Ethnic minorities in Britain have a very high rate of teetotalism compared to white people. You could say this is down to religion, as a proportionally higher percentage of people of colour follow a religion in some way, but the potential reasons to abstain from drink can be much deeper than that.
The government published Adult Drinking Behaviour in Great Britain, based on the latest Census data. It showed that 56 percent of the ethnic minorities were teetotal, compared to 15.7 percent of those who classify themselves as white. Indeed, this could be down to religious beliefs and stricter family values.
But what happens when you do have a drinking problem and you’re part of an ethnic minority? Interestingly, a paper published in the Psychological Bulletin found that although black African ethnic minorities typically “report later initiation of drinking, lower rates of use, and lower levels of use across almost all age groups” there is a much higher rate of social disapproval when someone does have an alcohol problem. The study revealed that African-Americans are more likely to get in trouble with the law, even if they’ve been drinking the same amount as white ethnicities. African-American men are at much higher risk for alcoholism and substance abuse issues due to racism, financial instability and difficulty with finding the right help.
There seems to be a bigger element of shame in ethnic minority communities when it comes to alcohol addiction ― which can discourage sufferers from seeking help or even admitting they have a problem in the first place. So why is this? Alcoholism, although low in ethnic minorities, is seen as a significant stigma ― which was certainly my experience as a former alcoholic from a Nigerian background.
One intriguing theory to explain African descendants’ attitude to alcohol could involve the view of drinking adopted by tribes in pre-colonial Africa. In general, alcohol abuse and addiction was very rare in these communities because it was only consumed as part of certain ceremonies. To be intoxicated, even in religious and secular ceremonies, was deemed extremely unacceptable and a sign of great weakness.
That brings me to the word “weakness.” The black community has, and still does, struggle for equality. One theory that springs to mind is when black slaves abstained from drinking in the U.S. This is so they could keep a clear head and fight for their right to freedom. In fact, black leaders were known to say, “To keep sober is to strike a blow to slavery.” It seems that if a black individual did not follow this mantra, they were viewed as a traitor to the anti-slavery slavery movement, because it seems remaining abstinent was, indeed, for the greater good. This may have been carried forward by black generations both in the U.K. and the U.S. Although slavery has long been abolished, we still continue to push forward and fight for our rights to equality.
Perhaps the ethnic minorities generally still frown on alcohol for fear of being intoxicated and misrepresenting the entire race ― a bold statement to make, but I think it’s a fair theory. African-British parents, as well as Asian-British and Middle Eastern parents, are very likely to educate their children on negative stereotypes and discrimination, as well as ethnic pride. The children are more likely to avoid alcohol altogether so they can keep in check with their actions and emotions in order to avoid these negative stereotypes. If the child grows up and develops an alcohol problem then there is a big chance they’ll be shamed or outright estranged from their own family. The shame from the family, although understandable from a historic perspective, only adds pressure to the mix. What these individuals need is the right care and support where they can craft their own healthy attitude towards teetotalism.
Dr Bunmi Aboaba
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.