depression. Oh by the way, Doc, I don't like animals either.

About the Author

L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private, is with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

More Posts