“My name is William, and I am an alcoholic. It has been 19 years since my last drink.”
This was how a guest speaker in my college class introduced himself.
I thought to myself, “Wait. How can you call yourself an alcoholic if your last drink was a lifetime ago?” I thought that he should have said,”My name is William, and I used to be an alcoholic. I am here to tell you how I beat my addiction, and I have not had a drink in 19 years.”
I knew nothing, then, about addiction and recovery. It was this visitor’s presence and presentation that first opened my eyes.
Over the past few years, as I have been more intentional in unpacking my own beliefs and biases around race, I have often wondered if it would help our dialogues on race, justice, and equity, if white people like me would start with the same concise clarity and say, “My name is Shawn, and I am a racist.”
This is a jarring idea, I think because it seems our collective sense of what racism is, how it works, and what it takes to recover from it are similar to my freshman year perspectives on alcoholism and recovery. When I thought “alcoholic,” I imagined a mean, slovenly, drunk wasting of all their money on liquor. It was a cartoonish stereotype of something much more complex and often invisible. And, much of my life, when I heard “racist,” I pictured the worst, most aggressive, most direct assaults on justice, human rights, and dignity.
What I have learned about racism, like addiction, is that it runs much deeper, expresses itself much more inconspicuously, threatens us more pervasively, and takes shape in much more socially acceptable ways.
As we have just walked through another MLK holiday, I have to be honest that I am confronted with a mix of feelings. I am proud to see Dr. King rightfully being celebrated as the national hero that he is. Yet I feel bothered by what appears to be an inappropriate ease with which corporations, politicians, and personalities use his words, images, and legacy without deep consideration and engagement with what Dr. King believed, stood for, and died for.
I find it easy for me to be compelled by the parts of Dr. King’s work that focused on racial equality. Just like it is easy to be inspired by a vision of a healed, recovered, and sober life. But I have to keep coming back to the reality that just because I am not at the bar every night getting wasted, it doesn’t mean I am not an alcoholic.
So many of Dr. King’s words have gripped my soul and conscience, but it may be his reflections on the “white moderate” that challenge me most.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Twenty years ago I learned that recovery doesn’t happen when we define ourselves by how long it has been since we had a drink. Recovery occurs when we are honest about how deep within us the affliction lies and how consistently we commit to living a full, free, and healthy life. Recovery from racism, individually and as a society, will require that we take a good long look at ourselves and commit to dismantling the systems and structures that have created the current environment.
The danger of white supremacy goes far beyond the overt, obvious expressions of violent racism. The danger of racism also lies in the socially acceptable preference for interpersonal niceness over comprehensive justice, private comfort over public courage, and protecting the calm over living with conviction.
As the brilliant Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, stunningly expressed on Inauguration Day, “We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. And the norms and notions of what ‘just is’ isn’t always justice.”
For white Community Developers, we have to be aware that our Black and brown neighbors, colleagues, and friends are affected by our postures, our choices, our words, and the ways that we support and/or deny their humanity. Our commitment to change in our communities will require a commitment to overcoming our own complicity in racism.
Changemakers, if you are interested in partners who can join you in naming, recovering, and healing from racism, please click here to schedule a coaching session with one of our consultants.
Watch Shawn talk more about racism and how it connects to poverty in vulnerable neighborhoods.