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Gee: Perception, reality, and the face of addiction

If I asked you who the “face” of the one dollar bill was, that’s easy, right?

You’d say George Washington without thinking.

But what is the “face” of addiction?

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Recently, the cover of The Roosevelt News — Roosevelt High School’s newspaper — showed a cartoon depiction of a black man, dressed in a beanie and scarf facing a white man in a suit and tie. The two are trading money and a package that says “cure” on it. The headline: “The Struggles of a Life with Addiction.”

One of the stories this headline was connected to was how addiction plays a role in homelessness.

This picture hurt me.

As a black man, to know that there are people who so casually think that a person who looks like me is a synonym for “addiction” and “homelessness” while a smiling white man in a suit is the “cure” is an emotion that I am struggling for the words to describe.

What hurts even more is to find out that a student made the picture.

Now, I’m not mad at the kid at all. I am mad, hurt, and even confused at how a school system has conditioned one of its students to immediately think of a casually dressed black man as their go-to image of “addiction.” And in a bigger picture, I am disappointed that as a society we reinforce these stereotypes in so many places –that they are hidden in plain sight.

Too many people think of Dave Chappelle’s “Tyrone Biggums” character when they think of addiction, instead of the soccer mom who needs her pills to “take the edge off.”  They don’t think of the blue collar factory worker who needs opiates to make it through their 10-hour shift, and they certainly don’t seem to associate Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr, or even that adorable kid from “Home Alone.”

Back in the day, Richard Pryor burnt himself while freebasing cocaine. Your average American family hadn’t even heard of crack or freebasing at the time. With one incident, Pryor became the “face” of it.

Imagine how I felt when I saw this picture, from my perspective. Please, take a moment and allow yourself to critically think about why a picture like that could hurt more than anything someone could ever say to me.

And please, think about ways we can work together to avoid this kind of stuff from happening.

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