Biomedicine, the whiteness of sleep, and the wages of spatiotemporal normativity in the United States

by Matthew Wolf-Meyer

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The racialization of individuals in the contemporary United States is increasingly accomplished through institutional actors, including scientists and physicians. As genetic health risks, chronic disease treatments, and pharmaceuticals come to define Americans’ understanding of themselves, a fundamental shift is occurring in the way medicine is practiced and its role in the production of subjectivity. Underlying these changes is an expectation of orderly bodies—of “white” bodies that exemplify social and cultural norms of biology and behavior. Fundamental to U.S. medical ideas of normativity is that the white heteronormative subject is the standard against which disorderly and nonwhite subjects are to be judged. I explore these ideas through the history and contemporary world of sleep: the clinical production and interpretation of related scientific data, advertising use of images of sleep-disordered patients who have been “cured,” and experiences of nonwhite Americans within mainstream sleep medicine.