top of page
  • Writer's pictureSarah Robinson

Stepping Out of White Supremacy

Sarah Robinson

Using the 12 steps method to help white people break away from white supremacy

Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when Derik Chauvin was found guilty of all charges for murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the summer of 2020. That brief pause, that catharsis, was short lived. Mere minutes before the verdict was announced, 13-year old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot dead by police in Columbus, Ohio after she had called them for help. The grief that our collective consciousness continues to grapple with is bringing more and more white people into the conversation of mitigating white supremacy.

As a community organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice, my colleagues and I have been in the game of calling white folks into the work for going on five years. Those of us that commit to the work of mitigating white supremacy, specifically those who focus on the de-programming of fellow white people, know how difficult that work can be. During my time in holding space for white folks I have found one technique in particular to be most valuable in helping to maintain my stamina for the work and ability to maintain my patience and empathy:

It's the 12 Steps, which most of us know from Alcoholics Anonymous. It may feel cliché to attribute a recovery model to this aspect of our lives, but hear me out-

Before the election of 2016, I hosted a house party for Showing Up for Racial Justice. I had started to have questions about my whiteness and the effect it had on my Black and Brown neighbors. I wondered what whiteness would mean for my daughters and how they would navigate the world through its lens. I had seen how my presence changed a dynamic or interaction and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. SURJ provided that community for me. I was still actively drinking on a regular basis during this time, and it wasn’t until 2017 that I finally decided to fully remove alcohol from my life, a decision driven by personal desire to finally turn my back on a substance that had stolen so much of my joy and safety growing up. As a white woman doing the work of calling in other white folks to examine their whiteness and white supremacy, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between addiction and racism in the lives of white people. I felt it in my experience of undoing my own programming; removing substances from my life made my anti-racism work more potent. The uncoupling from both follows, anecdotally, similar behavior patterns. If we address white folks unlearning racism similarly to how we help a person with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD), the theory is that they end up sticking with the work longer and in a more meaningful way. It can certainly be argued that coddling white people in the process of mitigating the racism in their lives is further allowing white supremacy to flourish. To that I argue that the process of calling-in, the process Loretta Ross refers to as “calling-out with love,” is a powerful tool for involving more white people in the work of mutual liberation. Here are some of my observations from calling white folks into the work as a lead organizer for my local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice and as a person who has lived with alcoholism affecting the lives of loved ones and myself. One more point, before moving any further: I need to address that living within white supremacy is in fact the norm for our society. Addiction is not considered the norm for that same society. We are addicted to white supremacy and we don’t even know it.

As these steps are presented here, some of the language has been changed for ease of understanding and application. I’ve included the actual 12-step language below the step in italics for reference where necessary.

Step 1: Admit that white supremacy has taken control of our lives and has not allowed us to be fully realized human beings.

Admit powerlessness and that our lives have become unmanageable.

As much as white supremacy steals the humanity of marginalized groups of people, it steals white people’s humanity as well. Living within this system denies us our ability to grow, live authentically, and be free of the unreasonable restraints white supremacy demands of all those who live within its grip.

Step 2: Come to realize that our interconnectedness as humans can restore our humanity.

Come to realize that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Recognizing the humanity in others gives us back the ability to be fully realized human beings. When one group oppresses another, it removes the ability for the oppressor to exhibit the aspects of their lives that are similar to those they are oppressing. When we remove this dynamic, all are able to live as their authentic selves without shame or judgement by the oppressive group.

Step 3: Make the commitment to dedicate our lives to anti-racism.

Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood [Them].

This work is bigger than any one person and by participating we recognize that our personal discomfort must never derail us from continuing in the work. We don’t get to turn away once we begin, no matter how hard it gets.

Step 4: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

White folks mess up. A lot. In order to move forward in our growth, we have to acknowledge the ways in which we’ve benefitted from white supremacy and white privilege, as well as the ways we’ve used that structure to hurt others (albeit unknowingly sometimes).

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

This is where I’ve found gathering in a community around dismantling white supremacy to be so helpful. Having a group of people we can talk to about the times we screw up, how we fix it, and how we stop causing harm, is a critical aspect of getting the work right. We have to be seen in our failures as well as our successes and have other people to hold us accountable.

Step 6: Be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Most white folks say they want equality and/or equity until they have to give something up. Be ready for that equal playing field to arrive, and suspend your shock and awe if it means you don’t get priority in different aspects of your life.

Step 7: Humbly ask [Them] to remove our shortcomings.

Give up the front of the line. Give up the microphone. Give up the spotlight. Be ready to move into the background and help lift others up. Be ready to give up all of it for the benefit of others.

Step 8: Make a list of all the persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.

This is more difficult when the people we harm are strangers, but we can all recall being the one to hand out micro-aggressions without realizing it in the moment. From the big stuff to what we might consider the small stuff, take stock of how white supremacy has made you an unsafe person for others.

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

Before moving forward with this step, ask yourself this question: Will my bringing up a situation with someone cause them to relive trauma or bring them additional pain? If the answer isn’t a clear and confident “no,” do not proceed! This part of the process is not about you and your need for closure, it’s about reconciling the harm you have caused. That being said, this is the case for reparations. Start a personal reparations practice and encourage your representatives to support legislation addressing reparations. Prioritize supporting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) owned businesses and organizations. And when someone says you’ve hurt them, believe them and apologize. Then ask how you can remedy the situation. Better yet, do the deep listening and internal work required to know what you can do without asking BIPOC for advice.

Step 10: Continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong promptly admit it.

This is lifelong work. My comrade Aron DiBacco uses the metaphor of anti-racism being a pebble in your shoe. If you ever lose the feeling of discomfort that anti-racism work brings, then you will undoubtedly screw up. Becoming comfortable with discomfort will get you through successfully.

Step 11: Participate in consistent self questioning and self reflection. Hold yourself accountable. Find others who can hold you accountable.

Seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand [Them], praying only for knowledge of [Their] will for us and the power to carry it out.

Maintaining our connection to the process and continuing to do the work, with people we know will lift us up, hold us down, and keep us accountable, is what will give us longevity. When we show up, we are modeling for the white folks around us. We can help others start and stay in the work. Which leads us to Step 12…

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to [white people], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Call in other white people. Talk to your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors. Share information, and opportunities to have conversation and action around mitigating white supremacy. Once we are involved in the work we can be the ones to ask others to join us. The true element that must keep us coming back to the work is that our liberation is bound up in the liberation of others. Our humanity and full actualization is stifled by the trap of white supremacy. Many of us start this work to help others, but we find that it is ourselves we are freeing along the way.

Sarah Robinson is a white woman and community organizer living in Concord, NH. She has been the lead organizer for her local SURJ chapter for five years and has enjoyed sobriety for three years. She lost her mother to alcoholism in 2014. If someone you love is struggling with a Substance Use Disorder, please reach out to your local Al-Anon group.

19 views0 comments
bottom of page