I have a big problem with marginalizing the plight of the addict with a phenomenon I don’t see as real

The purpose of this short blog is to get feedback from any of you who have read it that may be able to shed more light on what she is saying so I can discuss it more informed tomorrow. I realize I am posting late, so maybe I won’t get much response, but here goes…  I am referring to the meth mouth section and her implication that white addicts are merely a marker of “good” or “bad” in terms of their whiteness, and not their mental illness, addiction. I don’t think addiction is a good thing I think it is indeed a really tragic, devastating thing. And I think her connecting the plight of the white addict as a mere societal “inconvenience” or “stain” to their overall whiteness is a very toxic and problematic claim to be made. I just feel like racializing addiction for white people only in such a way counter-merits the lived experience of countless people who suffer from such a devastating illness. Can someone who agreed with what she said please explain what I am missing?  I understand addiction can be looked at differently when it comes to race, but I don’t see her claims as anything but insulting to addicted peoples who may happen to be white. I think there were many more responsible avenues for the discussion of surveillance, racism and addiction.

3 thoughts on “I have a big problem with marginalizing the plight of the addict with a phenomenon I don’t see as real

  1. Patrick Grady O'Malley Post author

    I also understand what she was saying about those nasty surveillance rags sold at gas stations. But I don’t see that as a justification for racialising addiction as something that makes a white person less white in the eyes of other white people when they are a human being with a severe life threatening condition.

    1. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

      Hi Patrick, I didn’t read it the way you did but and understand you’re taking issue with surveillance projects like http://www.mcso.us/facesofmeth/main.htm rather than with Simone Browne’s position. Thanks Matt for unpacking Browne!
      I appreciated Browne’s discussion of profiling methamphetamine addicts because substance users are routinely marginalized – or, Browne says, racialized (a tricky word for me in this context) – and far less talked about than other marginalized groups. There’s a real need to push against the extremely widespread negative stereotyping of substance users and to recognize their rights, free agency and basic human dignity. In my opinion Browne, by including them in her discussion of surveillance, helps to do just that.

  2. Matthew K. Gold (he/him)

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for your comment. I do think that you are misunderstanding Browne’s claims. The chapter — which is part of the _Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies_ — attempts to lay out the concept of “racializing surveillance.” Brown writes that racializing surveillance is “that where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise a ‘power to define what is in or out of place'” (72). Her work on this subject importantly is grounded on the twin observations that 1. Race is socially constructed rather than biologically defined, and 2. Surveillance is grounded in the exercise of power and control.

    Given these starting points, Browne looks at a series of moments in which the tools of surveillance have been brought to bear on human bodies in obviously racialized ways. She begins with the slave pass, noting that “the detailed cataloguing of slave life was a mechanism of disciplinary power” (73). Fugitive slave laws helped create a state of surveillance in which black bodies were constantly under examination by the white gaze.

    Browne’s second example — the rogues’ gallery — begins with the public display of photographs of criminals by the police; the point, as Browne notes, was a continuation of the slave pass, in that the citizenry became part of “the state’s project of surveillance and control” (74). It was an earlier form of the MTA’s “if you see something, say something.”

    Browne then moves to a more contemporary analogue of this “rogues’ gallery” practice, focusing on online galleries of mug shots and the display of methadone addicts in drug awareness and prevention programs. The materials she is analyzing display the faces of meth addicts as dire warnings to those who would think of doing those drugs.

    This is where I think you arrive at a few misunderstandings. You seem to read Browne as condemning the meth addicts as “bad,” but her claim here is that that is the _cultural work_ of the awareness campaigns themselves. It is the drug awareness campaigns, not Brown, who are displaying these meth-addled bodies for public consumption as part of a spectacle meant to shock the general populace into a fear of doing drugs. Browne, the cultural critic and scholar, is *not* approving this move — rather, she is analyzing the racial dynamics that underpin it and laying bare the work of power that it externalizes. Her entire point is that the drug awareness campaigns set up these distinctions between normal and abnormal whiteness. You can say that you don’t agree with her reading of these ad campaigns, but it’s important to be clear about what Browne is arguing here.

    This brings me to a few more points. You suggest that Browne is “racializing addiction,” but that viewpoint presumes a world in which race is not a constructed category that underlies many of our everyday social relations — that the ads she critiques are not already racialized, and that a lens of racial analysis is something that she brings, externally, to them. Race is not something that many people — and especially many white people — like to talk about, because it is uncomfortable to do so. Browne’s work, and the work of similar scholars, asks us to acknowledge and give voice to the ways that racial stereotypes and concepts operate in the world. That work can be extremely difficult for people who are white, precisely because, as Browne notes, whiteness is often seen as the norm against which others are compared (77). For those of us who are white (and I am one), it can often be difficult to see the privileges we are afforded on a daily basis due to the color of our skin. Undoing the work of white privilege is an extremely difficult task, and probably a lifelong one for most of us. The “Seeing White” podcast — https://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/ — might be one place to begin that work.

    One final note: I would ask you to reconsider (and potentially edit) the title of your blog post. “I have a big problem with Simone Browne” suggests a personal, direct conflict with a person who is a real human being who lives in the world (indeed, a friend whom Steve and I invited to visit the very first digital praxis class we taught in 2013 ( https://dhpraxisf13.commons.gc.cuny.edu/calendar/ ). Though I think your objection to this piece is ultimate based on a misunderstanding, I would urge you to focus on the scholarship rather than the person. At a moment when there is so much anger in the world, and when so many people — and especially so many black and brown people — find themselves physically targeted by the state and by others, it behooves us to act with sensitivity and care in our work, especially around such fraught subjects.

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