Alcoholism has long afflicted the Wilt side of my family, from at least my great-grandfather to those struggling with it today. Many of us have been able to observe first-hand how alcoholism and other addictions affect those close to the addicted as well as the addicts themselves. Fear, anger, pity, cover-up, and distancing are some responses to a loved one’s addiction. The family swings back and forth between attempts to intervene and resignation. A successful intervention will help the addict admit that there is a problem, often after a low point even by the addict’s standards—a fight, crime, or accident—and accept help for the healing process. My grandfather’s response to alcoholism in his family was to insist on total abstinence and, as far as I know, most perhaps all of his nine children followed his model, the addiction awaiting the next generation to resurface. This family history has led me to think of alcoholism as primarily a snare for a few individuals within a large family. But I have recently learned of “alcoholic families.” Both mother and father are heavy drinkers and the children grow up thinking that the intake—and the results—are the norm. Heavy drinking, hilarity, fights, irresponsibility, self-justification, and earning enough money for heavy drinking, hilarity, etc. are what life is all about. If it’s hard to help an individual struggling with alcoholism, how much harder to help a whole family!
There is another affliction that has been passed from generation to generation in the Wilt family: racism. I observed and replicated the symptoms as a child, thinking them to be a normal part of any family. I would retell my uncles’ and aunts’ n- jokes to friends at school and they would reciprocate with ones I could tell at the next family reunion. I would laugh along with my cousins when an uncle flourished his n-shooter. In high school, I would sing songs with racist lyrics—and wonder why some would not join in. It was not until my college years that friends and teachers confronted me directly enough that I could begin to see that I had a problem—that my family had a problem, an addiction, a generational disease. With the help of many who were further along in the healing process and with the help of those who had been targets of racism, I could begin to heal.
Relatives’ Facebook posts over the past few years, especially after widely reported events such as the mid-August ones in Charlottesville, indicate that this disease has not yet been eradicated from our family. The symptoms are now not as obvious as in the family-reunion examples given above. They are more like an alcoholic’s quiet sipping of lemonade at a church picnic, yearning for the spouse’s signal that they can go home—and begin opening the bottles of the hard stuff.
In the past, I have started to write responses to Facebook posts that are especially troubling in this regard but given up. How, I wondered, could I respond in a way that would go beyond an exchange of emotional blows, beyond defensiveness or denial to constructive, healing discussion? I am hoping that the comparison of alcoholism and racism might be a helpful beginning. If we recognize that alcoholism has been a generational problem, can we recognize that racism has been as well? If so, can we take the crucial first step in the healing process of admitting that there is a problem? For many of us, “admitting” can be recast in stronger terms in keeping with our religious upbringing: confessing (verbal communication to others) and repenting (behavioral change, involving “turning away from” the destructive behavior).
To encourage dealing with this problem, I will suggest some symptoms of racism. Just as shaky hands are not necessarily a symptom of alcoholism, some features listed here might not necessarily be a symptom of racism. But as shaky hands combined with other symptoms such as dehydration, anxiety, irritability, and yearning for the next drink increase the likelihood that alcoholism is at play, so too the combination of factors listed below increase the likelihood that racism is at play.
How willing are we to admit that racism in our family has contributed to symptoms such as the above? Can we develop a dialogue about this? Can we at least “admit there is a problem”?
I am not restricting this to descendants of the Paul Wilt clan since there are certainly many other families who suffer from generational racism. I hope that this post may be a first or further step in the healing process.
While writing this post, I tried to find other literature comparing alcoholism and racism. There is much on how the one can contribute to the other, but I have so far found only one book that focuses on how racism is analogous to alcoholism: Applying Alcoholics Anonymous Principles to the Disease of Racism by Rev. Kenneth L. Radcliffe, “an Administrative Chaplain, (Retired), for the New York City Department of Correction. His assignments included Rikers Island, detention centers, in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan Detention Center, MDC, also known as "The Tombs" He is a trained Substance Abuse/Addictions counselor. He has worked as a Case Manager in a Homeless Shelter, and conducted relapse prevention programs for licensed outpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs.”
Trails we follow,