THE BLOG
01/21/2016 04:43 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2017

White Privilege and Addiction Recovery

Dario Lo Presti via Getty Images

When I was 15 years old, an adolescent wave of impulse swept me up into the brilliant idea of stealing a staff member's car in order to make a great escape away from the residential treatment facility in which I was placed.

This approximately seven minute foray into blissful freedom landed me behind bars with charges ranging from grand theft auto to receiving stolen property - the latter of which I would frivolously argue against in court because even my adolescent brain understood that if I was the one who stole it, of course I received it, and how dare you charge me with both.

I went from being a "troubled" kid who was involved in the behavioral health system to now being a "bad" kid involved in the juvenile justice system.

For many young people in my city, this sort of thing is likely to become a one-way ticket down the pipeline feeding directly into the adult criminal justice system. For me however, there was one thing on my side that drew a line in the sand; there was an advantage I unknowingly had that effectively funneled me back into the behavioral health system where I belonged rather than handcuffed and locked away behind bars: that advantage was my whiteness.

As a white kid in the juvenile justice system clearly designed to capture black and brown kids, I stood out like a sore thumb.

On some days, this literally led to having a sore thumb as I got into many fights with my peers at the detention center, often based on my being the only white girl. In hindsight, I think it's very possible that I represented the systematic oppression they all grew up in and now faced head on - an oppression that I wasn't even yet aware of, that was much greater than me, that I didn't have a hand in creating but that I would ultimately benefit from. While my thinking at the time of all those fights and verbal assaults was that I was a victim of racism and discrimination, I now understand that although my place in the juvenile justice subsystem opened me up to similar experiences and feelings, in the end it couldn't have been racism and discrimination.

If our larger system is founded on and designed to advance white privilege, and I am a white person, then I cannot truly experience racism and discrimination based on my whiteness.

The above point here is a complex issue perhaps for another time, however it is important to mention because of the following: Even in a subsystem that appeared to make me a minority, I was always a member of the majority, and in the end when it came to facing those in power, I always had an advantage over my peers as a white kid. I always had an advantage in getting out of the juvenile justice system and getting the treatment and recovery support services I needed because I was white.

I've thought many times about what would have come of my life had there been a more punitive approach rather than a restorative approach to my case.

I'm pretty convinced that the Brooke Feldman who now has over 10 years of long-term, sustained recovery from a substance use disorder would not be in existence. This in turn means that the many lives I've been called to touch through my service work in the community would not have been touched. I'm pretty sure that this service work of mine has made a difference for some, many of whom have gone on to touch others who then have gone on to touch even more. There is a ripple effect that is unmeasured but perhaps ought to be measured in the future so we can truly understand what one life restored can do for an entire community.

I've thought many times about what would have come of my life had the judges, the probation officer, the police officers, the staff of facilities I was placed in and the system overall not been malleable for my success.

I'm pretty convinced that if I had faced the same set of circumstances as a 15 year old black or brown boy in my city, the outcome would have been very much different. Sometimes the line between a "troubled" kid and a "bad" kid is as thin as skin color and accompanying culture. As a person of privilege, I automatically looked like and presented myself in a way favorable to those in power. My language, tone of voice, type of hair, eye color and name are all components of the white privilege package that connected with a bias many may not even have been aware of having. Those things made me more likely to be perceived as troubled kid who could be helped than as a bad kid who needed to be locked away. Yup, I always had an advantage in getting out of the juvenile justice system and getting the treatment and recovery support services I needed. That advantage was my whiteness.

For me, my personal journey though understanding all of this and deciding to speak out has required a willingness to make some ego sacrifices.

I've had to let go of the illusion that I have gotten to where I've gotten in life solely as a result of hard work and determination. Yes, I've worked hard to get to where I've gotten in life, however the ways in which I've had to work hard are much different than the ways in which people of color have to work hard. Our juvenile justice system, along with nearly all of our institutions and systems, is like an ocean. In the case of the juvenile justice system, if 15 year old little Brooke and a 15 year old black boy are thrown into the same ocean and told to swim ashore, 15 year old little Brooke is unknowingly wearing a life jacket while the 15 year old black boy has nothing aiding him. My legs may have kicked furiously under the surface to reach the shore, but all along I had an advantage that made a great big deal of difference. I realize that having had that advantage does not make me less worthy or deserving of the life I have today. It does however, now that I'm ashore, make me responsible for running to go get the help and resources needed to make it possible for everybody to get out of the ocean.

My hope is that we are now seeing a growing, critical mass of individuals who have found recovery in large part due to the advantages inherent in white privilege and are now willing to engage in candid conversations about that fact with love and respect.

I think if we start there and simply acknowledge the role that white privilege has played in allowing for opportunities or advancing our chances for success, we can then begin to talk about changing this thing. I'm ready to have this conversation. I hope you'll join me.