If you keep doing what you always did, you’ll get what you always got. That saying is true of recovery and it’s also true of other social justice movements. People in recovery understand the incredible power of change. So much is possible when we let go of our old beliefs and get a new perspective. As the recovery community takes on the challenge of dismantling racism and white supremacy, we are uniquely equipped to lean into the sometimes uncomfortable work of understanding these systemic issues.
The values we learn in recovery are universally positive. Recovery is based on ideals like community, inclusiveness, service, watching out for each other, mutual aid, honesty, and courage. Those values give our community a structural framework to make change on a broad scale—even dramatic changes—in order to protect ourselves. A few years ago, when #MeToo, created by Black activist Tarana Burke, shined a light on the dangers of sexism, recovery groups did the work to address those dangers and make changes so that everyone felt comfortable and welcome. That is work that we continue today. It’s not a one-time fix. Just like recovery, we need to come to it fresh every day. The Black Lives Matter movement, started by Black radical organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, offers a similar call to change the way we speak, think, and live—in a way that is immensely beneficial to our community.
Recovery saves lives, so ensuring that everyone has access to treatment, sober living, peer mentorship, and other recovery resources is crucial to keeping people healthy and thriving. Yet, while we often like to say that recovery is “universal,” that really isn’t true because of structural and institutional inequities that are hard-baked into our systems. Although we like to say that “addiction is the great equalizer” and “we all have the same 24 hours,” that’s not accurate, either. Addiction is a mental health disorder that can have a devastating impact on anyone, but our opportunities to get healthy and survive are dramatically impacted by our race, class, gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, and other factors. Intersectionality, a theory created by Black professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, PhD, describes how those factors “intersect” and cause hierarchies that exclude and harm some people while benefiting others. The “24 hours” that a wealthy, educated, straight, cisgender, white woman has, is different than the “24 hours” that a homeless, dropout, gay, transgender, Black person has. While the message of recovery can help both of these people, one of them faces significantly higher barriers to care.
Think about it: would you feel comfortable in a space where you’re the only person who looks, talks, and thinks like you? If you don’t understand where you fit in, or feel threatened or feared by the other folks in that space, would you stay? Too often, the onus is on the outsider to “figure out where you fit in,” rather than on the group members to welcome new people. For people whose daily experiences are dealing with other issues like racism, sexism, white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia, there may not be another space—or another chance to get sober.
Oppressive power structures are everywhere in recovery, even in spaces that are nominally for everybody. Some common examples are treatment centers that only serve cisgender people, saying that trans women “aren’t really women” and represent a threat to other women; or forcing trans women to bunk with cisgender men, putting them at risk for assault and rape. Another example is subtler, but just as harmful: refusing to sit next to the only BIPOC person in a recovery meeting, or feeling “uncomfortable” holding hands with a trans man, is harmful as well. Listen, it takes immense courage to seek recovery. Feeling like an outsider in these meetings and spaces pushes people out. If people don’t feel they belong, they don’t stay. And, whether the people who remain intended to exclude that individual or not, the outcome is the same. Bias, racism, supremacy and oppression kills people, so we must eliminate them in our community. It’s that simple.
While white people may not want to think about their own privilege, especially white people who have struggled with addiction, homelessness, homophobia, and class-based discrimination, it’s important to confront our internal prejudices and supremacy. After all, recovery should not be a limited resource: it should be universal, unlimited, and all-inclusive. Rather than being forced to compete for a seat in a meeting or a bed in treatment, we should work to make sure that anyone and everyone knows they’re welcome, wanted, and safe in every recovery environment. White people can support others by advocating for a longer table, a bigger circle—and a recovery culture that promotes equity, justice, cultural competency, mutual trust, and respect.
Saying “Black Lives Matter” or buying a t-shirt with a positive message on it isn’t enough when real people’s lives are at stake. Real change, as people in recovery know, is in our day-to-day choices. It’s the small actions and kindnesses we show each other. Change isn’t a bumper sticker. It is making a point to greet the newcomer and help them feel safe and comfortable; challenging a white friend who makes off-color jokes or comments that might alienate other group members; actively supporting someone who is facing bias and discrimination instead of shrugging off their concerns; or asking county-funded treatment centers about their accommodations for trans people. In recovery, we learn that justice is really leveling the playing field so that everyone can be equal in our shared spaces. It’s about a commitment to equity, which is the idea that everyone gets what they need, as opposed to everyone getting the exact same thing. “One size fits all” recovery leaves a lot of people behind. To save lives, we need to include as many people as possible.
The future success of the recovery movement must be diverse, powerful, unified, culturally competent, and action-oriented. We must work together to build an equitable system. That doesn’t mean stealing from one person in order to give to another. Nobody should ever have less in recovery. We can make sure there’s enough for everybody. We can improve access to long term recovery by making sure the pathways of recovery are accessible, culturally diverse, and universally available. We need to change our perspective and see how we can help people of marginalized identities feel included, safe, valued, and empowered. Simultaneously we must challenge people with (white) privilege to do more. White people and recovery leaders in particular have an important role to play because we can model positive behavior for others, setting a better example for our community. When we say “Black Lives Matter,” we mean it. Black lives, Black recovery, and Black futures matter. It’s on our community to do the next right thing for everyone—and that starts with admitting we have a problem and we are ready to have real conversations seeking real solutions that save lives.
Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr., America & MOORE, LLC is the Founder/Director for the White Privilege Conference (WPC) and The Privilege Institute (TPI). He is co-founder of the on-line journal “Understanding and Dismantling Privilege.”
Ryan Hampton is a person in recovery from heroin addiction and author of “American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis—and How to End It,” published by St. Martin’s Press. He’s a nationally recognized activist and founder of the nonprofit advocacy organization The Voices Project.