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Anne Wilson Schaef's When Society Becomes an Addict is a great book, one which explains a lot about why addiction, and inaction, and denial are so rife in American society. It explains why our culture and our country are the way they are. And it explains how they are.

But what surprised me was what happened when I then read This Bridge Called My Back.

The two books, on the surface, couldn't be more different. One is written by a white woman, a therapist from an academic background, analyzing society from the perspective of addiction theory. The other is an anthology, a collection of very different and yet connected works by many radical women of color, from all kinds of backgrounds, writing about racism and homophobia and feminism and most importantly about the intense personal details of their lives.

And yet, in a way they could almost have been the same book.

Addiction and Racism

The crucial point that Schaef makes is that our society is an addict, as much as any individual alcoholic or codependent or cocaine addict within it.

She outlines what kind of behaviors are typical of addicts and part of addiction. In an individual addict, those behaviors often lead to abuse as the addiction progresses. In using their substance of choice in a hamrful way, in fact, addicts are reenacting the abuse they have experienced, on themselves if not yet on others.

In a society which is engaging in those same behaviors, self-harm (of people within the society) and abuse of others (individuals in the society and in the rest of the world) are often the same thing. And what abuse looks like on a societal level is racism, misogyny, classism, ableism, ageism... it is the systematic harm, or oppression, of parts of society.

That's all very pretty theory. But what does it mean?

How Addiction Leads to Abuse

Shaef talks about the way that addicts, including our society, use denial to avoid responsibility and dissociate to erase reality. And she is very clear that this includes erasing the reality and histories of minority groups, and explains that "The addictive system also deals with differences by making them nonexistent. A black person is not really... black, he or she is 'just like us.'" She gives the following example from a 1985 article in the New York Times:

Jarvis Stanford, a twenty-year-old black man, works with Allan Shenberger in the Kroger store. "Al and I get along real good," he said. "Sometimes I go over to the gas station. Sometimes he comes over here and we sit and rap and listen to my James Ingram tapes." About Stanford, Shenberger said: "Jarvis is great. To me, there are blacks and there are niggers, but I'd have to say Jarvis is white. We have a good time with each other. He's brought me out of the dumps many times."
It may seem strange to point at this kind of racism and say it is an example of addictive behavior. But even though Allan Shenberger is friends with Jarvis Stanford, he is so deeply in denial of reality that he has to think of Jarvis as white to keep his racist ideas of the world intact. He has no ability to see what is actually happening around him or what he is actually doing. In fact, he is engaging in the same diseased thought processes to protect and be unaware of his racism that an active alcoholic uses to protect and be unaware of the effects and frequency of their drinking.

But That's Not All

The authors in This Bridge Called My Back repeatedly identify the same behavior as racist or oppressive that Schaef identifies in the abstract as addictive.

Schaef talks about how addicts operate out of a fear of scarcity, a zero-sum model. In This Bridge, Andrea Canaan discusses the way women of color and white women become divided, fearing each other, and states that "It's as if we think liberation a fixed quantitiy, that there is only so much to go around. That an individual or community is liberated at the expense of another. When we view liberation as a scarce resource, something only a precious few of us can have, we stifle our potential, our creativity, our genius for living, learning, and growing."

And this idea that liberation comes at the expense of others comes from society, particularly from a ruling power which often does parcel out liberation to one group at the expense of another. On the pineapple plantations in Hawaii in the 1800s, for example, growers looked at their diverse workforce and carefully paid some ethnic groups more than others, and gave some power over others, so that those with less power resented their fellows and those with greater power would protect it by refusing to rebel.

Both individuals and society as a whole buy into this idea that there is a scarcity of joy and freedom in the world, and that we have to fight each other to get it. And that is, necessarily, the behavior of an addict. And on an even larger level, this scarcity and the paranoid thinking of the addictive mental process lead to things like internment camps, war, and genocide... all of which, as we do them in the United States, are repeatedly and deeply racist.

The Personal is Political

When an individual is abused by another individual, they internalize the abuse, whether entirely or in part. It's Stockholm Syndrome, it's codependency, and it's a necessary act in order to survive the situation. When an individual is abused by society, the same thing happens. People internalize racism, internalize homophobia. When we have connections to healthier communities around those issues, we can unlearn that oppression and release ourselves. But until then, we act out the abuse on ourselves and sometimes others.

This is part of why "divide and conquer" works. It is hard for people to let go of the belief that their parents or their community or their government is there to support them, and that it is right. Repeated truth that is not internalized embitters and hardens the heart. On some level, we struggle to find some way in which the racism that we have learned is true and okay, no matter who we are. But addicts cannot heal until we are willing to be honest about our experiences, whether our problem is alcohol or oppression.

The Solution

Schaef talks about honesty as the solution, and This Bridge Called My Back demonstrates that honesty.

She also talks a little about how addiction is partly an attempt to get power over our lives and over the people and things around us. People in 12-step programs are often afraid to take the first step, which talks about being powerless over our addictions. We often become so afraid of not having power and of losing control that this seems like a fate worse than death. But in reality, Schaef points out, this step is about figuring out what we are powerless over and finding the ways in which we have tremendous power in our lives. Not "power over", but empowerment.

The women writing in This Bridge Called My Back address this same issue. They talk repeatedly of the need to connect and find real power together within their communities. Although most of their pieces were written independently, there is a recurring theme of being honest in admitting and acknowledging the ways that each of us are oppressive and oppressed -- of doing that first step around racism and other forms of abuse. They talk about educating ourselves - that what each of us needs to do about what we don't know is go look for it - in other words, being willing to be honest about what we know and being willing to change.

These books are each around two decades old, and getting older every minute, and yet we have so much to learn from them. It seems clear to me that there is a powerful and important connection between addiction and racism, and that that connection will provide tremendous resources in healing both those problems.

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