Whitewashing Psychedelics: A Lack of Diverse Voices in the Psychedelic Movement

In a space dominated by white males, Nick Powers stands alone on stage as the only black speaker and the last voice to close out a conference on psychedelics. He is not a research scientist, activist, or therapist as are the other speakers. He is a poet, reporter, and literature professor at SUNY Old Westbury.

The curator for the conference, Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics, asked Powers to come speak as a voice for underrepresented demographics within the psychedelic community. His talk entitled Black Masks, Rainbow Bodies was focused on his personal history and experience of the transformative power that psychedelics have had throughout his life.

Within the growing psychedelic movement, there has been a continual lack of conversation about the intersection of race in both therapeutic and recreational use of psychedelics. If you look back at the pioneers of the psychedelic movement in the 60’s, you see Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Terence McKenna, and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass)—all white guys.

This imbalance is not an intentional move by any part of the psychedelic movement, and Arun Saldanha points out in his book Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race, that “Hendrix’s screeching feedback at Woodstock captured the fact that although nearly all of his audience, to his continual embarrassment, was white, Hendrix himself proved that psychedelics could also urge nonwhite to the point of this sublime dismantling of a quintessential WASP hymn.”

Look at any living group still maintaining a ritualistic practice with psychedelics and you see a non-white culture; the Huichol people with Peyote in Mexico’s Sierra Madres, the Shipibo with ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon, the Bwiti with Iboga in Gabon, the shamans of Siberia with Amanita muscaria, and on. Perhaps we should take a moment to consider this.

The Psychedelic Movement is Going Mainstream

Nick is a part of the underground psychedelic movement, though he is one of the few minorities in spaces usually skewed toward a white crowd. There are a multitude of factors acting as root causes to this divide, including the rising cost of attending psychedelic events, the umbrella of white safety, and the societal views that, in Power’s words, differentiate “white, party drugs” from “dirty, criminal drugs.”

Even though cultural views are shifting, prohibition creates a fear of admitting marijuana use, and even more so to talking about psychedelics. There are very real consequences that could have impacts on job security, losing children to the state, and losing your own personal freedoms, which have historically affected minorities at a much higher rate.

However much a supporter of the recreational and creative aspects that psychedelics can have, Nick tells me that “[he]’d like to see…psychedelics being used as a way of healing,” and that the medicalization of psychedelics is “the easiest way to push psychedelics into the mainstream.”

The biggest shift in changing law, specifically FDA rescheduling, has been the treatment of PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. This research, being funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), has been granted breakthrough therapy designation and special protocol assignment by the FDA, meaning that the method of treatment is effective and, as long as the protocol is found to be safe in Phase 3 studies, should be made a legal treatment method.

On their site MAPS states, “We are studying whether MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can help heal the psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas.” And it seems to be working from two testimonials that came out on Reddit from an army sergeant who spent 15 months in Iraq and a woman who witnessed the death of her husband in a violent accident.

With the movement hoping for legalization by 2021, there is an emerging question being asked about who will be allowed access as these treatments evolve and move more into the mainstream. This concern is not unfounded.

Although MAPS, and other groups studying psychedelics, tend to be an open crowd, there is an obvious lack of diversity in the field. This discrepancy exists within academic and professional psychology as well. With rescinding of affirmative action in some states and cultural pressures within minority groups to repress psychological issues, both seeking treatment and entering into the field on a professional level are being hampered.


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Healing Trauma and Repairing Communities

Trauma is still an area that is being explored by psychologists. Only recently was the idea of transgenerational trauma—descendants of traumatic events carrying symptoms of their ancestors—studied. And the developing field of epigenetics looks at the effects that trauma can have on gene expression and how it can be passed on generationally.

The effects were first noticed in descendants of Holocaust survivors, as well as survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Symptoms have been found to manifest in various ways, including health problems, lowered ability to process stress, and a predisposition to anxiety and depression.

Researchers at Emory University determined that mice exposed to electric shocks in conjunction with a particular odor passed to their offspring an increased sensitivity to the odor. These subsequent generations had a conditioned fear response to an environmental trigger (the odor) even though they had never encountered this smell before.

Powers describes this in humans as “a history of abuse, of pain, of memory and scar tissue that’s within oppressed minorities; black people in the US, Latino people who are going back and forth, the white poor who have [this] trauma as well.”

The Atlanta Black Star reported that “When racism is understood not merely as a system of discrimination for a particular generation, but also a curse that is passed through generations and affecting our health like the DNA, this helps to shape the discussion on the full extent of the damages created by racism, and the need for remedies, repair and recompense.”

With preliminary positive findings of psychedelics healing trauma, there is the possibility that the long history of traumatic effects that has been enacted upon oppressed groups throughout history could be repaired. In addition, ending the ongoing War on Drugs and stopping over-incarceration could put a halt to the damages being caused to future generations.

In his talk, Powers discussed a scenario of a young black man who shot up his neighborhood. In our conversation he asks, “What if [this black kid] went into psychedelic therapy and at the end of it came out deeply moved, transformed and actually asked people for forgiveness?”

This is but one example from a multitude of scenarios in which psychedelics could aid in rebuilding and strengthening minority group communities. There is a hope that the multi-generational trauma throughout minority and poverty-stricken groups can be released, allowing room for healing and transformation.


Where are we headed?

If we ignore the current direction, then any decision to integrate the psychedelic movement more into society may sail past us without a choice. We are at a point where the ship is still small enough to alter its course, but the larger it becomes, the harder it is to change direction. The iceberg can still be avoided and the ship doesn’t have to sink.

There are some positive shifts happening. Some therapists-in-training for MAPS’ MDMA study come from underrepresented groups within the psychedelic movement. However, the disproportionate number of minorities in the therapeutic space is still glaringly apparent.

The psychedelic movement could be the shift that’s needed in clinical psychology to move to a more minority representative model, but what would a more representative model look like? How can we bring the community to a place where access to healing through psychedelics opens up to the communities that need it most?

There are some hurdles to leap over. However, the problems that arise from traumatic stress are widespread. From Holocaust survivors to atomic bomb survivors to slavery survivors to survivors of widespread hunger and violence, there is a desperate need for healing trauma, and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy could be a route to begin making significant social change possible.

Imagine therapists working with psychedelics in their communities to halt the transgenerational trauma that is present throughout society. We could start to see improved mental health, stronger communities, and closer relationships.

Powers is hopeful that the wave of mainstream psychedelia can bring about positive change. He says there “are the three things I’d like to see. Decriminalization so people’s lives aren’t destroyed by unnecessary prison sentences, healing from intergenerational trauma, and also, an artistic renaissance.”


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