How to overcome America’s addiction to racism.
By Irina Erickson and Caitlin Johnson
George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hand of Minneapolis police has prompted a long-overdue national reckoning. In big cities and small towns, people of all races are taking to the streets to demand justice. It’s as if after centuries of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, we’re experiencing what people in recovery from addiction might call “a moment of clarity.” For a second the curtain shifted many have glimpsed what America really is — a nation that has failed to uphold its fundamental values. Many people are considering, for the first time, what it really means to be Black in America, and what we can do, both collectively and individually, to dismantle white supremacy.
No matter where we live or what our race is, if we live in the United States of America, we live in a society that clings to racist delusions. Freeing ourselves of it will take deliberate, painstaking work. Caitlin is an almost-40 white mom who lives outside Cleveland. Irina is half Black and half Asian, and recently graduated from New York University. Millions of people have recovered from alcoholism and addiction using 12-step programs. We believe the steps could provide a roadmap to help us as individuals and as a nation grapple with racism, white supremacy and give a renewed possibility of the American values laid out in our founding documents in the future.
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The anti-racism 12 steps:
- We admit our collective history is rooted in white supremacy — and that racism has made our national and personal lives unmanageable.
- We come to believe that racism is more than individual behavior — but is a complex system much greater than ourselves.
- We make a decision to commit to being anti-racist, both in our individual lives, but also through the institutions, organizations, and public policies we support.
- We make a searching, honest, and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and our collective history.
- We admit to ourselves, to our neighbors, to Black and non-Black people of color, the exact nature of our wrongs.
- We become entirely ready to do the difficult work to close modern-day racial disparities.
- We admit we cannot address these disparities without directing public funds towards the communities that have been harmed.
- Make a list of all those we have wronged through the legacy of colonialism and slavery — large to small — and become willing to make amends.
- We make direct amends to these people wherever possible.
- We continue to take personal inventory, use our privilege for positive change in our workplace, schools, and communities, and when we relapse, promptly admit it.
- We remain committed to critically questioning the narrative of American exceptionalism no matter how uncomfortable it makes us or others.
- We carry this message to our community by sharing the insights learned through anti-racist work, to help others confront their own internalized racism and the nation’s history of white supremacy
Most 12-step programs, from Gamblers Anonymous to Narcotics Anonymous, are based on Alcoholics Anonymous. The steps take people through a process of admitting their problem, seeking help from a higher power, taking account of their past wrongdoings, and making amends to those they have harmed. It’s a formula Caitlin knows well. After nearly 20 years of active addiction, she sought help from a 12-step program and began her journey of self-exploration and healing.
Irina, on the other hand, had a passing knowledge of the 12 steps from Hollywood. As a student at NYU, She studied how stories inform the way we interpret and construct our reality. She thought the 12 steps could make an interesting framework to recover and process the truths of America’s racist past. After researching the steps for her class on collective memory, she rewrote them to prompt a discussion of local reparations and dismantling false national narratives.
Many Americans are already taking the first step. After collectively witnessing yet another murder of a Black person at the hands of law enforcement and with a president attempting to turn the military on American people — many are finally realizing white supremacy and racism has made our lives unmanageable. Anti-racist books are flying off the shelves. Tattoo artists have offered free coverups of confederate flags and other racist imagery. Multiracial groups are toppling statues of previously revered men. People who had stayed home for months are braving a pandemic to protest.
No matter our skin color, our identities and perspectives have been defined by America’s racial hierarchy and violence. As a child in a wealthy, white and mostly Catholic suburb of Boston, Caitlin didn’t know many Black people. A few Black and Latinx students took a bus from the city to attend school in her town. To her, most racism seemed casual and under the surface, but occasionally it bubbled over — like when a student at the high school refused to remove the swastika pendant he wore on his neck. Irina grew up in a similar community in New Jersey. She often found herself being the token “smart” Black friend. When she looked around her honors and AP classes, no one else looked like her. The other Black students were down the hall in standard classes. “Those people” just needed to behave and work harder, she was told by her counselor. So Irina decided to keep her head down and work as hard as she could.
Reality hit home when she witnessed teachers and administrators unfairly target her younger brother while letting his white friends off easy. The other Black kids didn’t need to work harder. The administration painted Black students as lazy, less-intelligent, troublemakers. Caitlin also had to dispense with white supremacy’s lies. Her grandparents came to the U.S. from Ireland with very little money and even less education. For years, she believed all people — no matter their race — could achieve the success her family did.
Acceptance is a huge part of overcoming an addiction just like it’s critical to grappling with our own internalized racism and the truth about our national history. Caitlin had to accept that she couldn’t safely use her substance of choice. Later, she had to accept that her whiteness gives her privileges and benefits she doesn’t deserve more than anyone else. For Irina it meant acknowledging her own economic and color privileges. She had to actively seek out people and places that support those outside the dominant white culture.
Unflinching self-examination can be the most difficult part of any recovery process. Caitlin cringes when she recalls some of the racist jokes she told or laughed at when she was younger. She was wrong. However, the national narrative she lived and breathed made it seem normal, harmless and acceptable. The steps show us that even though we have to look inward, racism and white supremacy are bigger than any one person’s prejudices.
Most of us learn in school that the United States is an exceptional country born out of a struggle for freedom and knows what’s best for everyone else. It’s the American paradox that the “land of the free and home of the brave” was built on the genocide of Indigenous people and the constant oppression of Black people. Even after the Civil War, white people found new systems to exploit and oppress Black and brown people, like Jim Crow segregation, The War on Drugs, financial redlining, and political gerrymandering. Our denial of these events and the ideas that fueled them enables racism to continue existing. The proof is in the disparities: Professions most dominated by Black women — like home health care and child care — pay some of the nation’s lowest wages. As a result, the average Black woman makes 66 cents to the average white man’s dollar. Black people are more likely to be killed by law enforcement. Black, Latinx and Native Americans are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Being anti-racist requires us to recognize the more subtle ways white supremacy shapes our lives every day. We can’t stay silent when our children’s textbooks minimize the histories and contributions of non-white people. We can’t shrug off police brutality against Black people as an unfortunate fact of life. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for attending our employer’s “diversity workshop” while Black and brown people still aren’t cracking into most top leadership positions and make far less than their white counterparts. And we can’t accept that Black and brown people are suffering the most from COVID-19.
Making amends is almost never easy. It’s painful and humbling to admit we’re wrong, and many of us would do just about anything to avoid it. That’s why white people often get defensive when told they did something racist. Caitlin can’t take back the racist jokes she told, but she tries to make what 12-steppers call “a living amends” by living an actively anti-racist life. Today she’s always on the look-out for how racism can sneak into humor and is trying to teach her kids to be aware of the language they use. The nation can’t heal from white supremacy unless we all do our part to make it happen.
Anti-racism is a lifestyle. Our everyday actions separate the performative from true activism. That means initiating difficult conversations and holding our family and friends accountable. It means not only acknowledging our own privilege, but also when we used it to harm others, even without meaning to. It means when we see racism in our own communities, we speak out against it. We go to city council meetings, write letters to the mayor, call the police chief, and have difficult conversations with the school principal, even if it makes us unpopular.
The internal and peer-to-peer work is crucial, but it can’t end there. Systemic change calls for legislation. For decades, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan pushed, H.R.40, that would establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals. Rep. Conyers died before it could pass and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee took up the bill. She says it is a “path to restorative justice.” By acknowledging the “racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans.” Reparations must address America’s past by including a diverse range of voices. The Black American experience can no longer be erased.
AA and other 12 step programs have helped many people build caring communities by working to overcome their individual problems together. Anti-racist 12 steps can do the same. America is crying out for a better path forward. We can’t put any more band-aids on America’s cancer. Caitlin couldn’t recover from her addiction until she accepted the evidence screaming in her face, thoroughly examined her past and made amends for the harm she caused. Irina couldn’t fight racism until she realized she had played into anti-Black biases and reconnected with her Black culture in college. For many people, it can be hard to believe that the country and the communities that have given them so much have done so at the expense of others. We have all been afflicted by white supremacy that enriches the very few while damaging the rest of us. Until we all admit that truth, fully account for our sins and make a proper amends, we will relapse again and again.
SIDE BAR: Three ways you can put the anti-racist 12 steps into action:
Internally: Use our anti-racist 12 steps, or rewrite the 12 steps in your own way, to help you examine your own internalized racism. Talk about your process with a trusted friend or family member.
- Check out Ibram X. Kendi’s antiracist reading list.
- Create a anti-racism discussion group with some friends or people who desire to do the work
- Don’t stop there. Internal work needs to be paired with action to mean something.
In your community: Make amends by giving back, taking action and how you spend your money
- If you’re white, join your local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).
- Donate to or volunteer for local Black-led organizations that are working on issues you care about. Not sure where to look? Start here.
- Support Black businesses as much as you can.
- If you can’t support Black-owned businesses, shop at companies actively working to make a difference
- Contact your member of Congress and tell them to support H.R. 40
- Support Black-led organizations working to advance anti-racist public policy such as Color of Change, Community Justice Action Fund or the National Employment Law Project
- More Black women and women of color are running for office. You can help get them elected by supporting political action committees like Black Pac Higher Heights Pac, and Poder Pac.
Caitlin Johnson is a mom and a stepmom who lives in Shaker Heights, OH, outside Cleveland. She’s a communications director at a state-based think tank, and a former organizer and journalist.
Irina Erickson is a recent graduate from New York University and podcast host of Subsequently, Depression based in Morristown, NJ.