C4 Innovations

Applying Critical Race Theory in Recovery Services

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Phil Rutherford and host Ashley Stewart discuss how to apply the tenets of critical race theory when providing recovery support services.

May 30, 2022


Ashley Stewart, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Ashley Stewart, and I am a curriculum and training specialist at C4 Innovations. Today our topic is, does critical race theory have a space in recovery conversations?

Ashley (00:18): My guest today is Phil, calling from Minnesota. Phil is the founder of Black Faces, Black Voices, which is a collaborative of recovery professionals focused on driving resources into the Black community.

Ashley (00:33): Phil, we’re so glad to have you with us today.
Phil Rutherford, Guest (00:36): Well, thanks. I’m glad to be here.

Ashley (00:37): So Phil, today we’re going to talk about some of the more broader issues around racism and systemic racism in our society and how they translate into recovery spaces. We know that racism is endemic in society, right? It’s pervasive, it’s everywhere, but do we also see it endemically in recovery support?

Phil (00:57): Well, yes. Because it’s endemic, it’s part of everything, and recovery is inside of everything, so it’s part of the deal. My experience is that racism is alive and well in recovery.

Ashley (01:13): Yeah, absolutely. I agree. I think so too. The interesting part about it is because I think a lot of people don’t have a lot of context on race and how race was constructed. We’re having this conversation, and I think important part to acknowledge is that race itself is socially constructed. How is the construction of race discussed or used as it relates to access to recovery services either physically in terms of the relevance of race in terms of how people are receiving services, but then I’m also thinking about how is it perpetuated systemically in terms of the notions of race that have been constructed?

Phil (01:50): That’s a giant question, and I don’t even know if we have, we could probably do an entire podcast on race in recovery or race in drug policy or the perspective that America has had on race and drug use. As early as the late 1800s there was a perception around race and opioid use in the Asian American community. Shortly after that in the ’20s, there were perceptions around race and heroin use in New York, in Harlem. In the 1940s and ’50s, there were perspectives about opioid use in the Latinx community, in Los Angeles. In the ’70s, in the Black community opioid use and crack use in the ’80s. I could go on and on, it seems like whenever there is some sort of crisis in America, we want to assign race to it.

Ashley (02:54): Absolutely. In similar ways, yes, race is constructed, and that also doesn’t resolve the fact that there are real life implications, similar to how there are real life implications for all of those examples that you just gave, the implications for people’s lives, communities, families. While it’s not just something that’s ubiquitous and out there in the world and floating around and constructed, it’s also really substantial in the way that it impacts people, their communities, their lives, their families.

Ashley (03:27): Something else that we’ve noticed is that the narratives around race and racism shift quite a bit throughout these different time periods that you just note. Thinking about that a little bit more, how do we see the narrative around race and racism shift in recovery support space?

Phil (03:45): We’ll talk about the rise of recovery support services over, say, the past 20 years. I think there has absolutely been sort of dual tracks around even recovery support services. Today, there is a huge disparity. There are a couple of drugs that are available for medication for opioid use disorder, methadone being one, buprenorphine being another, and naltrexone being a third, but primarily methadone use has seemed to make its way into the Black community while buprenorphine has seemed to not make its way into the Black community. There seems to be some difference in prescribing practices and availability of buprenorphine in specifically in the Black community. There are a lot of reasons for that, but a lack of equity in the healthcare system is probably one of the leading causes and what’s at the base of that is racism, back to the endemic problem. Every segment of American life is affected by racism. This is no different.

Ashley (04:55): It’s absolutely no different. It’s everywhere. Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s information that a lot of people don’t know. It’s a lot of information that people don’t have. Maybe a lot of folks have the privilege to not even think about how those disparities play out.

Ashley (05:14): One of the things that particularly strikes me is doing work in recovery spaces is seeing how there has been more conversation probably than observed before around equity and inclusion. Many of these conversations are genuine, people have had some realization that things need to change, maybe some people were awakened to the realities that they were able to overlook or had the privileges to not see, but then we’re also seeing what is some instances of performative engagement. More specifically, even with larger corporations, if folks are not talking about equity or if folks are not engaging in equity, then there is consequence. Then there’s a spotlight on folks. I’m wondering within recovery spaces, are we observing those same types of changes? If you’re not talking about equity, then it’s shining a negative light on you and thereby you’re promoting this image of a priority of equity when it’s really not there.

Phil (06:16): Actually, I feel like this is the easiest test ever. Every question you ask the answer is yes. Is racism endemic? Yes. Is it in recovery? Yes. Is it a social construct? Yes. Is that showing up in recovery? Yes. Is there interest convergence in recovery support? Yes.

Phil (06:33): I cannot tell you the number of organizations, specifically in the recovery space, that have a newfound lease on life as it pertains to equity since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. I’m not suggesting that is a bad thing. The point of interest convergence is that our interest align for a time. The challenge is like you said, that can be performative and when our interests no longer align, we simply revert to the status quo. That is the challenge, and I hate to report that in plenty of circles that I am in, I’m seeing a chilling of that. I’m seeing a little bit less interest in talking about equity, and anyone that knows me knows it’s something that I’m going to talk about, and I’m not hearing as many, “Atta boy”s, and “You go, Phil”s, and whatever other colloquialisms go along with that kind of support. I’m not hearing that as much as I did in June of 2020 when the world was on fire.

Ashley (07:40): Yeah. You’re not alone with that. In fact, the conversation around equity is beginning to shift so much where folks are thinking that because we do one or two little initiatives that we solve the equity issue without getting to the root of it. You’re right. Some of these questions are really like, is it? But I think a lot of people don’t realize it, and I think that one of the reasons why people are able to navigate through the society, and particularly navigate through recovery spaces, without that level of critical awareness, that yeah, of course racism is endemic and socially constructed, and impacting people differently is because there is this suppression, this suppression of narratives of people of color, suppression of the stories and voices of people who are impacted by systemic and structural racism. How many spaces do you see that are created for those voices to be heard? More specifically, historically, have there been spaces for voices of color to be heard in recovery?

Phil (08:47): Well, do you mean since 2020? Because in the summer of 2020, there was like 100. In the winter of 2020, not so many, in 2019 fewer, 2018. I think you get my point. I’m not saying that there haven’t been any, I just think that it is …

Phil (09:10): Well, I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but we’ll take Juneteenth for an example. Juneteenth is now it’s a national holiday, it’s got some traction, and people kind of know what it is. I have very mixed feelings about celebrating a two year delay in ratification of something that … So anyway, like I said, I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole there, but I have mixed feelings about it, but there seems to be this sort of newfound awareness of things, and there seem to be some more spaces for this type of dialogue, but it feels a bit temporary, that’s the best way I can put it.

Phil (09:59): I think on a deeper level, at the same time, I’m also seeing legislation that says, “We can’t talk about this sort of stuff and whatever you do, don’t teach children about the fact that racism is endemic.” I’m reading a book by a gentleman named Shawn Ginwright, and it’s called The Four Pivots, but one of the things that he talks about is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and some of the work that they did there. One of the things that he said was most healing about it was this space that was created for both the victims of apartheid and the oppressors to come into a room and talk about both the experience of being someone that was victimized and the experience of being the victimizer and that universally, it’s not that they were easy, they were actually very uncomfortable, but the overarching opinion after the fact was that the country came out of it with a sense of a little bit more healing. I think to the extent that we continue to suppress and act like the 300 plus years of American history that we know to be true didn’t happen, we’re going to continue to have difficulty with the matter of race.

Ashley (11:22): That’s so important, Phil. Thank you so much for bringing that into this space. Don’t get me started talking about the ways in which Juneteenth is being commercialized and the way that these conversations around equity are being performative. It is truly reducing what is not in any way, shape, or form new knowledge to something that can be put into a five point plan or something that could be easily deliverable. It’s about a critical raising of awareness that these issues are true, that these issues have been pervasive, and I think that one of the reasons that people resist the nature of racism being so endemic is people don’t believe that racism’s real. At that point, what is there to do besides really push people to lean into their own discomfort and realize that they have been critically unaware of how society has been functioning? Sometimes that happens really well through history, sometimes that happens really well through consistent training, but a lot of that is going to be around accountability and helping people understand that an essentialist view of individuals is actually causing such a greater level of harm.

Ashley (12:43): Another term that I’m hearing misused a lot is intersectionality. I think that that intersectionality and anti-essentialism tie in to really say that people have a lot of different compounding oppressed identities. One of the things that I think really rings true for me is when we’re talking about recovery, my goodness, do we not see that intersectionality and how critical it is to take in this anti-essentialist view in recovery spaces? A person might be coming into a recovery space with a multitude of compounding identities, institutionally and structurally, systemically oppressed identities that need a critical, unique space. How do you see this show up or how do the values around recovery spaces begin to examine those compounded realities for people who have systemically marginalized identities?

Phil (13:35): Well, and there’s actually a link between that, just sort of the anti-essentialism and Juneteenth. I had this experience, I think last year, in a recovery space where someone was asking me if I was happy, or it was kind of like, “Aren’t you excited?” This was a person that was white, and they’re asking me if I was happy that Juneteenth was now a holiday. They were intoning that because I was Black, that I was excited about Juneteenth, and I usually don’t do this, because I’m past the, “I’m going to educate people about stuff.” I really don’t do that. That’s really not my thing. If people need education, I like to point them toward literature because I’m not the helpful Black guy.

Phil (14:23): But the thing is, so I grew up in Texas. I was born in Austin. I grew up in Texas, and my grandmother was very picky about like we did not celebrate Juneteenth, and Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas for a long time. It didn’t just start getting celebrated now. Growing up, people always had Juneteenth celebrations, and my grandmother was very, very clear that we did not participate in any of that foolishness because our family was free prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, and that was a matter of pride for her that we weren’t enslaved at that time. Like I said, I have these mixed feelings about it, but from an essentialist perspective, Black people are happy about Juneteenth because that’s all I am is Black. I’m not possibly freed prior to Juneteenth. I’m not possibly have mixed feelings about it. On the anti-essentialism part, that’s one thing.

Phil (15:20): Another thing is this notion that, and it’s actually been codified, we tell people in treatment spaces that they’re all the same. That’s a common message in a treatment space. You’re all the same, follow the program, whatever that is, and I’m not suggesting that all treatment centers tell people to follow a 12-step methodology, but it’s fairly common, but you’re all the same. We’ve basically codified essentialism. You’re all the same, and nothing could be further from the truth, especially for people that have experienced marginalization.

Phil (15:59): As you can tell, I’m pretty passionate about this particular subject. I’m a person living in recovery, and my recovery pathway was mutual aid, 12-step, if mutual aid sounds too fancy, but I have been shocked by some of the things that I’ve heard in those places and around what I need to do in order to recover and be supported in recovery. It’s toxic to my Blackness and I’d encourage other … Well, I was going to say Black men, cause that’s typically who I work with in recovery, but I encourage Black folks to understand that there’s a different experience for us and to try and work on that stuff as well.

Ashley (16:43): Yeah. Thank you for sharing your experience. It reminds me to take a moment to honor that there were some folks for whom slavery ended prior to Juneteenth, and there were many, many folks who continued to be enslaved after. I think that’s an important thing to bring honor to, and particularly as we’re going into the month of June, take a moment to reflect on because this is the ignorance that is so pervasive. When I say ignorance, I mean literal not knowing around Juneteenth and particularly around the experience of enslaved folk, formerly enslaved folk.

Ashley (17:24): The other thing that I really want to highlight from what you shared is this idea that everyone is the same and that is a very pervasive message in a lot of these support spaces. The reality of it is is that when we take that ideological framework, it leaves folks to have to process through or think through, “Well, then why is this so much more difficult to for me and is it something that I’m doing wrong? Is there something wrong with me?” That is a very isolating and tangibly oppressing feeling to go through, so I’m really glad that you call that in and give that to folks to think about.

Ashley (18:03): You made a note earlier where you said, “Actually this is a fairly easy test,” and maybe some folks have caught on by now, but perhaps that they didn’t, perhaps that you haven’t. If you haven’t, what we’ve done is we’ve kind of just gone through the different tenets or some of the more pervasive tenets of critical race theory, which are that racism is endemic, that race is socially constructed, that there is differential racism, that there is interest conversion, that there is suppression of voices of color, and a final tenet of critical race theory, intersectionality and anti-essentialism. The conversations that are pervasive right now about critical race theory, do not begin to examine any of these tenets really critically or understand the vast amount of lived experience, narrative, and scholarship that goes behind creating and testing and processing through the formation of this theoretical framework. I started this conversation off with okay, so does CRT have a space in recovery spaces? Absolutely, and it has to be foundational in conversations that we’re having about recovery, about wellness, and about supporting folk.

Ashley (19:21): Phil, how do you think that folks can take critical race theory and begin to utilize it, to understand how to support people more in recovery spaces?

Phil (19:30): I think first thing’s first, learn what it is and what it’s not. The overwhelming majority of information … I don’t know that I’ve ever seen for all of the discussion in media around critical race theory, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the tenets listed. I was just thinking about the crawl on CNN or I swear there’s a graphic for everything in media markets. I don’t know that I’ve ever just seen a quick bulleted list. You just did a quick newscast for anyone that wants to know what critical race theory is. I actually know more about replacement theory, which is the … Well, again, I don’t know if we want to go down that path, but I know more about, from the media, I know more about the tenets of replacement theory than I do about critical race theory, which is a tragic thing. The only reason I know that is because someone murdered 10 people in Buffalo recently, and it was found that he was convinced that was a thing.

Phil (20:36): I think to make it accessible to people, first learn and then maybe observe. I guess I’m kind of at a loss and true enough, I’m a Black man and I’ve been Black my whole life, the whole time, and so I’ve lived a life where these things are apparent to me. Maybe without having that stuff apparent to you, it’s harder to see, but if you can’t look at American life and see some of these things, I don’t know how to help. Like I said, I’m not the friendly teacher, I’m not that archetype, but there’s information readily available. I think you said there’s, aside from just lived experience accounts, there’s plenty of narrative data on this subject. Study, observe, study, learn. Those are my thoughts. Talk to a Black friend. If you don’t have one of those, maybe get one? I’m just saying. I’m not even trying to be spicy. I guess that’s the other part of this is that if a person does not have any connection with other groups of people that have experienced marginalization, that could be part of the problem, right?

Ashley (22:10): Yeah, no, I absolutely agree. I absolutely agree with you, Phil. Yeah, the information that is being put out is lacking, to put it … Inadequately? But also just pervasively incorrect. The tenets of critical race theory really began to emerge in the scholarship in the late 1960s, early 1970s, which means that it was being studied far, far before that, and so there is a ton of resource, actually. I think the biggest hurdle for folks is to get over the sensation, the anxieties that come up in our bodies to not want to believe that this is real, to say, “Let me begin to explore a little bit more, understand it, and then begin to apply some of this knowledge to how it shows up in my day-to-day practices. How do I perpetuate white dominant ideology?” I think that that’s a place of discomfort where people really get stuck, but if we want to talk about moving forward and beginning to create more equitable spaces, to begin to be inclusive around experiences with race and racism, it’s going to require that we not reject ideas like critical race theory, but seek to understand them and understand the tenets that form them. Yeah.

Ashley (23:29): Any other thoughts for the listeners, Phil?

Phil (23:30): This is really helped me to kind of understand … I don’t spend most of my time trying to understand dominant culture. It just sort of is what it is, but I’ve developed a friendship, although I don’t know if the gentleman I’m to would describe me as a friend because he’s frequently mad at me, but this gentleman happens to be blind. I think he is also part of the deaf/hard of hearing community. He frequently reminds me that I’m not doing it right. Right? Another job that I have, I’m putting out materials and doing stuff, and he frequently reminds me that I’m not paying enough attention to the needs of the disabled community. I don’t wake up every morning thinking, “How can I do harm to the disabled community?” That’s not what I do, but the last time we were talking, he said, “We talked about this a couple of months ago, why hasn’t it happened?”

Phil (24:32): Here’s why I like him, because he’s relentless, and he does not give up, but he’s like, “We talked about this a couple months ago. It’s not done. Why isn’t it done?”

Phil (24:43): I did not have a good answer, but what I came up with was, “It wasn’t in my conscious mind.” The reason it wasn’t in my conscious mind is because I have privilege. I can see so my first thought is not, “How does this work for the person that can’t see?” I don’t think that I am an ableist, I don’t go through life thinking that way, but because I have that privilege and it’s not part of my daily challenge, it’s not so apparent to me, and it is easy for it to fall out of my consciousness because probably like most humans, I’m mostly concerned about my stuff and my needs and what I got to do, and I got kids in school and all that. But it was a really revealing thing for me that the work has to be intentional.

Phil (25:32): What I did was I put a note in my calendar that every week I need to be working on the stuff that I need to work for do for this gentleman and that has helped. My parting thought is that the only way this gets done is with intentional work, it has to be intentional. It has to be something that we keep on the front burner because the status quo is to let it slip to the side.

Ashley (25:59): Yeah, yeah. Rejecting the idea that we can have the potential to be ableists only further perpetuates the timeframe in which we are enacting and engaging with ableist behavior. It’s about naming it.

Phil (26:11): Yep.

Ashley (26:11): It’s about being accountable, and it’s about taking action and figuring out the things that we need to observe or learn or do in order to really show up and to begin to dismantle the systems that oppress people. Yeah. Thank you for that.

Ashley (26:25): Listen, we are out of time, but there’s so much more that we could talk about. I am so, so grateful to have Phil Rutherford here from Black Faces, Black Voices, the founder with us today. Phil, it has been absolutely amazing. Thank you for joining us.

Phil (26:41): Well, thank you for having me.

Ashley (26:43): To our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer (26:48): Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


Access additional “Changing the Conversation” podcast episodes.