Writer’s Note: I am a white woman speaking to other white people. My work and words should not supersede the voices and lived experience of any Black person or non-Black person of color.
George Floyd’s unjust murder at the hands of a white police officer sparked widespread, public outrage within the last few weeks. Let me start by saying that what happened to him and to Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade— and the countless others before them — was heinous and unjust. Their murders are a product of white supremacy. And it’s also important to mention that this is not new. The list of Black people murdered at the hands of systemic white supremacy in America is as long as the history of our country.
And it seems like many white folks are finally waking up to what Black and Brown people have known and experienced all along. Popular antiracist titles like So you want to talk about race? by Ijeoma Oluo, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, are selling out and topping reading charts. And that’s a good start. But it’s just the beginning.
The American Addiction Centers reported that even though “African Americans make up (only) 12.5% of illicit drug users,” a staggering 33% of those incarcerated for drugs are Black.
Take a look around your recovery rooms and take note of who is present. I know personally, the rooms in which I sit are predominantly white. And yet, alcohol and drug use disorders do not discriminate. They affect all races, and therefore, recovery spaces need to accommodate Black people seeking sobriety just as they do white people. So why is that so many recovery spaces are mostly white?
Currently, Black Americans are at a higher risk of substance use disorders being characterized as a criminal issue rather than medical issue. In fact, the American Addiction Centers reported that even though “African Americans make up (only) 12.5% of illicit drug users,” a staggering 33% of those incarcerated for drugs are Black. The report also states that Black Americans are less likely to recover from drug and alcohol use even after treatment because our current recovery options are not set up to meet this particular population’s needs. Staffing is too white. Resources do not address the Black population’s unique life experiences or mental health needs.
Not starting the antiracism work because of fear or indecision is literally costing lives.
This is exactly why antiracism work needs to be done in the recovery space. But where do we get started? Many are overwhelmed or afraid to start because they don’t want to “get it wrong” or offend someone and therefore do harm. The resources are vast and the lists of what needs to be done are long, and that can cause overwhelm. Not starting the antiracism work because of fear or indecision is literally costing lives. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Here’s how to bring antiracism work into your recovery.
1. Start With Yourself
Racism is both an individual issue and a systemic issue, but part of affecting change on a larger scale is addressing racism within yourself. If you are white, you were born into a racist system and therefore benefit from it. Bias is a part of human nature and is present in every human being, so the best starting place is dismantling that bias within ourselves. The book list above is a great place to start. (And try to support Black individuals and local Black-owned bookstores whenever possible.) Me and White Supremacy is set up in a workbook style. It provides a daily reading and a lesson to help you uncover and challenge your bias.
Then, listen to Black people. Set your ideas aside and actively listen to the lived experience that someone presents to you.
2. Pass the Mic
Rather than speak for Black people, pass the mic. This means, if you’re in a recovery program, the group’s non-Black members must be in a space to listen. If a POC tells you what they need or shares lived experience, listen. Listen. Listen. If the group has officers or some sort of hierarchy, ensure that it represents the whole. Simply put, bring Black people into that hierarchy and listen when they speak.
Source recovery resources from Black people, read them, use them, implement them. Uplift and center Black voices in recovery spaces. But be mindful. The point of passing the mic is not to ask Black members of your recovery community to do the work for you. We must do the work for ourselves (which is where point #1 comes in).
3. Hold Others Accountable
By holding others accountable, I should specifically state that I mean holding other white people accountable. In the words of one of my mentors, we white people have to, “get with our people,” meaning we have to be willing to have tough conversations to ensure everyone has equal and safe access to sobriety. In recovery rooms, if you hear racist or biased comments toward POC, call them out. Hold others accountable for their words and actions. Recovery spaces are supposed to be safe for anyone seeking sobriety, but if someone is making backhanded, racial comments or jokes, then the space isn’t safe for Black people.
Bring up these issues in business meetings or focus groups in recovery spaces. Voice your concerns and ask how your group to commit to providing better support to the Black community seeking recovery.
4. Listen to Black People, then Use Your Voice
If you work in a recovery space, treatment center, or hospital —and especially if you’re in a position of power within that organization — listen to what your Black members, colleagues, and clients are sharing – then ask the hard questions. What is your organization doing to support Black clients or attendees? What does your leadership team or board look like and does it need to be revamped?
5. Don’t Quit
Again, this work might seem difficult because we’re afraid to get it wrong. We might say the wrong thing. We might do the wrong thing or take the wrong action or step on someone’s toes within the recovery space. We must be willing to stay open and vulnerable and understand that we are students always learning and correcting without ego. We must ensure recovery spaces are safe and welcoming and open to feedback from the Black community. Don’t quit the work because you made a mistake. Lean into that discomfort and stay open to feedback. Breathe. Seriously. Breathe, know that you’re not going to get it right on the first try, and then commit to moving forward.
If we’re going to create recovery spaces that safe for all— we have to start by rooting our racism on an individual level, and then we have to do the same within the recovery system as a whole. It starts with us. Antiracism is an ongoing process. It is necessary, and there’s no time to waste.