Whiteness and Its Fractures in the Opioid “Crisis”

Allison Schlosser (Case Western Reserve University)
Emily Metzner (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) 

Helena Hansen (New York University)

Addiction and its treatment are now central concerns in the U.S. and increasingly worldwide due to the recent stark rise in opioid use and overdose death. Attention to opioid addiction, treatment, and overdose prevention has intensified with the emergence of new groups of relatively socially privileged drug users, with particular attention to White middle-class users in suburban communities. In the U.S., analysts have drawn on narratives of opioid addiction as a symptom of social suffering rooted in Post-Industrial economic dislocation among poor and working class Whites to frame the current political climate. Shifts in popular news, social media, and viral video have intensified the circulation of images and discourses on opioid use. The spectacles of suburban White prom queens in recovery, parents overdosing in cars with children present, and “mobile morgues” used to manage the overwhelming number of dead bodies rapidly circulate online. This social, political, and economic context has intensified the moral panic of what is now commonly referred to as the “opioid crisis,” and has troubled fundamental beliefs about “addiction” and “addicts,” but also about whiteness.

Anthropologists have long understood race as culturally constructed. In the last two decades, whiteness studies has emerged as a theoretical and methodological approach to examine whiteness as a discursively constructed social category and psycho-social experience performed in local historical, cultural, political-economic, and relational contexts. As opioid use and related death among broader socioeconomic swaths has intensified moral concern, scholars have analyzed the shifting meanings and consequences of whiteness in relation to the opioid “crisis” (cf. Hansen, 2017; Hansen & Skinner, 2012; Netherland & Hansen, 2016; Mendoza, et al., 2018). Yet, as these scholars emphasize, whiteness is not a monolithic social category but intersects with ethnicity, gender, and class, among other social identities. Additionally, whiteness takes shape in particular local contexts. These complexities render whiteness “fractured” (Levine-Rasky, 2016): rife with internal contradictions further strained by the racialized moral panic of the opioid “crisis.”

Brodkin (2001) calls for increased attention to the “variations, ambivalences, and contradictions within whiteness and alternatives to it” (p. 149). The papers in the panel respond to this challenge, leveraging ethnography to trace the fractures in whiteness in diverse local contexts. Panelists examine shifting meanings of whiteness in relation to the rise of opioid use among Whites in particular cultural, geographic, and institutional contexts. We examine strategies that uphold and reproduce White privilege in the criminal justice system, healthcare, social services, and recovery communities. We draw particular attention to how whiteness emerges in local contexts of daily life: how it is performed, internalized, incorporated with intersecting social identities, contested, and transgressed. In doing so, we aim to contribute nuanced understandings of whiteness as ineluctably entwined with local contexts, intersecting social identities, intimate relationships, and the stakes of survival in everyday life. We propose that the current “opioid crisis” thus presents a unique opportunity to throw whiteness into “crisis.” By rendering whiteness and its fractures visible, we aim to interrupt it, and to imagine more just alternatives.

Interested participants are invited to submit a proposed title and 250-word abstract to Allison Schlosser (avs29@case.edu) and Emily Metzner (emilymetzner@gmail.com) by March 11. Decisions on panel inclusion will be made by March 18.


References Cited:

Brodkin, K. (2001). Comments on “Discourses of Whiteness.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1), 147-150.
Hansen, H. (2017). Assisted technologies of social reproduction: Pharmaceutical prosthesis for gender, race, and class in the White opioid “crisis.” Contemporary Drug Problems, 44(4), 321-338.
Hansen, H. & Skinner, M. (2012). From white bullet to black markets and greened medicine: The neuroeconomics and neuroracial politics of opioid pharmaceuticals. Annals of Anthropological Practice 36(1), 167-182.
Levine-Rasky (2016). Whiteness fractured. New York: Routledge.
Mendoza, S., Rivera, A., & Hansen, H. (2018). Re-racialization of addiction and the re-distribution of blame in the white opioid epidemic. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 00(0), 1-21.
Netherland, J. & Hansen, H. (2016). The war on drugs that wasn’t: Wasted whiteness, ‘dirty doctors,’ and race in media coverage of prescription opioid misuse. Culture, Medicine, & Psychiatry 40, 664-686.