Check your privilege, make amends, work for change - A twelve-step approach to anti-racism

Check your privilege, make amends, work for change: A twelve-step approach to anti-racism

(Novena reader Thomas Jones sends us the following submission – ed.)

Racism is a deep-seated vice, one that is ingrained in humans at a very early age and is generational. Power, social and economic structures benefit from and perpetuate inequity in order to confer unmerited privileges to a select few.

Anti-racism work includes actively working to change these inequitable systems.

While it is paramount to work for changes in structures that promote racism, the work is not solely targeted at external factors but ought to include personal change and growth in order to become more anti-racist. 

How can one overcome one’s own racism? I propose an adaptation of the Twelve Steps as originated by Alcoholics Anonymous.

While racism is not an addiction per se, it is deep-seated and cannot be overcome passively.

In similar manner, alcoholics cannot be passive in their pursuit of sobriety, for as Alcoholics Anonymous can attest, “We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 58).

Rather, an active and decisive approach must be committed to in order to combat interiorized racism. 

With that in mind, below is my interpretation of the Twelve Steps of Anti-Racism:

We:

1. Admitted that we have been socialized in racism and carry conscious and unconscious racist beliefs. Left to our own devices, we would only perpetuate and support racist structures.

The first step to freedom is admission of our interiorized racism. 

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to anti-racism.

This power that is greater than ourselves is the power that created us into existence equally. Only through this power that is greater than ourselves can we defeat interior racist thinking, for this power is even greater than racism. 

3. Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

We are powerless amid socialized racism, and an available path to anti-racism is to offer ourselves to a Higher Power that has not been socialized by racism. This Higher Power bestows immense dignity to all humans, creating humans in God’s image and likeness (according to the Judeo-Christian tradition).

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

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Empowered by the love and strength of our Higher Power, we can look at our history, our beliefs about our own race and other backgrounds, what words we use to describe others, how we estimated the intelligence and character of people based on their ethnicity, or even who we would and wouldn’t choose to date because of race. Without a candid review of our past and our beliefs, we cannot be effective in our desire for anti-racism. We can endeavor in this knowing that our Higher Power is with us and is keeping us honest.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Unless we name the ways we have wronged others through racism, we will continue to be dominated by racist power. Naming these incidents gives us the power to cooperate with our Higher Power to move away from racist thinking and behavior and to move towards anti-racism. We are called in this pursuit to be honest with God and with ourselves, and to avail ourselves to a trusted and experienced person in anti-racism to disclose the racist ways that we wish to no longer partake in.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these racist defects of character.

7. Humbly asked God to remove our racist thinking and ways.

These two steps concurrently assent to the admission that by our own power we cannot combat socialized racism as it has affected and continue to affect us; however, we can ask God, whose power is greater than racism, to remove our tendencies towards racist thinking and action.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed due to racism, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The ritual of coming full circle through reparation is powerful in combatting alcoholism, and I believe the same can be said for battling racism. If we can look a person in the eye whom we have harmed through our racist beliefs and actions and admit to them personally that we are sorry for the harm that we caused, this causes an upheaval in our psyche that aids in breaking racist habitual patterns that we have.

This is a powerful and sacred act that can only be done properly when done according to the promptings of one’s Higher Power. The act of making amends may have an effect on the person we are seeking to reconcile with but it will most readily have an impact on our lives and journey towards anti-racism.

Note the reference to “wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Some of those we may have hurt through racist actions are no longer alive or would not be open to us communicating with them, even if it is through a mailed letter. Careful discernment is necessary if one is at the point of making direct reparations to specific persons.

10. Continue to take personal inventory and when we find continued racist thinking and behavior in ourselves, we properly admit it.

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Just as sobriety is ongoing, anti-racism is ongoing. We are never one-and-done. Our character defects are like an onion with seemingly infinite layers to peel.

As we grow in anti-racism we will continue to discover in us the effects of racist thinking. While this may cause discouragement, we need to keep our focus on our journey and how we have departed from even deeper and darker crevices of racist thinking.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

The power to be truly anti-racist is not solely through our own doing. We relied on a Higher Power and we will continue to. We cannot become prideful and believe we have arrived to a certain place on our own and no longer need a Higher Power. The effects of racism in our body and mind are generational and structural, and without the assistance of a power greater than ourselves we would continue to be swept into racist thinking.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other people held hostage by racist beliefs, and to practice anti-racism in all of our affairs.

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The anti-racist is a messenger of anti-racism both in word and deed, witnessing to the fruits of admitting racist thinking and behavior, surrendering to a Higher Power and cooperating with this power to combat interior racism.

However there is no benefit in removing interior racist thinking if it does not promote activism against racist policies and structures.  The more one engages in interior conversion from racism, the more one is called to advocate for anti-racism in society.

The Twelve Steps provide a path to anti-racism through humility, surrender and growth, as well as making amends for past wrongful and racist actions in order to become more anti-racist.

As with the Twelve Steps, the work of anti-racism is daily and ongoing, but the freedom and joy that come from walking in this path are immeasurable.

An additional parallel is the power of the Serenity Prayer: asking God for the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change (including people’s racist beliefs and actions as well as certain racist policies), change what I can (especially our own racism in cooperation with our Higher Power), and the wisdom to know the difference.

More stories on Novena on the call to anti-racism:

USA: A house of divided bishops cannot stand against racism

Selflessness of immigrants during COVID-19 forces UK media, public to rethink xenophobia

The long history of how Jesus came to resemble a white European

Spanish theologian: “Racism is not just about skin colour, but about the colour of money”

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