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ATTC Messenger September 2021: Decolonizing Recovery: Restorative Justice as a Treatment Plan

The ATTC Network is funded by SAMHSA and the author’s opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of SAMHSA or the ATTC. We respectfully offer this article to encourage healthy discussion to advance our field.

By Nevaeh Burton-Anderson
SimplyVee LLC

September is recovery month; this is a time where we reflect on how far many individuals have come along in their journey to sobriety and their commitment to their recovery. It is also a time to be honest about what recovery looks like, and why it may not be inclusive to marginalized individuals who experience discrimination based on gender, race, and sexuality.

So, you want to be an addictions counselor? You decided that you want to help people overcome adversities and help them become their best self. Congratulations, you have spent many years in school, interning at some of the best rehabilitation centers and medical facilities that you were able to get into, and now you have the degrees and certification to prove this. You’re all set to go! However, what if I told you that treating addiction requires more than what is brought to you in a classroom or clinical setting? What if I told you that in order to be an effective therapist you are going to have to do the inner work and dismantle your own white supremacy?

Now, I know the knee-jerk reaction is to declare that you don’t contribute to white supremacy, or that you’re not racist. However, I encourage you to really look at how white supremacy and racism has contributed to the foundation of our society today, which includes the substance use and mental health treatment systems. We also must be mindful that to talk about white supremacy and colonialism, is to talk about the binary of gender and sexuality; we must be honest about how marginalized people are affected in every part of society, including in substance use treatment and recovery services.

I have worked in HIV prevention for over a decade, with an emphasis on educating and advocating for transgender women of color; the issues of homelessness, substance use disorder, and mental health were some of the main themes that constantly reappeared whether it was on the prevention side of HIV or maintaining care. From my experience, trans women of color, in particular Black transgender women, have been harshly discriminated against. I have seen some of my sisters disengage from any kind of care due to blatant misgendering, lack of urgency, willful ignorance, and microaggressive attitudes. I have even experienced one of my former clients being told that her transition was a “distraction to her sobriety.”

Historically, the Department of Justice has never been fair towards Black and Brown individuals, nor have they been favorable towards sexual and gender diverse individuals who live in their truth. When we talk about substance use and recovery, we must be mindful that we talk about it in its entirety. Did you know that although statistics show that there isn’t a significant difference in substance use, Black people are far more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts? This shows up when there are laws like New York’s “Stop and Frisk” policy. This is done because there is direct belief that neighborhoods inhabited by people of color are more likely to have more crime. For example, although 51% of men over the age of 16 were reported to be Black or Latinx, they make up 82 percent of arrests for misdemeanor charges related to drug possession or intent to sell controlled substances and 82 percent were charged for various citations*, according to a report delivered to the United Nations.

Gender and sexual diverse individuals have not had the easiest interactions with the police, either. As it is well documented, the Stonewall Riots were initiated by trans women of color, in particularly Miss Major Griffin, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera. Even well after the riots, sexual and gender diverse individuals were subjected to harassment from law enforcement as well as a disregard for any community members when they do report a crime. If you need an example, look up the many deaths of Black women of transgender experience. When a Black trans woman is murdered, there are a lot of ways that the cases are mishandled; this includes deadnaming and misgendering a victim in the press (more than likely intentionally, although the APA style guideline  states that you must respect the individual’s chosen name and gender identity), delays in the case, and even giving the assailants sentences that are light in nature. If you include the trauma of living day to day with the constant harassment, rejection of employment and housing, various mental and physical health diagnoses, and being constantly in survival mode, these factors can be a breeding ground for unhealthy coping mechanisms which can potentially include substance use.

I say all of this to ask, what is your plan to decolonize recovery? Have you thought about how intersectionality is included when it comes to dealing with your clients and participants? How about planning for more equitable services? What does your staff look like? Are you recruiting individuals for your organization who can relate to sexual and gender diverse people of color (ones that LOOK like the population you’re serving with a similar background)? Are you training peer educators? What does payment look like? What does your board look like? Do you believe your clients when they are telling you something? When you go to seminars or workshops about restorative justice or working with any marginalized groups, are you taking notes and taking initiative to implement those necessary changes?

If it seems like a lot of questions, or if it seems like a difficult task, that’s because it is. Dismantling white supremacy requires you to do the work daily. It means asking yourself what are some outdated and limiting beliefs that you must heal from. To be quite honest, it is you honoring your commitment to do better and to help individuals who might not have the tools to help themselves solely because they are victims of white supremacy. I hope that this article is the start to research social and health disparities among individuals of color, especially within the disparities of gender and sexuality.

In the meantime, here are a few links you can start with.