From Crack House to Cocaine Apartment: The Privilege of Dying While White

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley
Kiersten Rickenbach Cerveny

With a bit of trepidation, I'm addressing the story of Kiersten Rickenbach Cerveny, the married doctor and mother of three who was left unconscious in the lobby of an apartment building she did not live in and was pronounced dead by medics shortly after she was found. While the cause of death hasn't been determined, and an autopsy report is pending, reports say police believe the likely cause of death was a cocaine overdose.

Cerveny's story is a tragedy, just like the stories of all the other women and men who die as a result of drug use. The story of her death has been covered in an astounding number of news outlets, as if there were something unique about it. The articles are carefully crafted to emphasize the best of how Cerveny lived and to clean up the worst of her ending.


I've had a couple of days to contemplate the coverage, and I am conflicted. The news has been (overly) sensitive and compassionate, which should be applauded. But it's also been privileged, which is unfair, particularly to people of color and the less fortunate who aren't shown the same courtesy.

That her story has garnered so much ink and bandwidth is a privilege on its own. Cerveny was white, blond and affluent, and because of this, her story is perceived as important and worth telling. We all know that when women of color, particularly black and brown women, suffer similarly tragic endings, their stories don't often make headlines. On the few occasions that theirs do, they certainly aren't afforded much sympathy or offered kind euphemisms to shine up their messy behavior.


In the articles about Cerveny's death, it's been important for writers to mention that she was a mother and wife. Both facts, but both used for empathy and excuses. Journalists liked to mention that she was a beauty queen, though that has nothing to do with her demise. It's added to describe her fall from grace and to highlight her striking looks. Her occupation, a dermatologist with a thriving practice, is used to elevate her as somehow not like other women—poor women—who abuse the same drug Cerveny is suspected of using.

Her career is also used as an excuse of sorts, the implication being that the pressures of her job (and the demands of being a mom of three) were the underlying reason the suburban woman wound up drinking with a friend in the big city most of the evening, then supposedly doing cocaine elsewhere after hours.


In the story of any woman of color, writers would wonder or even speculate about the nature of her relationship with a man she partied with, who was not her husband. That man who took her to an apartment at 4 a.m. is identified as an HBO producer (he sold a documentary on the porn industry to the cable network). As if an HBO-film-producing friend who does drugs with someone else's wife is somehow better than when Pookie, Ray Ray and Tyrone do the same.

And the apartment in which they did their drugs? The pair stopped by an apartment of a friend, a man nicknamed "Pepsi," because a coke dealer who went by "Coke" would be too obvious, the Daily Beast explained. This man is never called a drug dealer. Or a thug.


The Daily Beast also referred to the location where drugs were consumed as a "cocaine apartment." It's a much prettier phrase than "crack house" or "trap house," which are the common words to describe where women of color, including Whitney Houston, and poor people get lifted. I guess the affluent zip code called for a less gritty description?

When we talk about women of color and poor women, we like to " call a thing a thing," as Iyanla Vanzant likes to say. We hold no cut cards and we label their behavior in the gulliest terms possible. The women are defined by their singular worst moment, often the catalyst of the news story, and that becomes the totality of who they are. And the negative perceptions perpetuated by the media can have long-lasting consequences. Why does Cerveny get to be remembered as a great doctor, a doting but overstressed mother of three who died in a "cocaine apartment," instead of "just another" drug addict in a trap house?


To be clear: It's not that I want Cerveny to be dragged mercilessly as other folks with too much melanin and not enough money would be. It's that I want the stories of people without her whiteness, privilege and affluence to be shown the same understanding and empathy. Every person who does drugs has a story, some of it good, some of it bad, a winding tale that led them to drug use. Either uplift everyone or slander them all equally. That's what I want.

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.

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