Racism Is An Addiction…In The Recovery Industry

by Ester Nicholson


Oct. 4, 2021 – 

I am a black woman in recovery.

In my 35 years of recovery, and as a recovery professional, I have experienced bias and racism. When I entered treatment, I was the only black in the entire treatment facility—including staff and residents. No one there looked like me, thought like me or could relate to my intergenerational and cultural trauma. It was never even addressed, therefore vital aspects of my recovery were not met, and I left treatment feeling under-served.I can assure you, I am not alone. I was given the “one size fits all” approach, and yet felt excluded because the color of my skin was different, my cultural background was different—I was different. When I attended meetings outside of the black community, I was met with much the same experience. Even today as a keynote speaker at recovery conferences, I am commonly one out of four blacks in the room.We all know this can’t be right. Racial and ethnic minorities have historically been challenged accessing services, and when they do receive them, it is too often not equivalent to that of their white fellows.

There’s a problem and my conclusion is this: racism and bias are also patterns of addiction, and—like the society at large—they live in the field of recovery.  Addiction is set of priorities that has become entangled with existing personal and societal perceptions and beliefs. As we identify with those perceptions and beliefs, we become subservient to a particular way of being. Dependence is also a state of awareness—gained over time—and is a system of integrated thinking that is self-reinforcing. We develop belief systems and emotional payoffs—and ultimately life patterns—that reinforce the addiction itself, so it becomes a persistent challenge. Racism is exactly this kind of system. It carries with it sets of beliefs about life, about people and about the way we should interact with each other. It plays into our survival/control legacy, which we carry from our biological history: we fear the “other,” and exclude those who don’t look “like us.” And it has become systemic. Our cultural and economic institutions have taken on these beliefs and established policies based upon this world view. The history of how that has been out-pictured ranges from intentional slavery and abuse to unintentional, yet silent complicity. Like all addictions, the first step of recovery requires that we become aware of the root causes of systemic patterns. Like all addictions, we must acknowledge that it has created a system that is exclusive and ineffective for the under-served, and we must release old ideas that are not working in order to make room for all of the people we serve—regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation. 

I suggest that addiction—and therefore racism—is a dysfunction of the identity. When we are in the throes of our addiction, we create a faux-identity that is needful, out-of-control, and at the mercy of the environment we find ourselves, therefore powerless and stagnant. Racism is based on a false sense of identity because our essential nature—as spiritual beings—is that of wholeness, equality, inclusion and oneness. When our true identity is blocked and obscured by a pattern and history of superiority, inferiority and “otherness”, we are walking asleep to who we really are, while dreaming that we are awake. And it is impossible to be awake to our root identity of oneness.  So who are we, and what do we stand for? 

We are institutions that were originally created to help the suffering alcoholic, seemingly without race or gender boundaries. Yet even in the pages of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there are no references to black or people of color. There is barely any acknowledgement of women! So, even with the pure intention of helping those suffering from alcoholism, exclusion and bias was prevalent in the institution of 12 Step Recovery. Little wonder that there is a large percentage of black people who resist an institution that never acknowledged their existence, understood their suffering and made no room for them. I’m afraid that it’ll go largely unacknowledged, ignored and treated as “business as usual”. So we’re here. Now what? We address the disease of systemic racism the same way we address any disease of dependence: we treat it. The recovery industry has thankfully grown and expanded to include treatment for every addiction imaginable.  It has welcomed healing modalities and practices that were unheard of when this movement first started. This proves that radical and transformational change is possible in this community.

I propose that we make the same radical shift to heal the industry’s addiction to racism – through  anti-racism training, coupled with radical, compassionate healing. A spiritual and emotional focus must be the foundation of the powerful work to be done. We cannot heal the symptom—or the broken identity—until we heal the cause. We must address the invisible and undifferentiated beliefs we carry about people and situations, and steadfastly dismantle the patterns of systemic bias and racism that continue to plague our institutions. It’s time for the Recovery industry to do a “fearless and moral inventory”, and be willing to go to any lengths to heal this fracture in the recovery movement. Fourth Step Inventories are incredibly effective as they shine the light on false perceptions that keep us stuck in distorted and outdated paradigms. It brings to our awareness how we’ve contributed (knowingly or unknowingly) to a problem that is causing harm, and compels us to take compassionate accountability for our action or inaction for the harm caused. It is from that perspective, that the industry can have the spiritual awakening necessary to be of maximum service to all who suffer and are seeking recovery.

This is the perfect time in history to finally pull the band-aid off of the bleeding wound of exclusion and otherness, and go back to the beginning—to our original identity and intention to serve all of those who are suffering. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the recovery organizations who are already employing DEI practices in a profound way. In particular, I would like to acknowledge NAATP and its DEI committees—of which I am honored to be a member—for their strong commitment to healing bias and racism in our industry, and insuring that quality treatment is accessible to all people. 

I will be offering a presentation of these ideas at the NAATP’s 42nd Annual Conference this December. It is called “Healing Bias and Racism In Recovery”—and is targeted to recovery professionals. For more information about Bias and Racism and the use of the Soul Recovery strategy and processes, please see the web page below:


Thank you for your commitment to making a difference in the world. It is what gets me up in the  morning. Ester Nicholson www.estermail.com Ester Nicholson’s story of addiction and recovery was featured in a 30-minute presentation on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), and has been shared with humor, heart and compassion through her keynote presentations at conferences and spiritual centers all across the world.

Ester is a thought leader, counselor and the author of Soul Recovery – 12 Keys To Healing Dependence.