The First Step to Recovery Is Admitting You Are Not Powerless Over Your Privilege

Dismantling white supremacy within 12-step recovery groups

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

On the evening of June 12, an employee called 911 to report a man who was blocking the drive-thru line at a Wendy’s restaurant in southwest Atlanta. It appeared he was passed out in his car, most likely drunk. “Is he Black?” the dispatcher asked. “Yeah,” the employee answered. At approximately 10:30 p.m., Officer Devin Brosnan responded to the call and found 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks asleep in his car. Brosnan awakened Brooks, who peacefully followed the officer’s orders to move his car to a parking space. After a few minutes of routine questioning with full cooperation from Brooks, Brosnan called for backup. Officer Garrett Rolfe arrived within minutes and administered a field sobriety test. Brooks asked if he could walk home, where his family, namely his daughter, whose birthday they had just celebrated, was waiting for him. The officers refused and instead demanded he take a Breathalyzer test. Armed with the results, Rolfe attempted to handcuff Brooks. He resisted; they struggled. When Brooks ran in the opposite direction of the cops, Rolfe fired three shots from a distance of 18 feet 3 inches, killing Brooks.

It’s unknown whether Rayshard Brooks was simply exhausted, under excessive stress, much like the rest of us, or suffering from a dependency. But as an addict myself, I wondered: Were these the consequences that often befall BIPOC struggling with addiction on grim display?

Addiction is defined by the irrepressible compulsion to continue behavior you know will hurt you. I’d been engaged in so many of these coping mechanisms for so long, the only way I recognized the necessity to interrupt my destructive patterns was when one nearly killed me. That was alcohol. On August 28, 2016, I gave it up and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

I celebrated my first 90 days of sobriety at an anniversary meeting in Georgia, where I was visiting my sister for Thanksgiving, just after Donald Trump was elected president. The large hall held more than 100 men and women, all white. “God bless Trump!” celebrants cheered as they collected their anniversary chips to uproarious applause. I remained hidden in the back of the room, never announcing my anniversary. Ninety days is a monumental milestone in recovery — studies show this to be the approximate amount of time it takes the brain to reset from the initial influence of a drug — yet all I could feel was terror. It made me want to drink, but I didn’t.

Technically, AA bars discussing politics during a gathering, but this rule is frequently ignored by its predominantly white members. When I returned to New York, I decided I would no longer suppress the crises of my identity and refused to censor my shares. Instead of receiving the support of my fellows, I was told not to refer to myself as a “woman of color,” to ignore rampant classism — “try not to get offended,” and “go where it’s warm” (that is, find another meeting). Above all, I must “place principles before personalities,” as it is written in the Twelfth Tradition of the fellowship. These aggressions consistently forced me to swallow the fact of racism with the sanctimony of 12-step esoterica and have only escalated recently at the groundswell of the social justice movement, requiring me to keep a finger on the pulse of the now writhing 12-step community.

White supremacy is baked into the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous. The organization was established in the 1930s by two white men: Bill Wilson, a stockbroker in New York, and Bob Smith, a white Protestant doctor from the Midwest. The seeds of addiction therapy, however, had been planted centuries prior by First Nations people across the country. “Sobriety circles” were formed in the mid-18th century by Native American tribes. They honored those members recovering from alcoholism and addiction as exceptional “wounded healers” who could share the experience of getting and staying sober with those still battling alcoholism. When Wilson and Smith created AA in 1935, they pulled heavily from Native tradition yet never credited Native tribes for their influence.

Today, the culture of white supremacy is easily (and often) perpetuated by any AA member when they simply summon one of the Twelve Traditions. This issue was brought forth at a General Sharing Session in 1986 by the first Black trustee, Garrett T., who offered his personal experience in Washington, D.C., where Black members were openly unwelcome at white meetings. It was asserted that in adhering to its traditions, AA had failed to address racism responsibly, but rather “let it happen.”

I celebrated my first 90 days of sobriety in Georgia, just after Donald Trump was elected president. “God bless Trump!” celebrants cheered as they collected their anniversary chips.

Currently, the world faces the biggest health crisis of the century, and safe and equitable recovery has never been more vital. For months, people have faced the stress of anxiety, the grief of loss, and the pressure of confinement. But we have not all suffered in the same way. Poor, Black, and Brown communities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while still being brutally targeted by militarized police. In this present moment, the uprising within these disenfranchised communities has resonated much further than ever before, inspiring the world to believe in liberation from all oppressive inventions of hierarchy — race, gender, and class. No institution is exempt from self-examination, least of all AA.

“I am a Black woman in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. I haven’t used alcohol or drugs in over eight years. The trauma stored in my own body of trying to navigate predominantly white recovery spaces has become unavoidable. The isolation. The fight,” Ariel Britt posted on her Instagram on May 31, along with a six-minute video.

“I never really felt comfortable in my own skin,” said Britt, a Black woman whose social media post about discrimination in sobriety movements have garnered thousands of views. “So when I got sober, one of the first things I started to unravel was how afraid I was to be myself in this world.” She described her gateway into drinking and using as a means of fitting in. Now, working as the senior director at SAFE Project, an addiction treatment nonprofit, Britt often sees the same pattern of insecurity among others. Reflecting on her own experiences with sobriety, Britt credits a meeting in Brooklyn, one where she didn’t feel marginalized for a change, with giving her the strength to stay in AA. “I don’t think I would have gotten sober, honestly, without going to that meeting,” she said. “It was a massive influence—predominantly Black — like older mother, grandmother, auntie energy.”

The most precious privilege of being white is you are never forced to consider what your existence in a community means to the other people around you. In AA, meeting groups are given the autonomy to define their purpose for recovery — hence the establishment of queer, men’s, and women’s meetings, among others. However, the uncomfortable discussion of race is consistently policed by members, many of whom feel free to moralize riots and protests, bemoan pandemic hardship in the form of loss of sleep, money, or property, all while seemingly inured to Black death. The statement “Black lives matter” has been designated as “harmful,” with the potential to risk a fellow’s sobriety. “It has no place in AA,” many declare. We’ve allowed for talk of certain trauma, but when it’s race-related trauma, it’s labeled “terminal uniqueness” and dismissed as a false projection of your own self-centered ego.

“Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits,” said clinical therapist Resmaa Menakem. “Trauma in a people looks like culture.”

Self-medicating for trauma is considered a key risk factor operating as a gateway drug for addiction. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among Americans with mental health disorders, 9.2 million also have a substance abuse problem. Half to one-third of drug use issues can be traced to adverse childhood events (ACEs), largely perpetuated in marginalized communities due to systemic oppression. With costs high and access limited, BIPOC rarely even make it to treatment, as they are far more likely to be criminalized for drug-related offenses. Eighty percent of people in federal prisons and almost 60% of people in state prisons for drug charges are Black or Latinx. For most, the only option is AA.

Activist and historian Lisa Betty said that oftentimes, Western Puritanical mechanisms of recovery, primarily engineered for conformity, can feel unnatural for people of color, who are forced to assimilate to unfamiliar customs, which can ultimately make them unwell. She recommends supplementing participation in AA with a cultural healing practice that is indigenous to their community. “If you only use that modality of healing, one that comes with a certificate, which I don’t think is healing, it begins to operate as a countdown until death — I got a year, 12 years, 24 years,” Betty said. “But this is not the point. The point of it is actual healing; knowing how this world works and the way that you need to work within it to survive.”

Self-medicating for trauma is considered a key risk factor operating as a gateway drug for addiction.

BIPOC members like me have responded by forming independent meetings or affinity groups that are open to all topics deemed “outside issues” by AA standards, creating space exclusively for people of color, but at the same time adding more labor to the burden of those already marginalized.

Victoria Sterkin, a practicing behavioral therapist in California, suggested to me via email, “In order to integrate, 1) we need to identify all parts of the whole as separate, having individual value. 2) Once we see separate parts and respect them, valuing the differences each part provides, we can connect, communicate, and join forces with each part and harmonize into an integrated whole.”

I’ve been inspired by the study and practice of Wellbriety, which I’ve found to be a nourishing supplement to AA. Like me, Kateri Coyhis, director of White Bison/Wellbriety Training Institute, has enormous gratitude for Alcoholics Anonymous, though she points out “recovery is not a one-size-fits-all.”

“We use traditional medicines to create a safe space before every meeting,” Coyhis said. “We burn sage, or we burn sweetgrass, cedar, corn pollen, or whatever medicines are available in the area. And we realize the talking circle is harder to do virtually, but we will utilize the talking circle. The way the elders describe when you’re sitting in a circle is that you’re in harmony with the entire universe.”

Establishing a healing sanctuary promotes a culture of nonjudgment. “People feel more open and moved to share,” Coyhis said. “As far as healing is concerned, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s something really magical for people. It connects them.”

“You face each other,” she added.

This is the promise of recovery — if we face ourselves, we gain the courage to face each other. We do not abandon ourselves, so we will not abandon our community.

What Angela Davis said about diversity as corporate strategy is echoed by the therapist Menakem: “The white progressive approach, rather than create culture, they create strategy, which is a head move. It’s a cognitive move. People of culture instead create symbols, stories, music, and belonging. And that is so much more powerful than a strategy.” As my fellows before me, I submit we quit the strategy of the Twelve Traditions and change the culture of AA.

Being the only Black or Brown person in any room is nothing to be proud of. It is a signal — a call to action. Though cultural barriers and institutional oppression hinder many from treatment, BIPOC have also long been part of the solution. And rather than simply enumerating the ways Black and Brown bodies are criminalized for chronic illnesses, I want us to be seen. I want help to be equitably available to us.

Anti-racism work is its own form of recovery. The collective critical consciousness surrounding white supremacy requires we call it out. There cannot be a place dedicated to wellness where its existence is denied, where some are forced to suppress themselves. I must demand of the program the same thing the program requires of me: “Progress, not perfection.”

New York based-writer and creator of @nuevayorka. Work featured in The New York Times, Paper, Vogue, and elsewhere.

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