‘Recovery from White Conditioning': University presents 12-step program for White people's racism recovery

Targeted toward White people, the program mimics the popular 12 step program for alcoholics and drug addicts.

A University of Minnesota event featured a speaker who presented a 12-step program to combat racism.

Part one of a webinar series co-hosted by the Center for Practice Transformation and the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work and Continuing Education Series presented a 12-step program for White people, as part of the school's effort to “deconstruct and decentralize whiteness.”

In her “Recovery from White Conditioning” event, therapist and clinical supervisor Cristina Combs presented the program that, “is designed for white people to challenge and support each other to accept our responsibility for dismantling white supremacy, as it lives in us and around us.” 

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The program is derived from the famous 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization founded in the 1930s. The steps are held in high regard by alcoholics and addicts of other substances around the world as being a pathway to a life free from addiction. The derivative of the program presented by Combs has yielded harsh criticism from members of the AA community.

Combs begins her presentation by asking attendees “What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘White Supremacy?’” 

She goes on to say that usually, people say the KKK, neo-Nazis, tiki-torches, along with images of these groups pre-warning that the photos might be “activating,” before eventually moving on to a slide titled, “The face of White Supremacy” with a picture of herself underneath.

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Combs explains that even though she is personally committed to social justice, she will always be part of white supremacy because of her “White privilege” as well as “connecting myself to that is a part of committing to respecting the ways that people have navigated to survive us.”

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Combs explains that her displaying her own picture is a means of combating “binary thinking,” citing Robin DiAgelo of there being only good people who aren’t racist and bad people who are racist. 

“Which means that we then can’t have conversations about how good people are complicit and in perpetuating systemic racism and white supremacy,” adding that using her own picture in this context is "part of breaking up that binary thinking and really asserting that all of us as White folks are implicated, we are complicit, we all have work to do.”

Combs explains that all White people are on a “spectrum of recovery." On one end are the extremists like the KKK and neo-Nazis, whereas the other end of the spectrum is people who are on the road to recovery and working on their alleged white supremacy. She says that one’s position on the spectrum can change “day by day and moment to moment” depending on one’s actions.

“We’re here, we have work to do, and recovery says that we get to do that in a disciplined way…”

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“The 12 Steps of Recovery from White Conditioning” as presented by Combs are as follows:

1. “We admitted that we had been socially conditioned by the ideology of white supremacy—that our minds were subject to racial biases, often unconsciously so.” 

2. “We came to believe that we could embrace our ignorance as an invitation to learn.” 

3. “We developed support systems to keep us engaged in this work.”

4. “We journeyed boldly inward, exploring and acknowledging ways in which white supremacist teachings have been integrated into our minds and spirits.”

Combs explained that this step is “a parallel to AA’s searching and fearless moral inventory, and we’re going to take a really deep dive, shine that light around, and study these patterns,” and displays a slide showing the different types of “(micro)aggressions.” Combs explained that she puts the “micro” in parenthesis to “invite us as White folks to think about as these as aggressions, insults, invalidation, assault.” 

5. “We confessed our mistakes and failing to ourselves and others."

Combs explains that White people are going to make mistakes on their journey to overcome their own racism, but that they must share them so that they can learn from them.

6. “We were entirely ready to deconstruct previous ways of knowing, as they had been developed through the lens of white supremacy.” 

7.  “We humbly explored new ways of understanding…proactively seeking out new learning and reconstructing a more inclusive sense of reality.” 

8. “We committed ourselves to ongoing study of our racial biases, conscious or unconscious, and our maladaptive patterns of white supremacist thinking.” 

Combs compared White people having conscious and unconscious biases to someone who has depression noticing and stopping negative thoughts as they come.

9. “We developed strategies to counteract our racial biases.”

Combs discusses creating strategies to increase the positive thoughts and not listen to the bad ones. 

10. “We embraced the responsibility of focusing on our impact, more than our intentions, in interactions with people of color.”

Combs explains that when White people transgress, they have to stop and admit it and that they must also prioritize the impact of their actions, without trying to explain what their intentions were. 

11. “We engaged in daily practice of self-reflection.” 

Combs explained this step as being a “life-long journey” to keep working every day against our white supremacy. 

12. “We committed ourselves to sharing this message with our white brothers, sisters, and siblings…in order to build a supportive recovery community and to encourage personal accountability within our own culture every day.”

Combs explained that this step means White people need to engage and educate other White people about dismantling racism, as well as becoming allies with people of color. 

“White people need to absolutely speak out and pay for the emotional and intellectual labor of BIPOC folks who are offering us perspective and guidance on dismantling racism and the actions we need to take," she said. 

Combs then explained the “Meeting Structure/Rituals,” for the program, which includes a minute of silence to, “center our hearts and minds on the lived experiences of our brothers, sisters, siblings of color, and indigenous people.” 

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Campus Reform has reached out to the University of Minnesota and Combs for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Mn_turn