Note: This post is about me as a white woman dealing with my racism, written mostly for readers who are white, though of course anyone is welcome to read.
Twenty seven years ago today (it’s just past midnight on July 2), I spent 24 hours not drinking or using drugs. Twenty seven years ago tomorrow, I went to my first 12-step recovery meeting. I haven’t found it necessary to take a drink or misuse other drugs since then. I’ve written about my recovery story a few times on my blog (here, here, and here, for example). The short version of that story is I found out in 1996 that I have an allergy to alcohol. If I drink even a little bit of it, I have a reaction that becomes overwhelming: I need another drink. I also am not able to remember fact this 100% of the time. I had to build a spiritual life that included a power greater than me (I call it god) to keep me connected to that truth. These days, not drinking is something I pretty much only think about when I’m in fellowship with other alcoholics. It’s not a big deal to me at all. I’m grateful, and I love living in recovery.
That said, as I consider my recovery story tonight, I’m reflecting about the ways I use the tools of a 12-step program to learn to break free from my addiction to whiteness.
When I say “whiteness,” I don’t mean the color of my skin which of course I can’t change, though being white plays a role. A quick Google (google is our friend, my fellow white people!) pulls up a concise definition shared on the National Museum of African American History & Culture website, “Whiteness and white racialized identity refer to the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups of are compared.” I sometimes refer to it interchangeably as “white supremacy culture,” though there are probably nuanced differences I miss when I do that.
Using whiteness, even when I didn’t know I was, has done for me what drugs and alcohol did (for a while, until they stopped working) — it keeps me numb. My recovery from my addiction to whiteness and white supremacy culture is about being different, moving differently in the world. I don’t have a checklist, this is not a linear path I will complete after x, y, z tasks. One of the most important and effective part of this recovery is learning how to stay in my body.
Following Resmaa Menakem‘s way of using the phrase, “somatic abolition,” combined with embodiment practices shared in trainings led by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, as well as therapy, 12-step recovery, and Quaker worship, among many many other resources* I am learning how to stay in my body so I can, among many other important things, actually face the truth of — words fail me so much, and I’m a writer! — the horrors of the ongoing and historical oppression of Black and brown bodied people and the ways white people like me have also suffered.
Facing the truth means uncovering the layers and levels of denial that are baked into my DNA as an individual, and are the default way of being for me and my white peers. It requires a lot of therapy and a lot of practice. I’ve had to find places where I can process the levels of pain and despair that feel like they might destroy me when I consider what my blood ancestors did, for example. I’ve had to build skills — and oh my goodness, I am so new at this! — to be able to stay present in my body when I face how much I’ve benefitted from systems and structures that have brutalized and continue to brutalize people.
As I mentioned above, words fail when I try to talk about the injustice of these systems that keep me and my white peers from being fully human and literally threaten the lives of Black people every day. It seems like no matter how much I try to write about these things, I can never capture all of the complexities. I can never do it justice. But I still do write about it, some. I write about it (imperfectly) because it has been my experience that we white people need to get out into the open the things we hide even from ourselves. I write about it so other white people might look at themselves, too. Rev. angel talks about having closets full of crap (I’m very very loosely quoting here) that we’re trying so hard to keep hidden and it takes so much energy to keep it hidden, we’re never fully able to be present. I think of it as what prevents us white people from being fully human.
In addition to therapy, addressing my own specific experiences of trauma, learning to stay in my body, finding space and communities where healing is possible, I also depend deeply on my spiritual life to break free from whiteness. Just like alcohol, that the book Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as “cunning, baffling, and powerful,” whiteness is slippery and tricky and whispers to me all the reasons I don’t need to be on this transformational path. I’m someone who spends quite a bit of energy on this practice and just the other day I was a seriously racist jackass to a dear friend. If I’m ever going to be able to play a part in movements of solidarity, I need to get my own stuff in order. (I made amends to my friend as a part of a much broader conversation.) And also, I can’t wait until I’m “done” before I work against the existing systems of oppression, because, the fact is the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know. I’ll never be “done.” I need a spiritual connection to a higher power to keep me in the truth: my humanity depends on breaking free from whiteness even if so many strong forces around me are crying out for me to stay in the numbness.
The process of dropping the weapons of whiteness leaves me vulnerable in ways that are absolutely terrifying. I have to trust and rely on god as well as the grounding/embodiment practices I’ve picked up along the way. The identity shifting that’s been happening over the last decade or so has taught me that life outside of white supremacy culture is deeper and more joyful (and painful!) than anything I’ve known before. It opens of channels of imagination (and I feel whiteness trying to shut it down!) that I believe are part of the keys to a better world for all of us, together.
* I’ve worked with an extraordinarily gifted consultant as part of this growth, and I’m currently reading (very slowly) Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto and Braiding Sweetgrass.