Can psychedelics break down racial barriers?

Can psychedelics break down racial barriers?

New perspectives — Our era has been described as a ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’, with growing interest in the potential mental health benefits of hallucinogenics. But could these mind-altering experiences help people of colour navigate racism?

Yaz was in their early 20s and studying at University in the east of England when they first came across psilocybin mushrooms. They were living in a “largely white, overtly racist city”, they tell me, and experienced “everything from strangers calling you names in the street, through to some serious threats to kill from local Nazis in my neighbourhood”.

Seeking refuge from the hostility of their surroundings, Yaz fell in with “a crowd that was where ravers met anarchos met hippies”. They found that using psychedelics not only deepened their sense of connection with the natural world – which in turn strengthened their commitment to environmental activism – but also helped them to break down social and racial barriers with people around them.

Now in their early 40s and working in a communications role for a charity, Yaz says: “I’m really grateful for psychedelics, because I feel like they’ve opened up certain pathways in my brain.” Psychedelics were “one of the things that kept me connected to other people, particularly to white people, which was pretty key. I’m of dual heritage. If I was to just give up white people, then I give up a whole heap of family.” 

Yaz isn’t the only one whose experience with psychedelic has allowed them to interrogate racism. For Layla*, who is studying for a masters degree in psychology in London, psychedelics have proved to be pivotal tools in finding self-acceptance in a world which often feels hostile. Born in the Middle East, she studied in the United States before moving to the UK, and has often found herself feeling isolated due to her ethnicity and her sexuality.

“The first time I had an experience with an altered state of consciousness, I was able to finally accept myself. I was able to see myself as human, rather than seeing myself as a threat to society, as I’d been made to feel, for my Arabness, for being Muslim, for being queer, for being a woman,” she says. 

After years of unsuccessful talking therapies, Layla’s experience with psychedelics proved to be so transformative, that she has subsequently dedicated her life to studying them and is currently training to be a psychedelic integration specialist. “Psychedelics saved my life”, she says. “I realised that there’s a way out of suffering without having to end my life.” 

Our era has been widely described as a ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’, with growing academic, scientific and therapeutic interest in the potential mental health benefits of psychedelics. But far less attention has been paid to the experiences of people of colour, and what role psychedelics might play in navigating experiences that have, at least in part, been shaped by racism. 

Organisations such as MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), based in California, have long been pioneers of clinical trials of substances such as MDMA and LSD for treating conditions such as depression and PTSD. However, up to 80 per cent of the participants in these studies have been white, despite the fact that in the US, African Americans tend to report higher levels of PTSD than Non-Hispanic Whites.

Away from clinical settings, however, growing numbers of psychedelic explorers and researchers of colour, Yaz and Layla among them, are beginning to use psychedelics as part of their own self-directed healing. Many are also connecting to psychedelic traditions which centre people of colour, such as African traditions of entheogenic use.

Akua Ofosuhene is another of these explorers. A London-based dressmaker of Ghanaian heritage, she has over the past two years spoken widely about how psychedelics helped her to overcome limiting narratives about race and heal family trauma. She has taken part in events run by the Psychedelic Society and spoken at Breaking Convention, the UK’s largest psychedelic conference.

Ofosuhene had been living in Ghana with her son, running two successful clothing shops in Accra, when she was forced to return to the UK after her mother fell ill. After returning to London and enrolling her son in a local school, things started to go awry. By the time he was in his mid-teens, her son, who had been a promising student in Ghana, had become ensnared in gang activity, trafficked into selling drugs across county lines, and was regularly getting into trouble with the police.

“When things started going wrong for my son in school, things were not brilliant with my own mental health,” she explains. “I started to think, ‘I need something’.” Having briefly experimented with substances like MDMA when she was younger, Ofosuhene found herself embarking on an intense healing journey, precipitated by her use of Amazonian frog medicine Kambo, and Iboga, an entheogen used ceremonially by the Bwiti people of Gabon. 

Using Iboga helped to peel away the layers of pain she was experiencing, but it also helped to illuminate some of the deeply entrenched narratives that were shaping her son’s experience, contributing to his sense of alienation and “fear of the white world”. She began to see how internalised racism, manifesting as self-hatred, played a huge part in his struggles. 

“I didn’t know about the structure of racism, and I still find loads of people think that racism is about white people not liking Black people. That’s the promise of psychedelics: it can really help you see your relationship with the story of racism, so that you can exorcise the internal racist, who is there all the time.”

Searching for a breakthrough which wasn’t coming by way of talking therapies or social workers, she took the bold decision to introduce her son to psychedelics – first MDMA, and then mushrooms. The results were immediate: “It was brilliant. I can say he started changing within an hour. He had empathy for me, for the rest of the family. He phoned all my relatives and apologised.” 

This is an approach that Ofosuhene recognises may seem controversial. But she argues that her son’s situation was so extreme as to require intense intervention, as he was finding himself in increasingly violent and dangerous situations. 

One of the people Ofosuhene had initially turned to for help was Darren Springer. Born and raised in East London, Springer has been quietly working in the London psychedelic scene for many years, teaching permaculture and mushroom cultivation, and drawing on his experience of working with vulnerable young people, including those who have been excluded from school, to create an accessible route into the study of plant medicines. 

Springer has a deep interest in researching and teaching African culture, religion and use of entheogenic plants. “I used to work with various traditions like the Yoruba tradition, the Haitian traditions – what people commonly call ‘Voodoo’. I worked with priests and Ngangas (healers). But there’s always a middleman. [Psychedelics] gave me direct experience”.

Now running regular Shroomshop workshops with the Psychedelic Society, in which he shows participants how to grow their own psilocybin mushrooms, Springer is an advocate of a kind of DIY approach to psychedelics, and to mental health. “Imagine cultivating your own medicine and being able to programme it to work on the specific healing that you’re coming to the table with”, he says. This approach is partly a result of having been a disciple of Kilindi Iyi, a Detroit-born teacher, researcher and martial artist, known for extremely high-dose experiments with psilocybin mushrooms and explorations of African uses of psychedelics. But Springer’s outlook has also been shaped by working with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

After a trip to the Caribbean, where his parents are from, he “hooked up with a bunch of hippies, who were growing organic food in Chingford, at the edge of East London. They invited me into their community and gave me a job there.” It was partly using psychedelics that helped him see past divisions of race and class, allowing him to feel at home in both the mostly working-class Black communities he was raised in, and the more middle-class white ones he was getting introduced to.

“It really removed a lot of the barriers. I’ve come to the idea now that race is just a concept,” he says. “All these things have just been created in the past couple of hundred years.”

But while anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that psychedelics may help to break down social and cultural barriers, and help ‘decode’ systems of power such as race and class, other writers caution against seeing psychedelics as a magic bullet with which to solve such complex issues. Camille Barton, an artist, writer and somatic educator, has worked extensively around the field of drug policy and harm reduction. They argue that “it is misleading – or even dangerous – to suggest that psychedelics in and of themselves can solve social ills”. They draw on examples of the use of psychedelics by members of far-right hate groups to challenge the assumption that psychedelics alone can make users more open-minded. 

Barton argues that in order to create truly inclusive psychedelic spaces, anti-racist practices need to be embedded within them, and that the wider implications of the ‘War on Drugs’ – which disproportionately affects people of African descent in countries such as the US, Brazil and the UK – need to be fully understood. 

Barton, Springer, Ofosuhene and others are all working towards creating precisely such a psychedelic culture – one that is open and diverse, and which recognises the specific struggles and traumas that many people of colour have to face. As Springer puts it: “Coming from where I come from, dealing with some of the challenges that I have, working with some of the people that I work with, we all need some of this in our lives.” 

*Name changed to protect identity

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