Why Aren't There More People of Color in the Recovery Movement?

By Tessie Castillo 09/17/19

For many white people, recovery is a redemption story, proof that they were good people all along. For people of color, a known history of drug use might be the only excuse a prospective employer needs to shut the door.

white people sitting in a circle at a recovery meeting
"The recovery movement is a pretty white space and when you go into white spaces they want you to talk white, dress white." © Rosshelen | Dreamstime.com

When Art Woodard walked into his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New Haven, Connecticut, a sea of white faces turned to stare at him. Some of the faces showed kindness; others hostility. Most people just watched as he took a seat in the back of the room.

Woodard’s shoulders slumped. As a black man who had recently graduated Yale, he was used to being the only person of color in a room. Still, he thought, it would have been nice to share the recovery journey with other black folks. 

"None of these stories are like mine"

As his fellow AAers stood up to tell their stories, Woodard found he couldn’t concentrate. None of these stories are like mine, he thought. Many of the stories involved childhood abuse or mental health issues. For Woodard, heavy drinking didn’t start until he graduated from Yale, when he finally couldn’t take the weight of living in a white world where he constantly felt the need to prove himself, to justify his presence, to assure others he wasn’t a threat. 

“I got drunk because I thought I had fooled an institution into giving me a degree I didn’t deserve,” he says in a phone interview. “I never really felt I had a place in the world…I embraced alcohol because I needed a release for that insecurity.”

Woodard never returned to that AA meeting, during which not a single person approached or welcomed him. Luckily, he found a program specifically for people of color elsewhere in the city. When the program nearly folded for lack of funds, he wrote grants to keep it afloat—he was adamant about continuing his recovery journey alongside his peers.

Over the years Woodard became more visible within the wider recovery movement. He became a public speaker and trainer, often co-leading health and recovery trainings with his friend Jim, who was white. But the specter of race was never far off.

“I can honestly say that every position or opportunity that I was able to achieve was achievable through a Caucasian male offering me opportunities,” he says. “I was invisible in those settings if I didn’t have [a white person] to speak for me.” 

He endured the barbs from the people who ignored Woodard if he asked a question, directing their answer to Jim, and the people who expressed astonishment at his “good English,” as they put it. And always, the experience of his first AA meeting came back; almost every recovery space was a sea of white faces. 

Racial Bias, Recovery, and Criminal Justice

Woodard’s experience as a person of color in the recovery movement is not unique. It’s no secret that the movement is largely dominated by Caucasians, whether in staff or leadership positions, on organizational boards, or among membership. Why do so few people of color play visible roles within the recovery community, especially given how much the effects of harsh drug policy and chaotic drug use have devastated many communities of color? To merely blame racism, though it certainly plays a role, is oversimplifying a complex problem. 

One of the reasons we don’t see many people of color in leadership positions within the recovery movement is that it can be harder for people of color to sustain recovery at all. We all know someone who spent a good chunk of their twenties using drugs or alcohol problematically. Perhaps they went to jail once or twice. Perhaps they were even homeless for a while. But today that person is married with children, thriving at a good job, and talks about recovery to anyone who will listen. That person is also probably white.

Sustained recovery is not as easy for a person of color. For black men, especially, once the criminal justice system sinks its teeth into you, it doesn’t let go. There is little room for mistakes in a world that expects you to fail, and we all know the statistics: Despite similar rates of drug use, people of color are more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white people, serve longer sentences for the same crimes, and find it harder to break the cycle once it starts.

Even for people of color who are able to find and sustain recovery despite the odds against them, they likely won’t be as quick to advertise their new status. For many white people, recovery is a redemption story, proof that they were good people all along. For people of color, a known history of drug use might be the only excuse a prospective employer needs to shut the door.

For evidence of racial bias in recovery, one need only pick up the nearest newspaper or turn on the TV. When the story is about a white drug user, the addiction or overdose death is reported as a tragic loss of potential. But a person of color can suffer a death completely unrelated to drugs—being shot unarmed by a cop, for example—and the public will dig into his past for any evidence of drug use or criminal behavior, then use this information to justify the murder. Any drug history of any kind is enough to brand a person of color for life.

The overdose crisis presents a conundrum. On the one hand, it provides an influx of funding and sympathy to a movement in desperate need of both. On the other hand, it exacerbates the racial divide by further entrenching the narrative of white recovery as redemptive and black or brown recovery as something else. 

Follow the Money

Donald McDonald, a white man from Raleigh, North Carolina with 15 years in recovery, explains, “The opioid crisis is seen as a white issue not just because of the predominantly white images we see in the news. It’s this message about the ‘worthy afflicted.’ We hear about people with legitimate pain receiving lawfully prescribed pain relief. We can then vilify the pill or the pharmaceutical company – not the person experiencing addiction. Historically this has not been the black experience in America."

The people whose faces are presented as sympathetic victims are almost always white. And this is no mere coincidence. The recovery movement is made up of people who have long suffered heavy stigma, but now, for the first time, thanks to the attention that the overdose crisis has sparked, the movement is experiencing more public sympathy and financial support. 

Laurie Johnson-Wade, an African American woman who leads recovery efforts in Kensington, Pennsylvania, says that money lies at the heart of the exclusion of people of color in recovery spaces. 

“If you show my face [as a black woman] or if you use me as the leader at a conference then you are not going to get the money that you would have if you had somebody representing a different community,” she says. “I think those in the recovery movement started out with good intentions, but if you want to win, you have to play the game…At the end of the day, it is all about dollars and cents.”

Organizations are putting forward their most sympathetic faces to potential funders and allies—and the whiter and more connected to prescription pills (as opposed to street drugs), the better. Keeping the conversation revolving around pharmaceutical companies also makes it seem as though problematic drug use is a new phenomenon, which allows us to ignore the last few decades of harsh drug policies that have decimated communities of color. 

Devin Reaves, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition and a black man in recovery, explains, “There is hyper focus on Big Pharma creating the opioid epidemic, but [problematic drug use] has been going on in the black community for a long time.”

These narratives and “solutions,” in which drug problems among white people are the primary focus, further drive people of color away from recovery. Too often, out of genuine desire to be colorblind and put racial strife behind us, people believe that what works for white people should work for everyone. But that is not true in most spaces, and especially not in the recovery space, where racist drug policies have created a very different environment for people of color.

“I don’t like it when white folks tell me how black I should be” 

Reaves, who often finds himself the lone person of color trying to shift recovery conversations towards criminal justice reform and strong economic policies, says it’s more than just uncomfortable. It can challenge a person’s very identity.

“[The recovery movement] is a pretty white space and when you go into white spaces they want you to talk white, dress white,” says Reaves, who says he has been reprimanded many times by white people for being too outspoken about race. “I don’t like it when white folks tell me how black I should be.” 

For a person of color, living in a predominantly white world can be exhausting. You have to watch your behavior lest someone consider your very presence a threat. You never know when you might encounter someone who will show open hostility towards you. You have to put up with constant micro-aggressions. And often you are a solitary voice trying to remind everyone not to forget about people of color, not to pursue solutions that only benefit white people, not to pretend that race doesn’t matter. 

Woodard explains that there is a price to getting ahead. The people who “succeed” in a primarily white environment are the ones who act in a way that white people consider socially acceptable. But when someone else is dictating the terms of your behavior—sometimes literally, sometimes passive aggressively—that experience can change you. Spend enough time straddling two worlds and you may find that you no longer belong in either.

“People of color [who spend a lot of time in a white world] get locked into these insecurities,” explains Woodard. “There is an environment we want to have success in, but that environment is changing us.”

For many people, that is too steep a price to pay, which is why historically white spaces often remain that way. It takes a long time for enough trailblazers to change the environment to one that feels safe and welcoming to people of color. 

How to Be More Inclusive

So how do we start that process of change so that recovery environments become more inclusive?

Donald McDonald says that the first step is to acknowledge that race and gender inequality exists in recovery spaces and then to take action to correct it. He admits that although there is awareness within the recovery community about the lack of space for people of color, it hasn’t yet translated into action on a large scale.

Devin Reaves says that people of color should be represented on organization boards, in community meetings and at conferences…but not in a way that implies mere tokenism. 

“Every movement should be trying to find the next generation of advocates and pull them up,” he says. “Give people an opportunity to excel, but also try to mitigate the harms of being a black person in an all-white space.”

Laurie Johnson-Wade says that rather than asking for more inclusion in white spaces, people of color have to organize on their own and become a “constituency of consequence.”

Some self-organizing is already happening. At the 2018 Harm Reduction Conference in New Orleans, leaders of color came together prior to the main conference to hammer out priority issues for their communities. They are tired of having their identities challenged by a world that continues to put their issues on the back burner, tired of the steep price of participation in a white space. And tired of asking permission to speak.

“We have to make ourselves visible, almost like a force to be reckoned with,” says Johnson-Wade. “We have to pull our own resources together and say we are going to do this work regardless. We will not sit around and wait.”

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Tessie Castillo is a writer and drug policy advocate in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her articles explore topics such as criminal justice reform, drug policy, and harm reduction. Castillo previously served as the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a statewide nonprofit that advances drug policy and criminal justice reform. During that time, she played a pivotal role in helping to legalize syringe exchange programs and expand access to naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose. Find Tessie at her website or on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.