Sobriety, White Supremacy, and the Power of Recovery

CW: Mentions of anti-Black behavior; violence; racism; white supremacy.

I cannot, in good conscience, write about anything else right now. I cannot write without addressing what is currently taking place in the United States and around the world—what has been happening in the world for centuries. I can’t. I can’t write about anything else without acknowledging this. But why here? Why am I sharing this here? What does this have to do with sobriety?

            In March I heard a podcast between Ruby Warrington and Layla F. Saad. Ruby, of Sober Curious Podcast, had asked Layla on for the episode titled “Are We Addicted to Privilege?” Layla was discussing her new book, “Me and White Supremacy.” The book is a “step-by-step reflection process for people with white privilege to examine their racist thoughts and their participation in white supremacy” (Warrington, R., ITunes). Ruby highlighted how the framework of sobriety and recovery may help a person to better check their privilege.

Privilege, Addiction, White Supremacy, Recovery. This is why I’m here today.

            That episode stirred something in me. I had been made keenly aware of my privilege about six years ago, after I moved to Oakland, CA. It was the same summer Michael Brown and Eric Garner were murdered by police. Black Lives Matter protests were at a high. It was the first time I had ever heard the concept of white privilege. The next five years expanded my cultural and world view in more ways than I could have imagined. That’s what a place like Oakland will do. When Trump was elected and the world was covered in tears, there was comfort in the classroom. I was fortunate to work at a school where we had conversations around privilege, equity, melanin, and Black Lives Matter with students. I’m thankful I had Black colleagues who curated and shared this work, though now I can see that should never have been their responsibility. Looking back they weren’t perfect, one-size-fits-all lessons, nor was the school one either, but the light, power, and truth in the students fueled us to do this work. It was a special place. There was no doubt these young Changemakers were going to move the world. It was the first time I started to see myself as a Changemaker, too.

Yet, despite the growth I made while living in Oakland, not too much changed for me in how willing I was to go for others’ justice and liberation. Looking back, it’s because I thought I was doing enough. When I questioned the extent of my solidarity, when it felt like maybe I should be doing more, I could always fall back on the notion that I wasn’t one of them. Moreover, I didn’t get us here. So, I was OK. I walked the 2017 Women’s March pregnant with twins—my first protest ever—brandishing a homemade sign that read: We Openly March Against Neo-Nazis. I cried when ICE began their raids and the borders became another place to tear families apart. I now saw this violence through the eyes of a parent. I expressed my outrage and anguish, signed petitions, and donated what I could, but for the most part, I stayed in my comfort, in my home, because I could. This is privilege.

I didn’t have to do more because it wasn’t directly affecting me. This is privilege.
I didn’t have to get out of my comfort zone because my friends and family weren’t dying. This is privilege.
I could post to social media if, when, and however I wanted to AND turn it off if it got to be too much. This is privilege.

When White supremacists and nationalists stormed Charlottesville, VA with torches in hand it was easy to admonish their behavior. It was easy to call out their vile, racist remarks. It was so easy to say they weren’t me. They felt so different than me. I was not racist. I was not them.

Sound familiar?

But something shifted when I heard that Sober Curious Podcast episode with Layla F. Saad. It was the first time I had ever heard someone say that White Supremacy is a system upheld by, and to the benefit of, all White people. Not just some. Not just the people who spew hate. Not just the people who ram cars into crowds or who burn churches or who willingly work towards the oppression of others. No. White supremacy is on everyone who is not Black.

Layla followed this up by stating that White folx and non-Black People of Color have all contributed to this system whether we know it or not. We contribute to, and benefit from this system that places superiority of White, or white-passing, bodies over those of Black people. This shows up in schools, businesses, hospitals, politics, police departments, your neighbor’s house, your house, internally, externally, subtlety, loudly, consciously and unconsciously, everywhere.
            I’m not writing today to give you this lesson. I could never cover the breadth needed. I am not qualified to do so and it would be to your detriment to not hear it from Black authors, teachers, and leaders, such as, but not limited to, Layla F. Saad, Rachel Cargle, and Britt Hawthorne. I am writing today to be a mirror; To be a bridge. I am writing today to let you see that this is our problem, whether we know it or not. And because it’s our problem it is also our responsibility.

Wait, wait,” you still may be thinking. “Sobriety? Recovery? I’m lost. Where’s the connection?”

I don’t think I’d be here questioning my role in White Supremacy if it weren’t for my sobriety. I certainly would not have heard it from a Sober Curious podcast anyway. But I believe it’s less about the happenstance of where I heard it and more about my response to it once I did. That I owe to sobriety.

Am I an alcoholic?
Do I have a drinking problem?
Should I just try to drink less?
What would happen if I stop?
How does this show up in my life?

Am I a racist?
Do I have a part in the system of white supremacy?
Where do I even begin?
What would my life look like without this privilege?

How does this show up in my life?

Before I go any further I need to make something clear. I’m not comparing addiction to racism. I am not comparing sobriety to racism. I am not comparing the violence, death, oppression, and marginalization of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color (BIPOC) to what it feels like to struggle with addiction. I am comparing the work of becoming anti-racist to the work of becoming sober. I am sharing my lens and hoping that however small these similarities might be that they give you an opportunity to look at yourself more closely, to see that this change is possible for you, too. With work and commitment you can decide to show up differently in your life, much like you have done with the decision to stop drinking.

While this is a reckoning that all white folx must process, sober or not, those of us who have already made the life-changing decision to live an alcohol-free life may find ourselves in a unique position to carry over those experiences to that of breaking down our own white supremacy. I believe there are more connections than it may seem and we are our greatest asset in changing our ways.

Starting with:
Alcohol Addiction or White Supremacy?
It’s always been around since birth.
It’s everywhere.
It makes people uncomfortable when you talk about it.
It makes people uncomfortable because then they have to confront these things about themselves.
It might make you lose friends or make you realize who you don’t wish to be around anymore.
You start to notice it everywhere.
Once you need more support, you realize there are scholars, teachers, folx talking about this and have been talking about it.
There’s no one right way but there is a common goal.
It affects everyone but disproportionately affects others.
We all have varying degrees of this problem.
Some see it more than others.
Others are completely blind.
Some just don’t want to admit it.
Admitting it means there needs to be a change.
Change is scary.
It can be more comfortable staying where you’re at.
Nothing will change if you stay where you’re at.
There needs to be a change.
It starts with you looking inward.
And not giving up.
So you can show up every day.
And do the work.

To state again, I am not an anti-bias/anti-racist educator. I am a person who is sober and is also trying to work on being actively anti-racist. I am a person who heard a podcast that changed my life.

When Amy Cooper’s racist and harmful actions went viral at the end of May it was the first time I didn’t see a separate person’s actions as the other. It was the first time I could see that I am her. It would have been too easy for me to stop at the condemnation of her actions, too easy for me to point the finger and say, “What a shitty person. What a racist person.” It would have been too easy to move on feeling as if I were in the clear.

But Layla’s words stuck with me. ALL. White Supremacy is held up by all who benefit from it.

While I woefully disagree with Amy Cooper’s response, I could understand the subconscious belief that got her there. I could see how she acted on her anti-Black beliefs; beliefs that society and institutions have upheld every day for centuries. Regardless of how she got there, she ultimately made a decision out of malice. I do not excuse her behavior but I could see that unless I do my own work to dismantle my unconscious white-supremacist beliefs, I am not too far down the line from her. In fact, if I do not challenge these engrained beliefs it could put more people in danger.

It did not take long to have this work tested again. George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police the very same day.

If you’re reading this it’s probably because you were linked to it from social media. It’s where we’ve all been. It’s why I can’t write about anything else. These things need to be said if we are going to make any change.

I can’t tell you where you need to go with this work. I can’t even tell if you believe you even need to go anywhere with this work! Much like I can’t tell you you need to be sober or how you should recover. We are all on a continuum of awareness. But just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. And we need to move. There wouldn’t be unrest if people were getting their needs met. I know the world I want to see and it doesn’t end with just my liberation.

And I get it. You’re probably in a tough spot right now. You’re hearing so much and you’re not sure where to start (or if you even want to start at all). And so my advice to you is to lean on what power you’ve already been given. Lean on the power that’s fueled your sobriety. About two weeks ago I made a post on my Instagram page that featured a common milestone/day tracker. Instead of the label of “alcohol” at the top, I exchanged it with “white supremacy.” It is not a tracker I actually use, but the concept had been playing in my head—a continuation of Layla’s and Ruby’s conversation. I asked the question: Taking the insights gained through sobriety, how might I apply these to truly do the transformational work of actively being anti-racist and anti-biased? 

Starting anti-racism work may feel similar to the overwhelming feeling that can come with imagining a sober life—a life completely different than what you’re living now. It brings up guilt, shame, vulnerability, denial, confusion, anger. But the reason you start questioning is because you realize you cannot go on living the way you have been. My decision to quit drinking was always about me. But it didn’t take long for me to see the affects it would have on those around me. It didn’t take long for me to see how badly the world needed this message, too. Antiracism work starts with you, too. It starts with questioning. It continues with looking more truthfully, critically, and consciously at your past behaviors. It highlights what you need right now. It starts to show you where you need to go. Perhaps who you need to connect with in your community. Unlike sobriety, which I did for myself, my commitment to learning and unlearning anti-Black, white supremacist behavior is for the liberation of Black folx and other oppressed people. Yes, I will heal parts of myself. Yes, I will change the course of my children’s’ lives, but doing this work is not for my singular life to change. It is for Black lives to change. It is for Black lives to get better. It is for the world.

Racism is not a metaphor nor neatly packed into a post. Anti-racism is not an exit but a staying in the room. The tracker in that post was not for a person to really “count days” or to say you’ll ever be free of white supremacy. Nor was it to simplify racism. It was to address privilege as an addiction. We want anti-racism and anti-bias work to be a forever learn and unlearn. For some that’s not hard to see. Maybe they’ve been at it longer. But for those on Day 1, Day 21, or Day 5001, the message is the same: STAY IN THE GAME.

I know that I will never be free of my white privilege the way I can be free of alcohol. It’s not that simple. But I know that I can use what we’ve heard in sobriety meetings, by leaders, and from our own processes to help get us through the door. And that’s what I detailed in that post and am sharing here. What if we could take Holly Whitaker’s advice of “Never Question the Decision” to be fully committed to living a life through an antibias/antiracist lens? What if we could take the cognitive dissonance information Annie Grace shares about in regards to our subconscious mind and alcohol to help us see the hows and whys of our intentional or unintentional anti-Black behavior? She also states without desire there is no temptation. What if we eliminated our desire to always center ourselves? It’s much more than saying you don’t want to be racist, you have to choose to be ANTIracist, as Angela Davis pus it. It must also be action-backed. And it is an undertaking when you’ve lived your whole life in privilege. But what if we could take it one day at a time, every day? What if we don’t get so overwhelmed by the “forever” aspect and really just approach it by taking the next, best step and pushing off from where we are, as Laura McKowen so often and so eloquently writes?

Questioning your relationship to alcohol and questioning your relationship to privilege brings up many uncomfortable feelings. It begins the process of turning your subconscious thoughts and beliefs into conscious thoughts, beliefs, and actions. It can be scary and eye-opening. But if sat with long enough and met with grace, compassion, and unwavering commitment to the greater cause you begin to see what comes of the transformation: hope, determination, compassion, resolve, action, empathy, shared humanity, freedom, liberation. The work is never-ending, but you begin to see that it boils down to a relationship change. And it starts with you. Your decision to what comes up in the questioning of White Supremacy and anti-Black behavior is what makes you stay complacent and complicit or what fuels you to make a change. Remember this: The longer we take to make a change, the longer we keep Black people at risk. The longer we take to start, the longer it takes to heal. So, come, heal. Make the change. Be the change. Because when we change ourselves, we change our children, and we change the world. It becomes a new way of life and in doing so we truly live what it means to say, Black Lives Matter.

Originally written for the Seek Purpose Now Collective. This writing would not be possible without the teachings of Black authors, writers, and educators. All I write is for me, too.  I owe my recent learnings to Layla F. Saad, Rachel Cargle, and Britt Hawthorne. You can find each of these folx on Instagram. They also have Patreons and places to tangibly support their work. When you go to their pages, please enter with grace, humility, and respect. Do not expect them to personally teach you. Take the time to browse the resources they have created and donate where you can.  Please do not place undue burden on them—return to your support circle and community to discuss.
I further wish to express my gratitude to Ruby Warrington for asking Layla to come on the Sober Curious Podcast (while also acknowledging Layla’s consent). Without a doubt, that episode changed my life.

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