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  • Jennifer McClanahan-Flint

Our Addiction to Racism is Killing Us

Updated: Jun 22

We like to think of racism as individuals mistreating other individuals. We don't understand how we, nice people, are doing any harm. I'm not hurting anyone is what all junkies say. If only "the racists" would get clean, racism wouldn't be a problem. But that's not what racism is.

Racism is the systematic disenfranchisement and oppression of non-white people. As a society, we strive to align ourselves with whiteness as much as we can and have become addicted to racism: the certainty, the rules, and the seeming superiority that whiteness provides. We believe the status of whiteness protects and elevates us. Racism has created a caste system based on social, legal, and economic rules that make us feel good when we identify with whiteness. Like so many other junkies that desperately search for that feel-good moment, we are in denial about having a problem.

But, we all have a problem - every single last one of us.

Some of us take direct hits: the white woman who calls the police on the Black man birdwatching, knowing full well she can use her whiteness to punish him for imposing on her comfort. Some of us live off the contact high, adapting to forms of whiteness, subsuming our own identities in a reach for the privilege whiteness provides.

No matter how you ingest it, it is in your system.

Our 400-year-old addiction to racism has left us weak and vulnerable

Our racist caste system continues to support the exploitation of brown, Black, and poor people by not guaranteeing them a living wage, sustainable housing, or care for their health. Racism ensures that their prospect of a future is dim and challenging. And we think it's only their problem, those individuals who are not rugged enough to overcome.

We are so high on racism that we can not see how precarious it is for all of us.

When we see issues like the inequities of our school to prison pipeline, we get just a little bit distressed, and then we take another hit. We double down on racism as if the problems of those Black people aren't our problems. Instead of dealing with our addiction, we distract–we overwork, we shop, we spend as if capitalism will save us. But that's just another drug of choice. We try to manage our uncertainty by strictly adhering to white supremacist values. We stay within the racist lines.

We feel better, even superior, for a moment.

Worst of all, we are passing the addiction down to our kids. And what has racism done for people under 40? It's resulted in suppressed wages, colossal debt, and still no real access to the "American Dream." They see the addiction, and they try to protest against it. Yet, we make them swallow the pill. We dismiss their resistance as a folly of youth, and we assume that they'll understand the comforts of racism as they get older. It's just rebellion, we say.

It isn't rebellion. They just haven't gotten hooked yet. They are still sober enough to see that white supremacy is a pyramid scheme. It is a drug designed to make you think there is only one reality, and that reality is whiteness.

For many good reasons, I send my daughter to a privileged and exclusive private school as opposed to the SFUSD to give her, in my mind, more opportunities. But that comes at a cost. It's like shooting racism straight into her veins and telling her not to get hooked.

Those white supremacist values make everyone sick.

We don't have freedom, the thing we most covet. Instead, we stick to the rules for fear of punishment.

We are racked with perfectionism, which causes doubt, fear, and inaction.

● We are blinded by judgment--of ourselves and others-- that permits us to "cancel" each other without any real effort to connect.

Our reliance on polarizing either-or thinking to solve our problems is a clear sign of an addict. It's hard for junkies to cope with the grey, so they search for the next high. The middle, that grey, is where our humanity lives. Seeing people's humanity would mean we would begin to see and understand racism at work. But that leads to uncertainty in what we believe. We question ourselves: Did we really earn what we have? Is the playing field really unleveled? This questioning leads to discomfort, and that has us reaching for the distraction that only another hit from the rules of racism can bring.

Our addiction to racism is killing us because we would rather die than give it up. We would rather vote against our own best interests and the stability of our democracy just to get another hit. Foreign governments know this and exploit our addiction by peddling racist and divisive content. We are so hooked on racism that we will ingest the drugs that they offer to us.

If you are feeling just horrible about all of this, recognize that as a symptom of most addicts. They feel bad about what they are doing, may even know what to do to get clean, but still reach for the drugs. We lean into the escape of the privilege that whiteness offers, and before we know it, we find ourselves so entwined with the whole racist system, we can't imagine life being any other way.

All those people on the streets protesting, looting, and infiltrating are trying to stage an intervention. What they know is that our politics and policing are used to protect property and white supremacy, not our humanity. They are telling us that our racism cannot sustain our country.

But the lure of racism is so strong. We worry, we pause, and we post a Black Tuesday statement on our social media pages, then we relax and take another hit. If turning off the TV and not reading and watching the news makes you feel better, realize you just took another hit. When we distance ourselves from the tragedy unfolding in our country because we have to get back to work, we are using the sweet puffs of privilege to cope.

And your silence in the face of racism? Consider yourself a dealer.

What Withdrawal Feels Like

Below is what you might experience if, instead of taking another hit, you do the work of breaking the cycle of your racist addiction:

Cognitive dissonance: You want to believe the world is fair and good, and when you see injustice, and you can no longer deny it.

Emotional response: Anger, sadness, guilt, and shame - we experience real discomfort around these hard emotions; if we want to heal it, we gotta feel it.

Conflict: With other people addicted to racism and those who see your addiction.

Hard conversations with family and friends: If you want to get clean, you will have to live differently.

There is no cold turkey

You can't go cold turkey because withdrawal is long and slow. Racism pumps through every vein of our society. If you don't find it at home, you will find it at school and work. Do you shoot it intravenously, do you smoke it on a regular basis, or do you settle for the contact high?

Let's be clear. You can't be kind of addicted. You can't use racism and then put it down for a while. You use it in some form every day, and you can only stop by taking a single conscious step every day.

How can you break your addiction to racism?

In the language of 12-step programs, recovery begins when we can admit that our lives have become unmanageable. Often, more than the harm to others or ourselves, it's the awareness of our lack of control that pushes the desire to change.

Like any drug, it is helpful to understand how racism works. Racism is controlling us all. We have been socialized to adhere to white supremacist cultural values. Instead of being taught history in school, you were taught racism. White supremacy is part of the American identity, regardless of the color of your skin.

And if we were taught racism, we can also use education to identify how it functions in our lives and begin to detoxify. This isn't a cure. Even when we stop using, we benefit from the contact high.

If you are ready to face your addiction, click on this link and ready the NY Times' 1619 Project in its entirety. It will help you explore and understand how racism works in the United States. Read it, share and discuss it with someone else, and start your cycle of recovery. If you are serious about change for yourself or your organization, contact us at support@leverage2lead.com.


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Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If this article was sent to you by someone else and you would like to receive her articles directly in your inbox, please sign up here.


MJ Mathis is an Associate Leadership Coach and Facilitator at Leverage to Lead. She facilitates adult learning in a way that centers our humanity and creates opportunities for building relationships that foster more positive and productive work environments.

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