Step Zero, pt. I: Introduction
Updated: Nov 16
We committed ourselves to addressing our inner Whiteness And Racism (WAR) and waking up from the "Dream."
During the earliest years of the fellowship, we grappled with a fundamental dilemma. Many of us, informed by our work in other 12-Step programs, knew that our recovery work could only begin after hitting bottom. It was in hitting bottom, that we would be gifted with the medicine of humility, immediacy, and clarity needed for the journey ahead. How did hitting bottom happen for people like us with racial advantage? What behaviors did we need to quit doing exactly and why, and what were the consequences if we didn't?
Since all of us were engaged in anti-racist work elsewhere, we felt like we were already trying to quit our racism and working hard to challenge the racism we saw in other people and institutions. But it wasn't enough. Nothing, in fact, felt like enough and we were running ourselves into the ground and creating messes everywhere we went, despite our good intentions. Our racial stress seemed to be getting worse, not better, and we struggled with feelings of collapse and wanting to go back into silence and hiding by "taking a break" or by getting"too busy" with other things. We knew we could opt-out if we wanted to, for there would be little to no outward consequences for doing so.
We saw this problem reflected everywhere else too. Loads of well-meaning white people who had originally shown up in droves for the movement for Black lives following the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubrey in 2020, mostly returned to their regularly scheduled program but perhaps with a little more awareness and a lot more verbal sophistication. It seemed like quitting whiteness and racism in the States was a bit like trying to quit drinking while working and living in a bar in a country overflowing with other bars.
As white-advantaged people, we have been the last to learn that our biggest problem goes far deeper than our racism--racism is but a symptom of our dis-ease. As James Baldwin wrote:
White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed. (Letter from a Region in My Mind, 1962)
What does accepting or loving ourselves have anything to do with racism or the practice of whiteness or white supremacy? How could we possibly need racism? How would a supposed lack of love between white people hold any significance to the systemic race problem? These are tough questions for most of us to ask and we might even feel offended by his analysis because we see ourselves as loving people.
Baldwin was expertly naming the heart of what we have barely been able to identify the edges of, let alone figure out how to give up: our whiteness and white advantage. Of course, living in a Western society in the skin we are in, we cannot quit being white-advantaged. White-advantage is something that is given to us freely and automatically every day whether we like it or not--and there is no doubt we like it--in fact, we love it. After all, what human being wouldn't love being seen as valid and having their well-being valued and centered by society-at-large?
While the existence of Whiteness And Racism (WAR) as well as many of the racial advantages associated with it are in the "things we can't control" category, there is plenty we can do about the ways we affirm, act out, and interact with these cultural norms but first, we have to see and feel them. Initially, this means intentionally creating everyday awareness of the things we carry in our personal "knapsack of privilege." At the same time, we can begin to cultivate a curiosity about the ways that whiteness and white advantage have shaped us--mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually--and how it's possible that we have learned to live comfortably with the realities of racism. We have been mostly blind to the costs, for those targeted in the system and for those advantaged by the system as well.
Most of us are shocked when we first hear the latter and scoff, "Hold up, how can there be personal costs to those of us who have racial advantages?!" Unable to see and feel these costs, we are resistant to asking the question with any earnest curiosity. We are sure this is an oxymoronic statement. We dismiss yet another attempt to center whiteness and some may even think, "How dare we?!" Yet, it was in asking this very question--the first of a great many--that would start us on the true path of collective liberation for real.
It's actually the trailhead to a far more expansive view, and one that we need for our collective spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical survival. This is where we can find freedom from the denial and defensiveness that keeps us cut off from ourselves and others. Our denial and defensiveness from the personal costs of maintaining whiteness keeps our nervous systems in mixed states of fight, flight, appease, and freeze, which keep us in overt and covert cycles of violence and aggression towards ourselves and others. (Resmaa Menakem, for one, has written and spoken extensively on this subject.) Can we begin to imagine what our freedom from this denial and defensiveness would do for the people who have been most impacted by it? Or what freeing up this misuse of our energy might do for us?
It was in asking these questions that it became clear that we needed skin in the game. How else could we make sure that our equity work wouldn't be temporary, a pet project, or an occasional hobby? In some 12-Step programs, it has been necessary for members to establish and work through a Step Zero in order to become capable of taking an emotionally honest First Step. Perhaps recovery from a substance or behavioral addiction that's not possible to quit or get away from requires a harm-reduction approach and to intentionally and diligently look for the painful truths so that we can hit bottom. We discovered that, for us, hitting bottom was entirely possible by learning to surrender our habitual compulsion to intellectualize and externalize the disease. This was to be our essential Step Zero, where we committed to addressing the inner WAR and waking up from the "Dream."
What do we mean by the inner WAR? In short, our inner WAR goes far deeper than personal prejudice and biases. It is our own unique inner construction of the dominant cultural ideas, beliefs, practices, and values that serve to maintain a deep and fundamental separation, creating in us an equally deep sense of fear and insecurity. We know this fear and insecurity to be the source of our will to relentlessly control ourselves, others, and our environment in a wide variety of ways, even though this control never yields real security. We have not been able to escape internalizing the cultural norms of what bell hooks called our "White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy," any more than we have been able to escape internalizing patterns from our own family-of-origin. Actually, they are inextricably linked.
We have consciously and unconsciously identified with these collective characteristics and behaviors of our White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy (as detailed in the work of Tema Okun, Kenneth Jones, Layla Saad, and others) believing that they are personal to us and permanent features of our own personality. They feel personal because it likely that we learned many of these ways of being from our closest and most trusted others growing up--they were deeply woven into the ways we were raised and loved; even our heroes reflected these behaviors. Furthermore, we carry real ancestral memory in our body (something known as "transgenerational epigenetic inheritance"), which is a phenomenon that impacts the expression of our nervous system and the choices we make each day based on the state of our nervous system. We can say, backed up by scientific fact, that race is not genetically real but racism is.
While we experienced these ways of being in our closest relationships, what made them especially powerful was that we saw this behavior normalized and reinforced in our segregated institutions, communities, schools, and workplaces, as well as through media. Throughout our entire lives, this cultural messaging has been the main method by which most of us have internalized, in the subtlest but most profound ways, that we are "good people" and that we belong. (We also realize that some of us who have other, intersectional identities may live on the edge of this validation and belonging, but still, we have scrambled to keep ourselves from falling off into what we think will be a terrifying abyss of "not belonging.")
Some of these norms (detailed on www.whitesupremacyculture.info) are perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, paternalism, binary thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, and the right to comfort. We also play out archetypes like the Tone Police, Karen, White Savior, White Victim, White Superior, and more. This collective pattern of roles, attributes, and practices are tools and means of comfort and control that fundamentally disconnect us from ourselves and each other, eroding our sense of humanity and the humanity of others. Instead of relating to others, we have learned to do something to--or for-- them. Of course, steeped in a culture of "doing to", we do this same "doing to" ourselves.
This does not mean that this is all there is to it. The outer WAR of racism and white supremacy culture is the fundamental building material for every single one of our systems here in the States (and most other white Western countries). It must be dismantled. However, unless we do this necessary outside work while being firmly rooted within our inside work, it is very likely that we will perpetuate and reinforce racism without realizing it.
This is because the inner and outer of whiteness and racism feed off and reinforce each other. Whiteness is the ideal environment from which racism can emerge from, and it is just as much the glue that serves to keep the toxic pattern in place. It is an insidious disease and lives not only in our institutions, organizations, neighborhoods, and relationships, it is also in our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and even our bodily sensations. Indeed, whiteness and racism is that pervasive. Let's take a deeper look in Part II by starting with a micro-neuroscience-and-history-of-psychology-and-philosophy lesson. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, we would like to invite you into a somatic practice of being with what is happening inside of you as you have read these words. Do you notice any emotions or sensations? Perhaps you are more aware of having a particular thought or image in response to this post. If possible, do you notice any of your experience happening in your body? We invite you to share your responses here in comments whether our collective experience resonates with you or not. Either way, we would love to hear from you.