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Why Race Matters in Recovery

Recently, I watched a series of lectures from a clinician and Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University – Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D.  And given the tumultuous nature of recent events it seems appropriate to offer some insights I have gleaned from both watching and reading Dr. Sue.

Now: I admit that this veers away from the typical blog articles posted on behalf of New Paradigm Recovery, but in working with clients and families we have had the distinct pleasure of engaging varied cultures, religions, colors, nationalities, genders, orientations, and so on.  In all realms of mental health we talk a great deal about being culturally sensitive – but is that enough?  In the spirit of promoting good mental health, positive change, and offering hope to those who seek to be better versions of themselves I wanted to share some lessons that I have learned.

I learned early in life not just about racial differences, but in the socioeconomic disparities that are sometimes present, and how cultural factors exist within racial groups.  The important element I gleaned from this had less to do with different skin color, but the way this coincides with the cultural and social norms that accompanied these racial differences, and how the experiences affect cultures in varied ways.  The value of this is incalculable: to not assign a value judgment to these differences, but to celebrate them as differences – both in the uniqueness of our character, and in the variations of our experiences, perceptions, and beliefs.  It is that philosophy that reflects who we are at NPR, and has informed much of our ability to engage our clients and families in what we hope are meaningful ways.

In time as I was exposed not merely to the differences, but to stereotypes, biases, prejudices, and discriminatory practices that every racial group faces at the hands of another.

Naïveté and Ignorance

Clearly we are all born color blind.  This has less to do with our particular environment as much as our cognitive abilities to recognize and process differences in the social environment we are in.  There are naturally innocent standards to which all children are kept based on this cognitive and intellectual development even when the social environment may include racial differences, conflicts, and prejudices. 

I was raised on the north side of Chicago where my father ran a boy’s home for boys who had been abused and neglected (which you are aware of if you have met Eli).  I was friends with almost all of the boys there, and they were mostly from the south side of Chicago – housing projects of decades past, like Cabrini-Green (ever seen the TV Sitcom Good Times?).  I was often the only “white kid” for blocks. 

I learned a great deal in those years that helped me later understand and appreciate just how formative and rich our early cultural experiences can be not just in identifying the differences, but learning how to value and appreciate the similarities between us.  From that comes one of the most valuable lessons of recovery from addiction and alcoholism: compassion and empathy for our fellows. 

As Dr. Bob Smith – co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous – once said, “I suggest that nothing can make one feel much better than twelfth-step effort well done … for [it] aids with enhancing our humanity and help develop more compassion and love for our fellow man”.

Conformity Phase and Resistance/Immersion

I look back on this with a sense of comfort.  I learned that racial differences need not include value judgments or biases.  In fact, they should never include such.  Admittedly, I have often struggled with questioning my own prejudices in odd circumstances.  For example, eating at a friend’s house how do you explain that fried okra is awful without suggesting that “soul food” is deplorable.  The dilemma of course is not that I am prejudicial, but that I had an intellectual issue with distinguishing the boundaries of prejudice.  Not liking food is not a slur against a racial group or the cultural norms associated with a class or group, but the conflicts present in racial identity development are often based in a level of innocent ignorance of the true nature of racial differences and prejudices.  I continue to struggle with this as younger generations become more independent and enlightened in gender identification and clarity.  How do we become more aware and sensitive to changing cultural norms?  Simple: we seek out to understand the differences and get educated in those cultures – without judgment.

Due to childhood experiences and into my teens, I was able to grow comfortable with racial differences, but developed considerable issues with my own racial identity relative to others.  My friends of other racial groups were from radically different home environments; in some cases abuse, neglect, and severe emotional trauma – all often at the hands of parents and family.  Their manner of living was different than what was familiar to me.  Their environments were different from music and sports to hobbies and jobs.  Yet I learned that I loved things that I would never have attempted otherwise – and the benefit is owed entirely to simply being open to what people different than myself enjoyed – without judgment. 

In these environments alcoholism and addiction find root in ways that far exceed what most of us will ever see in higher socioeconomic classes.  Does that make it right or wrong to identify the differences?  No, of course not.  But the cacophony of voices we hear in the United States today reflect experiences that may be starkly different than our own, and if we remain silent, then we do so at the expense of those whose struggles in violence, trauma, addiction, death, and fear have become the underlying identifiers of their lives.

In my personal recovery, this has been made clear to me in ways exponentially greater than in my youth: my most cherished identifier – “I am an alcoholic” – has placed me among peers and colleagues whose walks in life are vastly different from my own.  I would likely have never met these men, women, and families were it not for my recovery program.  And I am so blessed and grateful to have them all in my life today.  We are who we are because of those who love us.

Introspective and Integrative Awareness

If I give thought to what it means to be white today, is there relativism present in my evaluation?  That is to say that if darkness is the absence of light then does being a white man mean anything at all unless I compare it to another racial class?  If the whole world were white, black, or purple there would be no discussion about racial identity development – but I feel confident that there would still be prejudicial issues based on something else.

Moreover: are the relative differences between classes what defines being white for me? 

This last week, in the midst of violence, fear, anger, and sadness a close friend posted something on social media which truly moved me.  I began to think, “How could I ever understand how it feels to be someone who has to face a fear as horrible and profound as this simply because of the color of my skin, my gender, my sexuality, or any other identifier over which I had no control?”

The fear that sits in my stomach NEVER leaves. Will my sons, husband, nephews, cousins be next? It honestly never leaves.

But perhaps, the more appropriate question ought to be whether my actions and behaviors honor those differences to provide compassion and understanding in the midst of a social movement that is borne of such a lack of empathy?

Responsibility to the Living Amends: Commitment to Compassion

Dr. Sue discusses this in a somewhat idealist capacity, but affecting macro change through micro efforts is not unheard of, and is all around us in subtle fashions.  My sense is that if we adhere to living principled lives, then dealing with racial issues need not be something that we do for the sake of abhorring prejudice (though that is certainly true, particularly where I see it in myself).  Being principled means that objecting to racial stereotypes and biases must be based on principle in order to be true.  Integrity means doing the right thing for the right reasons, not to avoid consequences or to appear right.  If nothing else, recovery teaches us that.  Afterall, what else can recovery teach us than acceptance of other people as fellow children of God – as you understand Him – and as being exactly as they are?

To avoid situations where we perpetuate prejudice means that we acknowledge it when we see it, and attempt to assist others as they work through it.  This is critical for me and a core part of my development in racial identity, and as an individual who works with men and women working through their addiction and into recovery.  Those who make the decision to face their addiction make the decision to take an introspective look at their beliefs and behaviors, and commit themselves to a process of reconciliation whereby they can affect change through the practice of compassion, kindness, understanding, and respect for other lives – regardless of how different or similar those lives may be from our own.  How else can we ask to be accepted as we are – as men and women in recovery from our addictions?

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