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Does Race Matter in the Rooms?

Transforming Tradition to Advance Racial Healing in Recovery

Author: Greg Liotta, MSW/Monday, January 12, 2015/Categories: Recovery

Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

The traditions keeps us safe.  

They preserve the sacred arena through which recovery unfolds and matures.  The traditions support a culture that nourishes one back to wholeness. The avenue they travel on is Acceptance, Compassion, and Love.

But not so safe that I still avoided writing this article.  

Not so safe that I didnt waste weeks of time stalling, dancing around the topic like Mikhail Baryshnikov.

No, not Baryshnikov.  It was more like Mr. Bojangles. Its hard to be graceful when youre hiding. 


By design, the institution of AA has no opinion on the recent scourge of race issues cropping up on the national landscape.  In the earliest days of AA, the unofficial word about this issue was things will work themselves out.  Recovering people went about the business of focusing on their sobriety, and not venturing into social transformation or political agendas.  As such Recovery has continued to remain a stable force amidst a perpetually-changing, oft-times tumultuous society.  One might say that this tradition has been the rock thats saved AA/NA  from disruptive influences.  Because yes, society is quite the disruptive influence. 

But the people who make up the Recovery Community have plenty of opinions about these things.  We live amongst each other.  We feel.  We interact, sometimes we marry, sometimes we fight, and we always are a part of each others lives.  We are a part of each others recovery.   Perhaps we should talk about these things with each other.

If we dont talk about it, we remain obscured from each other, lurking like a mysterious figure in the shadows, hiding in dark alleys of the mind. Assumptions and stereotypes are the original Vampires:  afraid of the light, only coming out at night, and draining the life out of everyone around them. Real shape-shifters too, smiling in your face while sharpening those teeth. 

The heart shrinks without the encouragement of light. Light begins to dawn when we draw back the curtains and allow the gift of transparency to cover the room.  The only step forward is a step into the murky pond of vulnerability.  And this is the meaning of recovery.

Sincere recovery challenges me - as a white man - to address my own fears, beliefs, and relationships to black men.   I may as well include all people of color, women, LGBT people, and anybody for whom I dont know what it feels like to BE them.    The tree might look different but the roots are the same. 

This is not the time for navel-gazing.

Whats going on right now has become a matter of life & death. Young black men are dying with regularity at the hands of armed white people. Even if you dont think thats true, a lot of people do, and that makes it relevant.  The implications of this on our culture are profound and complex. The collective psyche of black peoples in this country is just one casualty, and thats no small thing.  This is an important moment in our nations history.  Its is important that we talk about this. We might not talk about it inside of an AA or NA meeting, but the principles being cultivated in these rooms are of no value if they dont inspire us to explore our biases, fears, and stories about those that are OTHER. Its important that we exercise real courage and not use recovery as a thing to hide behind. At this time in our history, recovery means courage. It means transparency. It means vulnerability. 

It means no hiding.

This is the time for practicing courage, because the issue has a place in our lives.  If my recovery is alive and breathing within my life, then Im looking for a safe place where I can have this conversation. If recovery is a beating heart, then Im looking to confront my fears of other, and welcome this conversation with them. And when I speak of this conversation, Im not talking about how Im the good guy and want to distance myself from the bad guys. Im not talking about denying my prejudices about people who are different from me. Im talking about reaching out to people that are different from me, and getting REAL.

Have you reached out to anyone different than you lately? 

Whens the last time you went to a meeting in neighborhood where you were the minority?

If you cannot remember the last time, then heres an interesting word for you: Courage. It is derived from the Old Latin cor, meaning heart. By the Middle Ages, as the word evolved, it was used to indicate "what is in one's mind or thoughts. Indeed.  It takes some cor to express some of this junk. Its much easier to ignore the fears, misunderstandings, and prejudices I carry within me. Much easier to talk about how we are the same. Which, on some level, we are. 

And then were not. The tendency to dismiss our differences drips with denial. Its a slow leak, an escape maneuver to avoid the real conversation. Using cotton-candy cliches like, I dont see color, tolerance of differences and we all bleed the same are lead weights on this eagles wings. That bird aint gonna fly. Nor is this cliche: appreciate differences. Those concepts all have their value, perhaps. But today theres a bigger foe standing in the street, calling us out off our houses: the call to see you for who you are, beyond your color, and acknowledge the historical and cultural dynamics that bind us together. To see you as a woman, or a black person, or a muslim, and become lucid about my own lack of understanding. Because Recovery means facing those things I dont necessarily want to face in order to stretch to new dimensions. When I do that, I can acknowledge that Im of European descent, and growing into something deeper. Its about knowing that Im a man, and expanding beyond that. 

Im more than a white man. None of us are one dimensional.  Recovery breathes life into all dimensions.

Recovery: thats another interesting word. The way its spelled, one gets the impression that something was lost, meaning it was there first and then it slipped away.  When you get something for the first time, you dont say, I recovered it. You say I got it. If you lose it and then re-discover it, you re-cover it. A recovering person is someone whos becoming re-acquainted with something familiar. 

Im in the process of re-covering my sense of wholeness by practicing rigorous honesty, not just about what Ive done, but about what I feel.

I dont remember when it was that I lost my sense of oneness with All. At some point it slipped through the cracks of my soul like the Holy Grail falling off the mantle, shattering to pieces on the floor.  The blood of Jesus disappearing through the tiles.  Little by little, at some point in my life,  l lost my sense of being whole and complete.  As I looked around all I saw were fragments of a holy shrine littered about.  They found a voice in judgement, criticism, and fear. Everything I looked at was either better than or less than. By the time I was in the second grade, I already knew I was afraid of girls, which I tried to hide by asking them will you be my girlfriend? (Heres a tip:  if you ask people out because youre afraid of them, you end up with a lot of frightened people ;-) By the time I was 11, I knew I was afraid of black guys, which I tried to hide by competing with them in sports. 

Perhaps this is a good time to point to the Pink Elephant sitting in the middle of the room:  a lot of white people grow up afraid of black people, especially black men. 

We know it.  They know it. 

We deny it.  They laugh. 

Guess what happens when you look at someone like theyre a dangerous animal?

I had all kinds of fears, and those fears informed my behavior with the people I was afraid of. And Im sure it informed their behavior with me. 

The body has its own mind,and its voice is called feelings. When Im clinging to a lack of self-love, I feel unlovable, so I push people away. Usually, I like to push them into boxes where I can see them, where they cant move.  Because if I were able to let them spread their gorgeous wings, Id have to change something about me. I mean, its hard to be afraid of a person when Im seeing them through the eyes of love.  So in this way, Re-covery has become, for me, a process of Re-solution. Re-integration. Self-forgiveness. Self- love. And that has turned me into a better citizen. Im interested in knowing how I push people away before I know who they are. Im interested in knowing how I can contribute to a society that doesnt project predator onto every young black man. 

Hmmm. Maybe I ought to look at my own inner predator. 

Nah. Never mind that. Lets get back to the topic.

The recent events on the national landscape present a challenge to all of us, and the rooms are no exception.   

Maybe we dont talk about these things in the rooms.

You might say, Well, were not there for that. We go to meetings to get sober.  Not to discuss race.

This is the elusive privilege of being white that so many people find difficult to identify with. When racism is not your problem, you can enjoy the privilege of not having to talk about it.  In this way, privilege becomes an iron chain.  You dont even realize youre tethered. 

Comfortable, isnt it? Its still a chain. And when youre chained, youre not free.

How to break free?

Im talking about acknowledging that I probably dont even know how biased I am, and how it informs my behavior with black people. Thats the nest this little bird launches from. 

I was recently on a search committee seeking to hire a leader for a local recovery program. The candidate, a black man, was asked a question about how to increase diversity in the lily-white program. His response:  “I dont see color. Were all the same. Were addicts. Were in recovery. There is no color. This disease is an equal opportunity offender. Okay.

You could hear the collective sigh of relief in the room.

White faces smiling and nodding in agreement. 

And a million African ancestors howling in their graves.  

Color blindness: An effective numbing agent in the service of avoiding something real, something profound, and significant. Its a wet blanket to this necessary fire. It chokes the life out of this flower thats trying to open its petals. 

Old cliches are not going to bring about this healing. This is going to require something new. This is going to require raw vulnerability and transparency.

Well, thats not really new, is it?

One might say theres no better place than the rooms to foster this healing. There are some basic concepts (no cross talk, take your own inventory, humility, honesty, transparency, psychic safety) mastered in the rooms better than anywhere else.  But, seriously, whens the last time you reached out to a person of different race after a meeting, and invited them out for coffee? Whens the last time you actually looked someone different in the eyes and - instead of blathering on about what the Big Book said, or telling war stories - you said something radical, like

"I DON'T UNDERSTAND. PLEASE HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND YOUR EXPERIENCE.

and then,

Thank you for sharing that with me.  Can we get together again?  Id like to talk about my experience with you.

Because this aint gonna be no one-shot deal. 

This healing is not going to happen in the rooms. This happens in the meeting after the meeting.  If you have the sand for it. 

Go ahead, try it. 

Get out of hiding. 

Let your recovery heal the world. 

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1 comments on article "Does Race Matter in the Rooms?"

Samira Noorali

1/14/2015 1:53 PM

Very interesting that external healing and internal healing can go hand-in-hand. There was an interesting article on Compassion Attentiveness Therapy a couple of editions ago that may be related to what you are talking about here.

http://www.recoveryview.com/Articles/TabId/107/ArtMID/657/ArticleID/1338/Compassion-Attentiveness-–-A-new-therapeutic-style.aspx

I wonder if anyone else is seeing the connection?

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