It’s easy to say, “I don’t see color,” but that erases the struggles of people of color. Recovery is not a one-size-fits-all experience.
Laura Cathcart Robbins is used to being “the only one in the room.” A black woman in long-term recovery, she’s part of a predominantly white recovery community in Studio City, California.
Recovery is full of challenges for anyone, but adding intersectionality to this has shaped Laura’s ten-year journey in a unique way. She speaks about her experiences openly, hoping to create space for other people whose identities have been marginalized. She’s written about her recovery for The Temper and is starting a podcast about her experience as well.
As a woman of color, Laura goes to as many meetings as possible so that she can be seen and possibly make that a safe space for another minority. That’s also one of the reasons why she has a lot of commitments. She does this work even though she’s not always treated with respect. For example, because she doesn’t straighten her hair, white women in meetings will sometimes take the liberty of touching her curly hair without asking.
“I am reluctant to speak on behalf of the African-American community; however, I will say that I think it’s imperative that there is dialogue in groups about making meetings a safe space for everyone, in keeping with the third tradition,” she said. “Alcoholics Anonymous was created by and for white men of a certain socio-economic status. Black people weren’t even allowed to attend specific AA meetings until as recently as the late 1970s. Black people have, like everywhere else in this country of ours (which was also created by and for white men) learned to navigate our way through ‘segregated’ rooms and situations. White people can help by both acknowledging the fact that it can be challenging to be the only one in the room, but also by educating themselves as to phenomena such as ‘Whitesplaining’ or ‘White Blindness.’”
Laura says, “It’s essential for my sobriety to be able to share about my experiences with racism and the difficulties of being a black woman in this country. However, in some meetings, that kind of sharing is regarded as an “outside issue” and therefore, not welcomed. Or the opposite might happen where I am met with what feels like ‘white guilt.’ White Guilt is where people (usually women) over-respond to a black person’s experience, taking it on as though they have to make it better for them on behalf of white people everywhere.”
Rather than treating people of color as a novelty or curiosity, white friends in recovery can support black recovery by lifting up their voices, listening to the differences and similarities, and acknowledging that privilege and access to resources is not equally distributed. It’s easy to say, “I don’t see color,” but that erases the struggles of people of color. Recovery is not a one-size-fits-all experience. It is as diverse and unique as the people who experience it. For example, not everyone has health insurance, the ability to go to inpatient treatment, or a sympathetic family or community. Black people are more likely to serve time for drug-related crimes, while white people are more likely to be given the option of treatment, community service, or severely reduced sentences.
Systemic discrimination against African-American people with substance use disorder is not anecdotal. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confirms, “Communities of color tend to experience greater burden of mental and substance use disorders often due to poorer access to care; inappropriate care; and higher social, environmental, and economic risk factors.”
In a recovery group, mindfulness and respect go a long way toward making people feel welcome and wanted. Laura says, “I am fortunate enough to have a voice, and I feel like it’s important to keep showing and sharing about what it’s like to be like me; to look like me, to have hair like mine and skin like mine and still need this program as desperately as anyone else.”