A Co-Founder’s First Step Story
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
I was born and raised in a US city known for its highly liberal politics, in a quiet upper middle class, predominantly white neighborhood. Just like everybody else, we had a well-kept house and a large, immaculate lawn. While our outsides were pristine, our insides were far from it. My parents were both addicts. My mom, an alcoholic and narcissist who left when I was three and returned very occasionally and momentarily; and my dad, a career addict, misogynist and narcissist who thought kids got in the way of partying and working and that women and girls were idiots. I had three much older step-siblings. One was ultra high-functioning and holding it all together, and one was raping the other one every day. Then there was me. The “golden child” who would save everybody from themselves and each other with my tiny body!
While I was a latchkey kid and essentially cared for myself much of the time, I also spent a lot of time at friends' houses, riding my bike, going to the park nearby, and immersing myself in school, music, dance, and sports. These were all vital factors in my survival along with the racial and socio-economic privileges baked into the foundation of these experiences. It was in this quiet, upper middle class white neighborhood that I also went to daycare, school, and rode my bike safely by myself to other friend’s houses. In many ways, I did not have to leave my comfort zone, and I shudder to think what life would have been like if I had not only to endure the terror, abuse, and extreme isolation of my house, but an unsafe and highly-policed neighborhood, a poorly resourced school, or a community perception that I was foreign, dangerous, or pathetic.
I attended a neighborhood public school, which also had a Magnet Program, during the golden years of school bussing. I benefited greatly from both of these things as I got the opportunity to have a diverse group of friends and a Black teacher for two years who changed my life. These relationships, and being exposed to people of different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds at an early age, profoundly influenced the person I am today. There is no doubt that segregation makes and keeps us white people sick and the myth of race and white supremacy firmly in place.
At 17, I left home, got a job, and joined a 12-Step recovery program. Once I finished high school, through friends, I got to learn a lot more about the “other America,'' the one they didn’t talk about in school textbooks or the news. I became a social activist and studied nonviolent movements and politics. My Southern, racist “bleeding heart liberal” great aunt had left me some money in her will, which I used to backpack around the world for a year. This is when I began to see the water I had been swimming in; for the first time I was exposed to opinions and perspectives outside of North American culture, people, and media.
Despite this, it wasn’t until many, many years later that I first began to unpack my own racial identity for the first time. Like most white-bodied people, I had learned to not see myself as having a race or a culture; I saw myself as an “individual.” It had rocked my world to discover in psychotherapy at the age of 21, that my family dynamics had done so much to shape me. Later, I assumed that these burdens from my childhood terror, abuse, and trauma, as well as my own gender marginalization, had exonerated me from benefiting from privilege and power. Not so.
Then Election Day 2016 happened. I was shocked, horrified and confused and glued myself to radio shows and discussion groups trying to understand the ramifications of what had been done and what to do next. What emerged from these dialogues for me were two sets of reactions that were clearly divided by race: white people were shocked and BBIPOC were not. Why was this so? I learned it was racism and something called “whiteness” but wasn’t racism more or less a thing of the past? Certainly racism still existed, but mostly with extremist groups and in the minds of those whose ancestry had been impacted by colonization, slavery, and Jim Crow, right? Maybe real racism wasn‘t as rare as I thought.
So I searched for an organization I was familiar with from my early years of social justice work, the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW), and saw that they were offering a Racism 101 class. I remember one of the facilitators opening that class by introducing themselves, “Hi everyone! My name is Catherine and I am a racist.” Whaaaat?!? Didn’t all the racists live in the South, fly Confederate flags, and drive trucks with shotguns lining the back window? I couldn’t believe that had come out of her mouth, it blew my mind.
That same week I picked up the book, Waking up White by Debby Irving. By the end of the week I had finished it and had begun reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. With this book, my heart broke wide open. I had read Lies My Teacher Told Me by Howard Zinn and knew that the US was very problematic, imperfect, and not very trustworthy. I had not grasped the depth and magnitude of psychotic violence that it had perpetrated and covered up, a practice which has continued, unabated, to present day in the name of “democracy,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “unity.”
It’s like becoming an adult and realizing that the father whom you loved and knew to be a “difficult person” was actually a rapist, pedophile, and murderer who was burying his victims in the back yard of your childhood home. Even more disturbing is knowing that the years you went back home as a young adult, you ignored the stench and other red flags that something was wrong. Truly waking up to the realities of this country’s past and present is devastating and overwhelming, regardless of one’s identity. Understanding and living into the role we each have in this system is the work of life-long healing and recovery.
In the next six months, I got extremely busy educating myself about the real history and inner workings of this racist system. I wanted to be a good ally. I wanted to stop the bleeding. I wanted to feel better about myself and like I had some control. I didn’t want to feel so stupid. I juggled books, workshops, webinars, social media posts, and podcasts and turned away from my familiar sources of history, news, and entertainment that had centered the white experience. I felt like I would only ever be able to scratch the surface of the iceberg of colonialism and racial capitalism in this country.
As I started to grasp the magnitude and pervasiveness of racism, I began to also simultaneously collapse. I was racing to catch up to something I would never be able to catch up to. All the tools I had to deal with this problem–namely my intellect, work ethic, discipline, and “can-do” attitude–were entirely useless and potentially harmful. I saw myself battling increasing bouts of disassociation and depression as I developed an intolerance to the world and myself. I was losing friendships and connections and not finding new ones resulting in an increased sense of isolation and loneliness. I was hating myself more and more everyday.
Additionally, my “character defaults” (as we say in the Program) of staying small, playing backup, and being passive were in direct conflict with what was being called for in my anti-racist work. I had spent my entire life not rocking the boat and staying as invisible as possible. In my family system, I learned that standing out and standing up would always end in annihilation and that I was not even worthy of taking up space. Crossing this line of “sit down and shut up,” for me, meant re-experiencing this trauma–and I was not yet prepared for that.
It was at this time that I was introduced to the document “Attributes of White Supremacy Culture” written by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. It was collectively created by a huge group of facilitators who had worked for many years within organizations to lead anti-racist agendas. They put this list of attributes together based on their wealth of collective experience in an effort to see the water and define the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that the mythology of race and white supremacy operates. They are really a list of collective defense mechanisms (that not surprisingly are extremely similar, if not identical, to defense mechanisms characteristic of addictive family systems).
This gold list of whiteness attributes were exactly the issues that had been at the center of my psychotherapy and recovery for the previous 20 years–I thought I had an embodied, intimate knowledge of them. Obviously, I did not. How could this be? You mean my toxic culture of origin had shaped me just as profoundly as my toxic family of origin? How could I have been in so much denial? I had interrupted the biggest unwritten rule in this culture: First rule of White Club is you don’t talk about White Club. Literally, I could hardly say the words “race” and “white” to myself let alone another person. I soon learned to accept that these attributes were part of my ancestral and cultural legacy–that they were built into my entire way of being and moving through the world–and I was not alone.
From this vantage point, I could see that my family’s addictions, including my own, actually arose from the fundamental disconnection that is inevitably created by cultures of domination-oppression. My lineage is the culmination of, among other things, those who survived oppression, experienced perpetrator trauma, and assimilated to and benefitted from a toxic culture evolved from colonialism. Colonialism made the toxic container that the other -isms could be born from and thrive in. With no tools or reference for building healthy community, ancestral and spiritual connection, or a reciprocal and respectful relationship to our Earth, we have no choice but to get lost in the deficient substitutes of addiction–whether that is to drugs and alcohol, or to food, social media, sex, shopping, and work, or to power and privilege.
This new perspective unlocked something very essential and very difficult for most white-bodied people to understand: that racism has not only imprisoned BBIPOC in catastrophic ways, stealing and annihilating their humanity, but it has also imprisoned white-bodied people as well in completely different ways and profoundly skewed our moral compass. I began to understand the idea of collective liberation for the first time. I came to believe that my freedom, as someone who has racist ideas and benefits from racism, was inextricably linked to the freedom of those who were the main targets of racism. My stuckness and continued suffering with these things was not a reflection of my inherent weakness per se, but rather a natural consequence of denial and not having the right skills, tools, and support to unlearn the indoctrination of an extremely violent and oppressive system.
That’s when I started to consider using the 12 Steps as my way through. While 12-Step programs are not for everybody or everything, they have surely helped me (and millions of others) make sense of myself and the world, given me tools and skills to live differently, and freed me from the grip of my destructive behaviors and ways of relating. A program to examine my whiteness, I felt, would not be separate, but would only take me deeper into the work I had already started; and becoming anti-racist requires that we always go deeper.
I saw my denial of whiteness squarely for the first time as a powerful, hypnotic, daily siren call to go back to sleep, to turn away, to stop seeing what I was seeing. I did not want to see the full horror of racism because I would have to also see the ways I was complicit to this horror. By my avoidance, denial, passivity, and silence I reinforced the lie that racism and the myth of white supremacy are not the biggest threats to our common welfare, something or someone else “out there” is.
By acknowledging whiteness, I had to also acknowledge its counterpart, anti-Blackness, for one cannot exist without the other. I remember feeling completely nailed the first time I saw Jane Elliott ask a group of white people to stand up if they wanted to trade places with a Black person. I realized that somewhere in me I knew I got special treatment because of my skin color and that my racism thrived most acutely in my projections toward Black people. There is a 12-Step saying, “when you point the finger, you have three pointing back at you.” Knowing myself, I realized then, would require that I go directly into the center of those projections.
Feeling and sitting with the shame of all of this is overwhelming as much as it is liberating. If I was going to ever be able to fully live with or love myself, let alone fully live with and love BBIPOC (which is the goal), I was going to have to create a structure that would keep me awake without relying on the smack of my egregious mistakes or the televised violence against BBIPOC to wake me up. There’s another 12-Step saying, “we hit bottom when we stop digging.” I needed to proactively take responsibility for my part in this hellish system, so I wrote the first draft of WA’s 12 Steps and began my deep dive.
Ibram X. Kendi said, “The heart of racism is denial, the heart of anti-racism is confession.” The First Step in the 12-Step model is to confess powerlessness and unmanageability. It felt dangerous to admit powerlessness, and wasn’t my recovery work aimed at undoing my training to not admit to or see the racial privilege or power I have? How was my life unmanageable if I had lived with my racial privilege, unfettered, all my life and could continue to if I chose? As I began my first attempt at writing a First Step, I saw that my agency and power with dismantling the system was to be found through admitting my powerlessness to the collective disease of racism and the whiteness that lives in my body, and that my personal unmanageability would be felt more clearly as I stopped numbing and blocking these feelings with the intoxicating drink of whiteness.
This meant, in part, leaving my white bubble. As I put myself more and more in BBIPOC-centered spaces, I became increasingly aware of my lack of nervous system control around BBIPOC, particularly with Black and Indigenous people. I could see my projections were insane, but telling myself so didn’t stop the shaking, the racing brain, the fast heart beat, the muscle tension, the blanking out, the frozenness, the compulsive smiling, the overwhelming shame and guilt, being too nice, the awkward and inappropriate word choices and behavior, the compulsion to check and recheck myself (with the limited and distorted information I had), and to check and recheck reactions to me. I had entered the extremely uncomfortable space of racial obsession awareness.
As I listened more and more to BBIPOC talk to each other outloud about their experiences of white people, I discovered I could learn a lot. Not only did they know us far better than we knew ourselves, but they were the experts on the very thing destroying our society and planet. This awareness definitely turned up the heat on my discomfort, because I was realizing that I could no longer hide or pretend that I was an expert on anything. Thankfully, this eventually turned into a sense of relief, when I was able to begin to let go of my performative, covering up behaviors and just be myself– racism, whiteness, and all. I laugh and cringe now at the times in the beginning when I was first seeing my own race. A few times, I declared “I am white!” to a BBIPOC, as if they didn’t know. I am sure that I also was hoping they would be proud of me.
If a BBIPOC was in the room, I was unable to focus on anything else except them–what they were doing and what I was doing in relation to them and then, compulsively, virtue-signaling. I felt desperate to be seen as “down” and “one of the good ones”. I was frantically hoping to be accepted, liked, loved, forgiven and absolved. Then, afterwards, I would continue to obsessively replay the scene over and over. In recovery, I have learned that these patterns are created by racial codependency and a profound self-absorption fueled by a lack of knowledge and skill to effectively manage the energy in my body. I still struggle with these things, though they are not nearly as acute.
In addition to this extreme unmanageability, I had a fast-growing rage and grief about what had been done and is continuing to be done to the bodies and lives of BBIPOC in this system, but nowhere to talk about it. I didn’t feel entitled to these feelings because I had enabled this behavior. I couldn’t trust myself. It felt impossible to find other white-bodied people who were willing to have deeper conversations and I knew I could not yet have them with BBIPOC until I had sorted some of my own stuff out, otherwise I would undoubtedly cause harm. The thought of me contributing more harm to the people being forced to endure daily physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual assaults from every direction literally made me want to vomit, so I learned to direct my hyper-vigilance towards keeping my mouth shut and listening carefully.
What I was dealing with wasn’t just my racist behaviors and ideas, but my acculturation in whiteness that had gotten in the way of my own and others’ humanity, healing, and freedom. It was not just my unconscious bias, but my lack of capacity to admit to it and unpack it. It wasn’t just my insecurity and ignorance around difference but my underlying feelings of entitlement and superiority about “my way.” It wasn’t just that I told myself that race didn’t matter but the fact that I made judgements and generalizations about another’s race and those who couldn’t “rise above” it. It wasn’t just my insecurity or smallness in the world, but the fact that this contributed to my passivity in standing up to racism. Without a doubt, the dominant Western culture I grew up in was at least equal, if not more of, an influence than the family system I grew up in.
Eventually, after stumbling along on my own, I was connected with another person interested in applying the 12 Steps to this problem. Finally, I could speak freely with someone who understood not only the scope of the mess we were in as white-bodied people, but how to start the clean up using a spiritual, relational solution as our guide. When the Pandemic hit, we found we could easily start a program like this on a shoestring and perhaps reach people far and wide, so we did. Two months later, George Floyd was murdered. What we heard BBIPOC saying, over and over, was “Hey whyte folx, come get your people!”
Since March of 2020, we have met weekly and our fellowship has gone through much change and made many mistakes. We have been learning about personal sovereignty, reciprocity, and interdependence while we unlearn individualism and toxic interpretations of freedom. We want to create a recovery program that is accountable but does not require the labor of BBIPOC. We want to build a healthy community that creates the conditions for safety and authenticity while focusing on the common good. Many, but not all, of us come from other 12-Step programs and we weave the wisdom of these programs into Whiteness Anonymous when it fits.
While we lean heavily on the legacies and principles of the 12-Step programs that have come before us, we recognize that even those programs, despite being counter-cultural in so many ways, are also rooted in white, patriarchal, Christian, capitalism. We have had to get clear and forge our own interpretations about the wording used in other 12 Step programs like “outside issues,” “anonymity,” and “powerlessness,” as well as the use of gendered, personified interpretations of a higher power. As our fellowship matures and develops, so will our awareness and discernment.
WA benefits greatly from the diversity of perspectives and recovery experiences we have where members have discovered that their whiteness and racism impacts, and is impacted by, their dysfunctional relationships to other substances, people, food, work, religion, money, sex, and body image to name a few. Additionally, many of us have found that the work that we do regarding our dominant racial identity has helped us deconstruct the issues we have stemming from having other identities and that our WA program has served to strengthen our recovery and development in other areas.
My participation in Whiteness Anonymous and my recovery program (which also includes help outside of WA as suggested by Tradition Eight) gives me those tools and the safe places I need to build my skills so that I can be in right relationship with the world. It is a place to process and safely share and sift through the load of the legacy we’ve been handed specifically as white-bodied people. I get to learn about authenticity and embodied community without hierarchy, through our collective practice. I get a place to offload the shame I feel when I have made a mistake so that I can make healthy amends when necessary. I get to be faced with the truth about my racist thinking and behavior in an atmosphere of love, truth, and acceptance so that I can actually do something about it and learn to be compassionate and real with the racist not yet in recovery.
While I cannot put down my racist thinking or racial privilege like an alcoholic can put down a drink, I can learn to put it in its proper place using the tools of the Program. My commitment to daily practice is my sobriety. When I am regularly practicing, my inside is in concert with my outside and I do not find solace in performance, avoidance, or judging others. I have the opportunity to recover my humanity and bring healing and love to my ancestral lineage and the eco-systems I am a part of. I can find peace without numbing.
When I allow and fight for my humanity, I allow and fight for others’ humanity. When I work to spiritually heal my ancestral relationships, I find ways to repair the historical damage they caused or were caused. When I open my mind to the stories, histories, and perspectives of BBIPOC, I become more informed, educated, and empathic so I can make better life-affirming choices. When I engage in regular somatic practice, I have the agency to respond to my environment, and the people in it, more appropriately and effectively. When I develop the capacity to compassionately and firmly check my racism inside myself and outloud, I cultivate humility, an essential ingredient for becoming a person who does not default to competition and domination strategies. When I practice getting out of my comfort zone, I become less and less afraid of what or who is different from me.
Whiteness Anonymous has given me, for the first time in my life, an experience of my wholeness and at the same time, an undeniable impulse and agency to create wholeness in the ecosystems around me - no matter where I go. Wholeness is not perfection, wholeness is wholeness–and it is dynamic. Our recovery is not a list of checkboxes and, when finished, we get to move onto other things. Just as racism is deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, so must be our recovery.
The WA program and its members acknowledge that we are works in progress–that perfection is a lie and an illusion. When things are framed in this way, I can carry an appropriate load of personal responsibility in the horror that is racism and oppression. While leaning on the fellowship, I can learn how to develop safety in myself, instead of expecting the world to do it for me, so that I may show up fully for others, our planet, and live loudly in this truth.