Addiction to racism

Dear President Trump,

Even though I can’t find explicit reference to it in my notes from the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism workshop*, I’m 99% certain that at some point during those two days the idea that America is addicted to racism was introduced. I do see in my notes reference to the high degree of consistency in racism across the country. We talked about how eagerly we’ve franchised it and replicated it to keep people of color “in their places.” Of course there are regional differences stemming from place-specific history and demographics, but the variations can all be traced back to a core dogma that desperately perpetuates the myth that some people are truly, objectively less than other people and that it is thus reasonable to deny the former access and dignity and to afford the latter unearned privilege and deference.

As a starting place for an addiction/racism analysis, here is the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s (ASAM) brief definition of addiction:

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

You’ll note that the focus of this definition is on individual pathology, as though addiction just spontaneously arises in certain people (and not others) because of bad-luck draws from the genetic pool and maybe a few key, ill-timed crappy events happening to vulnerable people. There’s nothing about concentration of liquor outlets or media depictions of drinking and drug use, let alone acknowledgement of toxic environments anyone in their right mind would want to avoid. These omissions are problematic and lead to an overly narrow conceptualization of addiction and very limited ideas on how to intervene.

Similarly, if we apply an addiction framework to racism, it’s tempting to focus on those individuals who espouse overtly racist beliefs and do things to actively oppress people – if we can just fix those few bad apples or studiously ignore them until they shut up, things will be ok and the rest of us don’t need to do any work. Unfortunately this approach isn’t going to effect real change because racism is baked into the culture and white people are even more addicted to it than we are to sugar and our screens.

There’s a lot here to unpack and untangle, but for now I’m just going to zero in on the issue of problem recognition. Specifically, I want to draw your attention to the part of the ASAM definition that says “addiction is characterized by…..diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.” You’re probably aware of this aspect of addiction from your experiences with your brother, Fred, since people close to him likely noticed the problems he was having with alcohol before he did. You all may have even tried to intervene with him, pointing out to him that waking up feeling like shit every day, not being able to think straight, having scarily elevated liver enzymes, being belligerent when drinking or when needing a drink, etc. were all signs that something was terribly wrong.

He may have listened and tried to do something about it. I don’t know. The main point as it relates to racism is that it’s unlikely that all on his own Fred woke up one day and said to himself that he had a problem with alcohol and needed to address it – odds are that the people around him who were being adversely affected by his drinking were signaling that there was a problem long before he was ready to see it.

It’s the same deal with “isms,” whether racism, sexism, ablism, or classism – it’s highly unlikely that entire cultures or even very many of the people who benefit from isms will spontaneously call themselves out and put themselves on solid, sustained programs to change things.

It’s an obvious, but still important point, that the ones who are most negatively impacted by oppressive cultural norms and other’s behaviors (to include discriminatory laws, enforcement of laws, norms, etc.) are most likely going to be the first ones to raise the alarm. And it shouldn’t be surprising that when they do raise such alarms and let it be known that enough is way more than enough, denial and backlash are marshaled to make sure the system isn’t really disrupted and people of color (or women or gays or….) are kept or put back “in their places” through manipulation, intimidation, or frank violence.

And at least initially, those raising the alarms are apt to capitulate or settle for modest or symbolic gains because the known devil is deemed better (and far safer) than the unknown one. This is not unlike the family members who decide it’s better to accept that their loved one is agreeing to drink only on weekends because they can have some semblance of peace during the week even though it means that weekends will still be hellish, or maybe even worse than before.

But there comes a time when the system, the status quo, just can’t be maintained, when there are critical numbers of people saying the whole thing is rotten and not sustainable and that they will no longer put up with it. Often it’s clear when such times are nigh because those who benefit most from the status quo pull out all the stops in last ditch efforts to save their comfort zones. When this happens things get even louder and uglier (and scarier), but it’s a sign that things are changing and that denial is no longer an option.

May we be safe from numbing and denial.
May we be willing to face reality and deal with it.
May those of us who need to step up and speak up as antiracists do so over and over.
May we not make peace with a status quo that treats any of its members as less than.

Tracy Simpson


*I keep referencing the People’s Institute when I talk about the Undoing Racism workshop even though your threat detectors already know they put on the workshop because I want to be sure to credit the PI and new blog readers won’t have that prior context.

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