What A Stint In Rehab Taught Me About White People’s Feelings About Black People’s Pain » VSB

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What A Stint In Rehab Taught Me About White People’s Feelings About Black People’s Pain

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Every time I read about or see a news story on the opioid epidemic, I greet it with a resounding “So what?” It’s an admittedly vindictive stance that I am in no way ashamed of. When I see that whole towns are languishing under the tyranny of the needle, I couldn’t bring myself to care less and you don’t need to have an advanced degree in Why People Don’t Give A Shit About Something to understand why.

When white people befall the same tragedies as black people have, the narrative becomes different. The words change subtly to achieve the desired affects. White people get an “epidemic” while black people get a “plague.” The word plague ever so delicately indicates that the inky black pestilence slithering its way through black neighborhoods is our fault while an epidemic…well, an epidemic could befall any innocent bystander. 

Vann Newkirk recently articulated this distinction in The Atlantic

From “What The ‘Crack Baby’ Panic Reveals About The Opioid Epidemic

The article is an exemplar in a field of public-health-oriented writing about the opioid crisis—the most deadly and pervasive drug epidemic in American history—that has shaped popular and policy attitudes about the crisis. But the wisdom of that field has not been applied equally in recent history. The story of Jamie Clay and Jay’la Cy’anne stood out to me because it is so incongruous with the stories of “crack babies” and their mothers that I’d grown up reading and watching.

The term itself still stings. “Crack baby” brings to mind hopeless, damaged children with birth defects and intellectual disabilities who would inevitably grow into criminals. It connotes inner-city blackness, and also brings to mind careless, unthinking black mothers who’d knowingly exposed their children to the ravages of cocaine. Although the science that gave the world the term was based on a weak proto-study of only 23 children and has been thoroughly debunked since, the panic about “crack babies” stuck. The term made brutes out of people of color who were living through wave after wave of what were then the deadliest drug epidemics in history.

And when I see these stories, I remember whole black neighborhoods blighted by crack and the toll that it took and is still taking in black neighborhoods.

And then I remember…

Few years back, a friend of mine hit me upside the head and told me I needed to get it together. My life was falling apart and, whether you believe it or not, there comes a certain time in every person’s life where being high all the time ain’t cute no more for you or anybody else in your life and off to rehab I went. Reluctantly.

In many ways, rehab is a lot like how it’s depicted in the movies. You wander white hallways in your pajamas and there are endless group therapy sessions and tedious meetings with counselors about “getting to the bottom” of your problem. But, mostly it’s boring. After the novelty of the free Jello wears off, you don’t have much to do except not get high and this is the time when you really get to meet people. My rehab was a United Nations of junkies. We had good ol’ boys, and debutante Beckys. We had Jew, Gentile, and Heathen. White, black, brown, and undeclared skin tones from different backgrounds and different economic brackets. White trophy wives whose “wine with lunch” took on a life of its own and consumed them and we all got along. We all talked. We all became fast and intimate friends. We all got to know one another and we all helped one another and ugly cried in each other’s presence. Everyone had an ugly story. My roommate was a white yokel from way back and we talked about our problems until the wee hours and I liked him. You make temporary but deep friendships in rehab because you are at your most desperate. Your saddest. And when I raise my middle finger to all the white people overdosing across the country, I am forced to remember this. And then I have to think and allow my memories to soften my position. “Not all of them are bad” I have to tell myself.

It doesn’t seem like most white people think like this, though. No matter what happens to them, they allow their delusions of superiority to take over. They’re addicted to it. It’s more comforting to them than lunch wine and more powerful than Oxycontin. They don’t reflect because they don’t have to. I am the one who is stuck having to think things through until my basic humanity takes the wheel.

After rehab, I have held on to all my friends of color from that period in our lives. All of them. I have had to dump most of the white ones due to their support of Trump and have come to the realization that rehab was the great equalizer. White people have to be brought low in order to exhibit humanity and I have no doubt that if I stepped on to an elevator with one of those trophy wives today she would snatch her purse to her bosom and cradle it like it was a bottle of Malbec. And I’ll have to be the one to remember and know that centuries of deluded and hateful thinking are far more powerful than any drug could ever hope to be.

Brian Broome

Brian Broome is a Creative Writing/English major at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has been published in Creative Nonfiction, The Ocean State Review, and Delta’s Pride Magazine. Brian's work explores the topics of racism, masculinity and the African American male.

  • Rewind4ThatBehind

    Well said Brian.

    It’s funny. Anytime I hear about heroin and the epedemic sweeping the nation, I go to Fulton St by my area. I will find at least two base heads out there. White men and women addicted to heroin. I look around my gentrified neighborhood, with all these fake smiling faces acting as if they’re doing my neighborhood a solid with their presence. Then I remember:

    1) I couldn’t go outside during the crack era without supervision.
    2) I couldn’t go near my window at night for fear of getting shot by a stray bullet
    3) Well I got grazed by a stray bullet anyway at 6 years old
    4) Most of the buildings on my block where burned out crack houses at one point
    5) My neighborhood never ever recovered from that era on it’s own and the police love to remind us of it.

    So I got to sit with those 5 facts in the back of my head daily while I see history slowly but surely repeat itself, but instead, THEY get helping hands. THEY get sympathy. THEY get empathy.

    My neighborhood was invaded by the American Government with crack cocaine like Kuwait in Desert Storm and the city left daily reminders for 20+ years that we weren’t sh*t because of it but I’m supposed to applaud America recognizing it has a drug problem when Tyler put down the Xannies and picked up a needle.


    • kingpinenut

      Sounds like Baltimore and all of Maine yo

      • Rewind4ThatBehind

        Every hood in America was little Iraq during those times

      • Mr. Mooggyy

        I seen plenty of crack heads but didn’t experience my first dope fiend until I really paid attention to my surroundings (and family) in Baltimore.

      • And Detroit.

    • BrownKitty289

      THIS needs to be on a sign, shirt, enlarged and put on the side of a building, etc etc etc.

      • Charlito Brown

        Would make for a serious graff piece or a mural. Brooklyn? West Philly? North Philly?

    • Mochasister

      And this is why I struggle to have some compassion for them and their “epidemic” now.

  • Keiko Coy-Knee

    Every word you say is true. Such a powerful piece of writing that really highlights the way whites have always tried to separate themselves from PoC. Since black people were freed from slavery, ignorant white people have clung to the fallacy that no matter how poor or drug addicted they are, for instance, they are still better than black folks.

  • D-Nice

    Article is on point. Speaks to the simple fact that whites are seen as individual humans and blacks are seen as a monolithic evil. A lot of these opioid crisis stories involve (largely) a white working class population that has digressed in terms of jobs, money, family stability, status – and that causes turmoil, frustration, desperation which leads to drug use and addiction. Simply, whites do drugs and get hooked because they are frustrated and desperate, as where black people do drugs and get hooked because they are inherently evil or damaged. Sure, no black crack users were in personal turmoil, frustrated with lack of job/life opportunities and desperate – right (eye roll). Blacks were met with stiff drug laws and mandatory sentencing during the crack epidemic, not talk of expanded treatment programs, counseling and job training.

  • Gigi Sev

    If I were in a situation like that I think I would raise my middle finger higher. Being in a situation like that would just reaffirm my sentiments that no matter how hard they try or how much they say they are Becky, Connor and Co just are that special they bleed just like us, have dark stories just like us, Sue Ann can clutch that purse if she want to but never forget bitch you hit rock bottom at the bottom of wine glass number — because you husband stopped paying attention to you.

    • BM, President of Fuckery

      Her bottom is our ceiling.

      • Uncle Remus

        I ain’t paying her bottom no mind. Trying to get me caught up in this elevator…

        • BM, President of Fuckery

          All you can do fam.

      • Gigi Sev

        And that’s unfortunate

  • Doctsc

    I’m old enough to remember the worst of crack as well as any number of similar “epidemics.” Class will always have its role–and we have meth as a comparison–but crack was pure racism. I’m a psychologist and heard many a grand rounds presentation about “crack babies.” I came to view it as an indirect way of summoning up a judgment of hopelessness, and thus forgiveness for our many treatment failures; and sainthood for us, the people doing addiction treatment. So much of this was unconscious and still is. Addiction work is very difficult for therapist and patient alike. We all look for a way to understand and survive it, and since this is America racism is right there at the ready.

  • BM, President of Fuckery

    I can’t read another “Struggling White Working Class” article for the same reason. Nobody seems to ask what black folks in red states like Mississippi feel and think (despite facing child mortality rates that rival some African countries).

    • Val

      Excellent point, Grasshopper.

      • Kas

        That pup is smart.

    • MakesMeWannaShoopShoopShoop

      Busy disenfranchising those

    • I saw a few articles from Mississippi and Louisiana that have sprung up in response to that phenomenon, but point taken.

    • Brown Rose

      Of course they weren’t. The infant mortality rates among Black people and the shortened life span would have been enough. But they don’t care.

    • miss em

      When I started reading all of those “economic insecurity” articles I was like uh who overall is more “insecure” than the black community and we weren’t stupid enough to vote for Cheeto!?!?!? I mean, once poor white people stop thinking primarily about fing over other people than looking out for their real economic interests they may be able to lift themselves up. But nah. they’d rather drown themselves than let someone else benefit. Poor white people really get mad at you if you have more than them and you dare to be black or brown whilst having more. And coal?!?!? You might as well be an advocate for bringing back the buggy whip industry or button hooks. gtfoohwtbs.

      • SororSalsa

        All the GOP had to do was convince poor whites that they’re still better than black and brown people to get their vote. They vote against their own interests every. single. time. because they don’t get that the Tangerine Terrorist is going to take their ish too.

    • Am I the only one laughs her assoff when I see poor white folks begging Trump not to cut their insurance orc their food stamps…. I, legit, feel no ways bad. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b4020562121c9a558f62f09db93a5133500816ae129ce30548ec2c501161e0ec.gif

      • I want Trump to cut them first. All of a sudden, they’ll love them some big government. And they say small government is racist. LOLOLOLOLOLOL

        • SororSalsa

          Well, you are talking about the folks that didn’t know that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing.

          • mausium

            That rich actor who cried during an interview “Where was Da Gubbmint when I was on assistance?!”

  • I feel so ashamed and horrible in general and I know there’s no right way to say this without coming off as patting myself on the back… or at worst I’m saying “not all white people…” Please believe that I’m not looking for praise, but I just want you to know that you have my support and I’m doing what I can, especially reading and listening, and raising my voice to my white friends and family.


    • Uncle Remus

      If you don’t want to come off as patting yourself on the back, etc., then just do the work and then be quiet. You have articles to share? Great. Share them. Maybe give a little context or a summary, but then step back. We read articles from white folks. You don’t see all the references to the Times, the Atlantic and to random blogs on this page in the comments ALL THE TIME? You really want to avoid the shame you claim? Edit, leave the article links and erase the rest. Do the same in the future until you can be in the conversation without centering your whiteness.

  • Janelle Doe

    One word (ok two): Fentanyl Crisis

  • Brown Rose

    I shrugged my shoulders with the opiod epidemic myself. No one cared about Black people being laid waste to the crack epidemic. They called us super predators, wastrels, a pox on humanity, and subhuman creatures who should be exterminated.

    And their answer wasn’t soul searching, rehab programs or fresh needles. They increased drug sentences, militarized the police force, and permanently criminalized Black people wholesale. The result is that they destroyed a good portion of a generation in which it would take a century to catch up to white and Asian people if at all.

    Its not in this country’s DNA to empathize with Black people. How could they possibly do so.That would have them confront the possibility that they are mediocre and that they are just as much failures as the people that they loathe.

  • MsCee

    Man…serious gut check. I hate to sound insensitve but this is my attitude towards most, if not all, whtye issues. It’s like I stopped feeling anything when I hear of their “crisis” situations. Glad I’m not alone, but dayum, we gotta get to a place of caring again.

    • Zil Nabu

      Do we?

      God is still working on me.

      • Darkchloe144

        We do…eventually and selectively.

        • Zil Nabu

          Like super gradually because I ain’t there yet unless I know you personally.

          • Darkchloe144


      • MsCee

        Me too. Trust me.

    • Val

      “but dayum, we gotta get to a place of caring again.”

      Them first.

      • MsCee

        Hello, somebody.

        • Mr. Mooggyy

          You sound like someone’s church mother! *waves fan and hums a spuritual*

          • MsCee

            ***tips my big a$$ hat to you***lol

      • Mochasister


    • raul

      Yeah I can be rather empathy challenged but it’s not something I’m proud of.

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