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Artwork by Laura Berger

How Anti-Racism is a Form of Psychedelic Harm Reduction

Psychedelics don't inherently make us more just—we must work at it, together.

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DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here. Editorially reviewed by Madison Margolin.

The Psychedelic Renaissance is filled with promise of a world in which entheogens can heal us and change the fabric of society for the greater good. There is a normalized assumption in the psychedelic community that entheogens make users more open-minded, cooperative, and left-leaning— an idea supported by a survey co-authored by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Center for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, which found that psilocybin may decrease “authoritarian political views.” However, there is evidence of extensive psychedelic use among the far right, which complicates this picture.

In the Psymposia article “Lucy in the Sky with Nazis,” evolutionary biologist Brian Pace, Ph.D., notes that many white supremacist hate groups, including Nazi party members, have been regular consumers of entheogens. It is therefore misleading—or even dangerous—to suggest that psychedelics in and of themselves can solve social ills, or that psychedelic users are immune from acts of hate, violence, or oppression.

Given the rise in white supremacist terrorist attacks in countries like Germany, New Zealand, Norway, and the US in recent years, we must be cognizant of systemic racism and how it shows up in the psychedelic space. One way of doing this is to actively critique the notion that entheogen use makes people inherently more open minded and accepting of difference, when racism continues to show up among heavy users of entheogens. Another way is to implement anti-racist practice as a form of psychedelic harm reduction.

Read: How the Psychedelic Movement Can Support Black Lives Matter

When embarking on a journey of engaging in anti-racist practice, it is helpful to begin by acknowledging that harm is integral to the human experience and operates interpersonally and institutionally, inside and outside the psychedelic community. Racism is simply one form of collective harm that is perpetuated systemically, with similar impacts in different cultural contexts, such as the overrepresentation of African heritage people in prisons in the UK, Brazil, and the US. The psychedelic community is a microcosm of the dominant culture, and racial inequality is present in both spheres. As a result, it makes sense to implement anti-racist practice to reduce the intersecting harms of racism as a systemic, cultural phenomenon that exists outside interpersonal dynamics and intentions alone.

When embarking on a journey of engaging in anti-racist practice, it is helpful to begin by acknowledging that harm is integral to the human experience and operates interpersonally and institutionally, inside and outside the psychedelic community.

“Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination,” according to Dismantling Racism Works, a platform developed by critical race theorists to offer trainings, workshops, and organizational consulting around anti-racist practice. “Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.” Racism also exists as a form of embodied trauma that is enacted unconsciously in our daily, nonverbal behavior, according to scholar and activist Rae Johnson, Ph.D., and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Our embodied experiences “help to create and maintain the power dynamics that arise between us,” writes Johnson in their book Embodied Social Justice. “For instance, by signaling dominance or submission…In short, our nonverbal communication patterns and beliefs about body norms are all deeply affected by our assigned membership in different social groups and the privileges associated with that membership.” As a result, when critical race theorists refer to the system of white supremacy, writes Menakem, in My Grandmother’s Hands, “it does not refer to individual white people per se and their individual intentions, but to a political- economic-social system of domination. This system is based on the historical and current accumulation of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group…I use the term to capture the pervasiveness, magnitude, and normalcy of white dominance and assumed superiority.” Their work implies that we have all been affected by the collective trauma of racism and need to heal. For some, this means learning to value and treat all people as full human beings, while for others it means recovering from the intergenerational trauma of not being considered fully human.

Artwork by Laura Berger

There remain significant barriers to this sort of progress, however. Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, speaks to this in her New York Times bestselling book White Fragility, in which she demonstrates how white people who don’t identify as racist often engage in racist practices, and then are unable to have productive conversations about it. White fragility, she says, leads white people to “[weaponize their] hurt feelings” and be “indignant and defensive when confronted with racial inequality and injustice which creates a climate where the suggestion or accusation of racism causes more outrage among white people than the racism itself.”

Racial inequality shows up in many ways within the psychedelic sphere. Within clinical trials for drugs, it is encouraged to have a diverse sample population. However, according to research by Dr. Monnica Williams, in 18 peer-reviewed, randomized psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy studies, between 1993 and 2017, 82.3 percent of study participants were white. This is despite African Americans having higher rates of PTSD than veterans returning from war, according to statistics from the Grady Trauma Project. When a small amount of POC folks do access these studies, many experience a lack of informed care as most psychedelic researchers and therapists (who are mainly white themselves) do not have any training in cultural competency or how to work with folks who have racial trauma. Many of the POC participants who have been in studies have reported experiencing harm in the form of microaggressions from their therapists, for example, by being labelled as aggressive or violent, which can exacerbate trauma and mental health issues. If we wish to support healing for people who have historically and intergenerationally been targeted by racism, then anti-racism and cultural competence training is a form of harm reduction for clinicians and those working in the field. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies just began to take some action in this arena—the organization held the first MDMA psychotherapy training for POC therapists in August 2019—but there’s still a long way to go.

We have all been affected by the collective trauma of racism and need to heal. For some, this means learning to value and treat all people as full human beings, while for others it means recovering from the intergenerational trauma of not being considered fully human.

In the psychedelic arena, more broadly, organizers of events, media outlets, and anyone else with a platform must prioritize hiring leaders of varying races, sexualities, and genders. Despite indigenous peoples being the keepers of plant medicine knowledge for thousands of years, their voices are often peripheral at conferences. We also need to address the reality that indigenous communities, such as First Nation communities in Mexico and Texas, are struggling to access traditional medicines, such as peyote, due to overharvesting and tourism from Western people. Issues like this, as well as the impact of the War on Drugs, would be addressed more readily if conferences and psychedelic events diversified their panelists. At Breaking Convention 2019, only 16 of the 220 people presenting were people of color. Chacruna recently published a list with prominent POC working in psychedelics, including Belinda Eriacho, Mellody Hayes, and Sara Reed. Conference organizers can no longer argue that they aren’t aware of any POC in the field.

Read: MDMA for Racial Trauma

If you would like to start engaging in anti- racist practice as harm reduction, there are many avenues to explore. To start, it is useful to understand how colonization relates to the psychedelic field. For indigenous communities around the world, colonization was the beginning of many forms of intergenerational trauma, including the prohibition of entheogens and separation from traditional healing practices. This legacy extends to the War on Drugs, which has most heavily impacted POC communities. Despite using drugs at half the rate of white communities, Black people in the UK continue to be disproportionately targeted by drug laws and police harassment as a result of them. The story is similar in countries, including the US and Brazil. Drug policies are rarely about the drugs—they continue to be used as a means of social and racial control. Unless we acknowledge this, as well as the dark history of medical experimentation on POC bodies, we will not be able to fully serve marginalized communities with psychedelic-assisted therapies, let alone understand the traumas that have accumulated from these histories, including understandable mistrust of doctors and the medical establishment.

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For clinics, consider getting your staff and board members training in cultural competence and anti-racist practice. Also, consider how your clinic or service can create policies and practices that repair harms done as a result of the War on Drugs and integrate healing-centered harm reduction. An example of this could be developing a sliding scale payment system or ensuring that a certain amount of POC are prioritized for treatment each month at a reduced cost or for free. This work will be held best if you recruit board members who have lived experience of different forms of oppression so their voices can be a decision- making force at the table.

It’s important to advocate for these conversations to continue and become woven into our list of priorities. Feel into the moment we are in and consider which side of history you want to be on. How do you wish to be remembered in this moment when the far right is mobilizing on an agenda of fear? How can your work be in service to a different vision? What work do you want to grow? The time is now.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for support. If you’re looking for peer support during or after a psychedelic experience, contact Fireside Project by calling or texting 6-2FIRESIDE.
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