Notes on Whiteness and Health

Yesterday, a few of us at the Graduate Center hosted an interdisciplinary group of scholars to think critically about ‘whiteness and health.’  Across the day, with a kind of staccato arousal, I was struck by several ideas, including the following:

  • “Actionable Decoys” seemed to emerge as so many of the talks sketched the landscape of global, economic, and health “concerns” that are actually instances of structural injustice and violence in which “whiteness” comes to be privileged, the standard, normative, or even healthy, and people of color or those in poverty hold risk, contamination, disease, TB, waste.  That is the racist landscape which is built into material conditions and cultural constructions;  the “actionable decoys” are the sites of intervention that policy makers and public health advocates address. That is, instead of dealing with the power struggles of the Occupation in the Middle East, or structural/historic injustice in New Orleans following Katrina or in the Rockaways following Sandy, we address (just for a moment) mental illness.  Or, instead of attending to the wide and deep reach of structural racism under the skin and in the mind, we invest in MRI machines and psycho-physiological indicators to “document” how brains light up around racial anxiety. Or, the public health fetish with TB framed as a housing issue, that then enables the state to enter and destroy poor people’s housing (Samuel K. Roberts, Lisa O’Sullivan).


  • My worry of course is that “science” enables and creates a scientific lubrication and justification for the narrow shape of the problem, enabling a violent intervention that situates the problem in the body/mind/housing of racialized (and poor) people as if there were no connection to widening inequality gaps and swelling privilege. Thus, “actionable decoys” are the closing of public housing, obesity campaigns, limits on college access for formerly incarcerated students at the precise same time and as a reaction to the now quite predictable action of a white-boy-with-a-gun who blows up a community. What I want to argue is that actionable decoys appear to be a form of ‘care’, responding to the ‘pain’ and ‘crisis’ in  communities of color (particularly low income), while occluding issues of structure, privilege, history, whiteness-as-healthy, and ultimately generating a privatized market or opportunities for elites (a new pharmaceutical drug, new housing in gentrified neighborhoods, new schools in same neighborhoods).
  • In the language of social science, whiteness gets reinscribed as the independent variable (IV) becomes the dependent variable (DV). The grants we get, the funding and socialization of students are all saturated in a fundamental sea of epistemological violence so that “race disparities” (or “gender disparities” or both) reveal AND occlude the structural conditions of oppression in which gender/race/class/sexuality/disability… emerge as axes of power/lines of analysis – but not the Independent Variable to be ‘fixed. Funding streams fetishize “race” as a predictor (IV) and damage as an outcome (DV), occluding structure, history and the circuits that link privilege and marginalization
  • Several people raised the specter of whiteness becoming a market (Nadia Abu El-Haj, Alondra Nelson, Lisa Brundage, Barbara Katz Rothman). I was struck by the contrast to the hyper-criminalization of people of color. The result then is that if you support the market you can avoid criminalization – the methadone/bupe/oxycotin discussion (Helena Hansen, Julie Netherland) was superb on this point – but like enlisting in the military, those with green cards may become citizens. If you give your body to the market or the military – feed the system, you can avoid being criminalized; but if you won’t, or can’t, the cage awaits.
  • There were so many evocative and powerful ‘couplets’ during the same afternoon, it prompted me to think about other kinds of twinings, and the slippage between them. Questions arise about: Who is the addict vs. who is dependent? What is obscured vs. what is privileged?  Likewise, I started thinking about who is the ‘sex addict’ (which a predominantly white, and flourishing industry) and who is the ‘sexual predator’ (more often a person of color, incarcerated)?  In the panel on addition (Helena Hansen, Julie Netherland), I was led to wonder about who gets to be medicalized (bupenorphine) and who gets to be criminalized (methadone). And yet, it is so hard to speak about white pathology because as Richard Dyer suggests, it falls apart in your hands, or it appears merely ‘human.’  As Rebecca Tiger’s presentation suggested, it is difficult to talk about the “desire to excuse”Lance Armstrong , without the contrast of  Whitney Houston, because it appears to ‘natural’ and ‘we are all fallible’ when the case is White, and elite. In many ways, this extends the work of Sarah Carney who found that in press accounts of “failure to protect laws” (in which children die through accident while parents are distracted), that Black mothers are treated much more harshly than either white mothers or white fathers.
  • A corollary, as raised by Akemi Nishidi in conversation with Zinobia Bennefield, is that the “vulnerable” group or one under structural attack is often quick to distance from their more vile category-twin.  Thus, communities of color rightfully point to the over-enrollment of special education students who are Black. “We Are Not Crazy” is a rallying cry from communities that have been painted with the lamination of insanity, or even trauma without addressing the structural attack on madness, and the slippery construction of this swampy categorization, the real pain and the fantasy of the absence of pain in those of us not labeled (see Rachel Leibert’s work on this).
  • The eery presence of the (white)absence of white responsibility (more precisely white elites) was with us throughout the afternoon. It is so difficult to hold White people or whiteness  accountable, to speak the structural benefits of whiteness without doubling it as merit.  What this means is that whiteness makes it so hard to critique Lance Armstrong, or the white man whose child tragically dies in the back of his car, but so easy to condemn Whitney Houston, or the black mother when the same happens. It’s as though “white responsibility” is an oxymoron and black blame is redundant. Whiteness as Teflon.
  • Finally, I was struck by the ironies of anti-racist interventions being co-opted and exploited, toward racist (or racial?) ends.  So, for example, the Human Genome Diversity Project, or even the ‘discovery’ of bupe as an alternative to methadone, or the Implicit Association Test which measures unconscious racism, or the early ‘care’ given to persons/housing/communities with TB or VD, all of these presumably (maybe not bupe) emerged out of concern for communities of color, concern about racism, but all of these have been inverted and turned back to racial and often racist purposes, at minimum reiniscribing the very racial “differences”  and disparities they were presumably designed to combat.


~ Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor,  Graduate Center, CUNY