The most precious privilege of being white is that 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, actually knowing how this world works and the way that you need to work within it to survive.”
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 that “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, you know, we will utilize the talking circle. The way that 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 just something really magical for people. It connects them.”
“You face each other,” she added.
This is the promise of recovery — that if we face ourselves, we gain the courage to face each other. We do not abandon ourselves, so that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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.”