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Opioid Storytelling: Rehabilitating a White Disability Nationalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2021

English Department, Spelman College. Email:
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“Opioid Storytelling: Rehabilitating a White Disability Nationalism” argues that stories of the opioid crisis disseminate an emerging white disability nationalism that functions to morph and reconsolidate the “machinery of whiteness” around an affectively charged disability politics. Through a close reading of HBO's 2017 documentary Warning: This Drug May Kill You, directed by Perri Peltz, as well as Beth Macy's New York Times best book of 2018, Dopesick, this essay contends that opioid storytelling redeploys a panic about lost agency and increased vulnerabilities into a melancholic reinvestment in a fantasy ideal of white immunity nationalism. Opioid storytelling's “relapsed” whiteness, which invokes a long history of fears about racial degeneration, restores whiteness's category crisis by presenting middle-class whites as abled disableds, or dopesick addicts, in contrast to an unredeemable noncompliant blackness, and, in doing so, resolves the contradictions within conservative neoliberal discourses between sympathetic addicts and a simultaneous insistence on individual accountability and family values. Opioid storytelling reveals not only a contemporary morphing of a complex history of race and public health, but offers new identifications for “fragile” white subjects to reinvest in intractable hierarchies of white supremacism, while simultaneously thinking of themselves as liberal antiracists.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press in association with the British Association for American Studies

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1 For the GOP stories of the opioid crisis see the following sites:;

2 Edow N. Yankah, “When Addiction Has a White Face,” New York Times, 9 Feb. 2016, at

3 Pierce, Jennifer, Racing for Innocence: Whiteness, Gender and the Backlash against Affirmative Action (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar, argues that the backlash against affirmative action has also produced specific cultural memories around white innocence and injury.

4 As Alexander, Kiang, and Barbieri report, drawing on a longitudinal study between 1979 and 2015, the relation between heroin mortalities and populations has undergone three waves. Prior to the mid-1990s, when Purdue Pharma launched OxyContin, the heroin epidemic impacted racial and ethnic populations equally. Starting in the late 1990s until 2010, there was a greater increase in opioid-related deaths among whites than other groups driven by synthetic opioids (such as codeine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone), but since 2010 when Big Pharma reformulated OxyContin and the introduction of prescription monitoring programs (PMPs) shut down some pill mills and stopped users’ access to painkillers, heroin overdose deaths have increased consistently across all races as users have switched to a cheaper and more available street heroin, which is often mixed with fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids. Alexander, Monica J., Kiang, Mathew V., and Barbieri, Magali, “Trends in Black and White Opioid Mortality in the United States, 1979–2015,” Epidemiology, 29, 5 (Sept. 2018), 707–15CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

5 Chin, Mel, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 192CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Estevez, Ariadna, “Necropolitical Wars,” in Koram, Kojo, ed., The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 104Google Scholar. See also Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2011)Google Scholar

7 Mertinot, Steve, The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 3Google Scholar; and Lipsitz, George, Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 20Google Scholar.

8 Ferguson, Roderick, “The Distributions of Whiteness,” American Quarterly, 66, 4 (2014), 1101–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sexton, Jared, “People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery,” Social Text, 28, 2 (2010), 31–56, 47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Metzl, Jonathan M., Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 12Google Scholar.

10 Frank, Thomas, What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatism Won the Heart of America (New York: Holt, 2004), 50Google Scholar.

11 I am drawing on the work of Connolly, William E., “Trump, the Working Class, and Fascist Rhetoric,” Theory and Event, 20, 1 (2017), 2337Google Scholar, which argues for the value of shock events to create “affective contagions” that promote fascist policies.

12 These statistics are widely cited to describe the magnitude of the crisis. See, for example, Mariani, Mike, “Why So Many White American Men Are Dying,” Newsweek, 166, 1 (8 Jan. 2016)Google Scholar, at

13 For the influence of the Deaton and Case report see Erik Meburst, “The Economic Crisis, Addiction, and Suicide,” Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2016, at

14 Hochschild, Arlie, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016)Google Scholar.

15 Ashley Parker, “Jeb Bush Drops Guard to Share Family Account of Addiction,” New York Times, 5 Jan. 2016, at

16 Theodore Schleifer, “Cruz Shares Emotional Story of Half-Sister's Death after Battling Drug Addiction,” CNN, 5 Feb. 2016, at, emphasis added.

17 See, for example, Scott Neuman, “Trump's ‘Drug-Infested Den’ Remark in Transcript Angers New Hampshire,” NPR, 3 Aug. 2017, at German Lopez, “Trump's Wall Won't Do Anything about the Opioid Epidemic,” Vox, 9 Jan. 2019, at

18 For a discussion of the media images of the opioid crisis and the preservation of white innocence see Netherland, Julie and Hansen, Helena, “The War on Drugs That Wasn't: Wasted Whiteness, ‘Dirty Doctors,” and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse,” Culture, Media, Psychiatry, 40 (2016), 664–86CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

19 David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 36–37.

20 Since the mid-2010s a new genre of opioid documentary storytelling has emerged as a vehicle for representing the trauma, but also reconstructing white racial formations: MSNBC's 2017 “One Nation, Overdosed”; the Wall Street Journal's 2016 “American Epidemic: The Nation's Struggle with Opioid Addiction,” PBS Frontline's 2016 “Chasing Heroin”; Netflix's 2017 “Heroin(e)”; and the 2018 “Recovery Boys,” to name the most visible.

21 For the term “white fragility” to describe the liberal antiracist see DiAngelo, Robin, White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018)Google Scholar.

22 Warning: This Drug May Kill You, dir. Perri Peltz (New York: HBO Documentary Films, 2017).

23 For a historical overview of representations of “the addict” see Zieger, Susan, Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008)Google Scholar; and Brodie, Janet and Redfield, Marc, eds., High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which looks at how anxieties about addiction were tied to fears about foreign invasion.

24 Christopher Caldwell, “American Carnage,” First Things, April 2017, at

25 Kathleen Frydl, “The Enemy Is Us: The Opioid Crisis and the Failure of Politics,” Dissent, 20 (April 2017), at

26 Anker, Elisabeth, “Left Melodrama,” Contemporary Political Theory, 11, 2 (2012), 3052CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 In its review of Peltz's Warning, even a supposedly “scientific” magazine like Psychology Today (2017) reenforces the opioid imaginary's foundational obfuscatory blurring of the statistical fact that 80% of recent heroin addictions started with opioid painkillers to 80% of recent heroin users were prescribed opioid painkillers by their doctor. This linguistic slip from illicit use to physician-prescribed use is central to preserving whiteness's comparative non-culpability and victimization.

28 Linnemann, Travis and Wall, Tyler, “‘This Is Your Face on Meth’: The Punitive Spectacle of ‘White Trash’ in the Rural War on Drugs,” Theoretical Criminology, 17, 3 (2013), 315–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 For a discussion of the problems with a universalizing language of precarity see Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 68Google Scholar.

30 Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 37Google Scholar.

31 Brodie and Redfield, 2.

32 Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” In/Tensions, 5, 0 (Fall–Winter 2011), 1–47; Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structures of US Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Weheliye, Alexander, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 One of the few exceptions is the 2016 PBS documentary “Chasing Heroin,” which, while incorporating many of the familiar characters and tropes common within opioid narratives, does depict the multiple drug use of its profiled users.

34 Timothy Melley, “A Terminal Case: William Burroughs and the Logic of Addiction,” in Brodie and Redfield, 38–60, argues for what he calls an “agency panic” in addiction discourse.

35 David Amsden, “The New Face of Heroin,” Rolling Stone, 3 April 2014, at

36 Chin, Animacies, 192.

37 The prominence of these parents’ stories can be seen in such autobiographies as If You Love Me: A Mother's Journey through Her Daughter's Opioid Addiction by Maureen Cavanagh (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), which grew out of a 7 Jan. 2017 New York Times article, “Inside a Killer Drug Epidemic,” and in recent movies such as 2018's Ben Is Back written and directed by Peter Hedges and starring Julia Roberts.

38 Brown, Wendy, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 See, for example, Doyle, Laura, Race and the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640–1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 313Google Scholar.

40 Eng, David and Han, Shinhee, “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia,” in Eng, David L. and Kazanjian, David, eds., Loss: The Politics of Mourning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 345Google Scholar; and also Best, Stephen, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Brown, 173.

42 Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (London: Routledge Press, 2004), 13Google Scholar.

43 Anderson, Carol, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016)Google Scholar.

44 Butler, Precarious Life, 68.

45 Wailoo, Keith, Pain: A Political History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014)Google Scholar.

46 Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio, Assembly (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 51Google Scholar; Singh, Nikhil Pal makes a similar point in Race and America's Long War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 176CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Roediger, David, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 2007; first published 1991)Google Scholar. Quinones, Sam, Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015)Google Scholar.

48 Rachel Dissell, “Ohio Construction Workers Seven Times More Likely to Die of an Opioid Overdoes in 2016,” Plain Dealer, 5 Nov. 2017, at See also Sharon O'Malley, “Construction Workers at Heightened Risk of Painkiller Abuse,” Construction Dive, 30 June 2015, at

49 No longer allowed to unionize, no longer granted a living wage with benefits and safe working conditions, many laborers survive the unsteady employment, the tough repetitive work, the chronic pain, the strain of being often separated from their families as they travel to job sites, and the overtime pressures to finish projects by turning to opioids. Many constructions bosses even acknowledge dispensing opiates to keep workers on the job, and for longer hours (although this practice has recently come under fire in the industry).

50 Macy, Beth, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2018), 26Google Scholar. All other references to Macy's book will be cited in the text.

51 Karandinos, George, “Cashing in on Despair,” Dissent, 65, 2 (Spring 2018), 41–51, 42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Mertinot, The Machinery of Whiteness, 24.

53 Kahn, Jonathan, Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong about the Struggle for Racial Justice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 17Google Scholar.

54 Wilderson, Red, White, and Black, 20.

55 “Chasing Heroin,” produced by Marcela Garviria, PBS Frontline, 23 Feb. 2106, at

56 Peter Jamison, “An Unseen Opioid Epidemic in the Nation's Capital,” Washington Post, 18 Dec. 2018, at

57 Nicosia, Nancy, MacDonald, John M., and Arkes, Jeremy, “Disparities in Criminal Court Referrals to Drug Treatment and Prison for Minority Men,” American Journal of Public Health, 103, 6 (June 2013), 7784CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. To be referred to a drug court in most states, moreover, defendants cannot have a previous criminal record, or have more than misdemeanors, or they will be deemed “high-risk offenders.”

58 Treichler, Paula, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 11Google Scholar.

59 Joel Achenbach and Dan Keating, “Unnatural Causes: Sick and Dying in Rural America,” Washington Post, 30 Dec. 2016, at

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