Psychedelic therapy could help ease the deep, constant wounds of racial trauma, but stigma and the movement’s unbearable whiteness keep people away.
In her vision, Nicole Buchanan is lying on a mat on a dirt floor, watching the woman sitting across from her morph into her ancestors through multiple generations, women she recognizes as legacies of her own history. They tell her they have survived brutal lifetimes as Black women so that she could be. They tell her she’s doing everything they’d hoped and dreamed.
In Jamilah George’s vision, she’s riding a lapa (an African skirt) like a magic carpet, looking down at her ancestors working the plantation fields. A face that looks like hers turns toward her and reaches out a hand, and George pulls her up to the lapa. As generations of her ancestors pass by below, she continues to reach down and pull them up until her lapa is full of beautiful Black women from her lineage, all holding hands. “I’ve never felt so much warmth and support in my life, ever,” she says.
Buchanan, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University and founder of Alliance Psychological Associates in East Lansing, Michigan, and George, a Detroit native who is studying the potential of psychedelic medicine to heal the psychological effects of racial trauma while pursuing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Connecticut, shared their psychedelic experiences during an emotional segment of “Black Lives Matter & Psychedelic Integration: Pathways to Radical Healing Amidst Ongoing Oppression.” The webinar, sponsored by the Chacruna Institute (a nonprofit that provides education about psychedelic plant medicines) in November, is one of many such events that have come online recently to explore how entheogens (plants that inspire non-ordinary states of consciousness and spiritual enlightenment) may be able to uproot and heal deep, embedded scars from generations of systemic racial oppression.
Sun stepped in to run the conference, with the theme “Entheogenics in Urban Environments: A Journey into the Mysteries,” after its founder, Baba Kilindi Iyi, died in April. Kilindi, one of the world’s foremost experts on psychedelic science and healing and the master of mushroom megadosing, was often the only Black presenter—if not the only Black person—at conferences and events on the psychedelic circuit, and he created the Detroit conference to bring the conversation home. “The faces that look like Kilindi—the brown faces—have not been represented in the entheogenic community,” Sun says.
The conference took place at the Bushnell Congregational Church, a prewar Colonial Revival building on four acres in Rosedale Park, over a long weekend in August. Diverse speakers from around the world shared their expertise on everything from subatomic particle research and hyperdimensional realms to psychedelic justice, culminating in a memorial for Kilindi that Sun describes as “four hours of emotions, laughter, speakers, heart pouring, drumming—and more drumming and more drumming and more dancing and martial arts exhibitions.” It was a template for future events, Sun says, and they’re already brewing in Oakland, Denver, and Portland, Oregon (where voters recently legalized psilocybin for therapeutic use and decriminalized possession of all drugs).
Psychedelics and Racial Trauma
Racial trauma is a lot like PTSD—with symptoms like nightmares and hypervigilance—and it develops over a lifetime of injustices and abuses. But racial trauma is more insidious than PTSD because people of color continue to experience the same threats and humiliation that triggered them in the first place on an ongoing basis. When a scab keeps getting ripped off a wound, the wound can never heal.
“If someone is assaulted, for most of us, that happens once, then you have some time to heal,” says Undrea Wright, who co-founded The Sabina Project last year to provide Black-led psychedelic education, training, and harm reduction. “For people of color, we don’t have any time to heal because when we come out of ceremony, reality is still there.”
Psychedelic therapy, one of the hottest healing modalities to emerge in decades, shows a lot of promise in treating PTSD, and many see its potential for treating racial trauma as well. “Right now, what’s taking up all the space for Indigenous and Black people is trauma, and the opposite of trauma is creative,” Sun says. “When entheogens come in and start clearing up that trauma, there’s going to be a void, and that void will be filled with creativity.”
Monnica T. Williams, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, has found psychedelics to be highly effective at treating racial trauma. She is the clinical director of the Behavioral Wellness Clinic in Tolland, Connecticut, where she and her colleagues offer culturally informed ketamine-assisted psychotherapy as a means of treating racial trauma. They find that many Black people refuse to even consider it, because they can be “fearful of a psychedelic medicine and the vulnerability that comes with it,” Williams explained during a Chacruna Institute forum on diversity in psychedelic medicine in February 2020.
In 2018, Williams and three colleagues published their findings from a methodological search of psychedelic studies from 1993 to 2017. In those studies, 82.3 percent of the participants were non-Hispanic white, 4.6 percent were Indigenous, 2.5 percent were African American, 2.1 percent were Latino, and 1.8 percent were Asian. Selection bias is a factor in this, certainly, but just as importantly, many people of color have little trust for medical trials (one word: Tuskegee) and illicit substances (two words: Drug War). They’ve been exploited and abused within the medical system and targeted in an immoral war that has decimated communities. Many don’t have the expendable time and money it takes to participate in clinical trials.
George was one of few Black participants in clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD that were sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and it was anything but a healing experience for her. (MDMA is an acronym for the synthetic drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, more commonly known as Ecstasy and Molly.) After her session with two white therapists, she was sent home with a white night attendant, but she continued to feel alone and terrified. “I remember feeling so lost, so out of touch with my body, and psychologically, I didn’t have control of my thoughts,” she said during the webinar. “I was scared to call anyone. How do I tell any of my Black friends I just did an MDMA study?”
Reclaiming Psychedelic Healing
Beyond the clinic, underground psychedelic experiences like ayahuasca circles have become a thing in communities across North America—and every one of those circles is overwhelmingly white, says Wright. The few people of color who do participate, he says, find it uncomfortable because white people often (wittingly or unwittingly) gaslight them. “If I’m in a space that’s supposed to be safe and available to my story, and people are telling me my story is not real or valuable, that I just need to move past it, now I have an additional layer of trauma,” he says. “This is the story we kept hearing over and over. People of color had the wherewithal and learned about the medicines, finally found the circle—which is cost-prohibitive for most of us—then they had to do this dance in the circle. It can be retraumatizing.”
Wright and Charlotte James co-founded The Sabina Project because they recognized “how healing it would be to be able to share our experiences and extend access to these medicines with our own communities, especially during these incredibly challenging and isolating times,” James says. People have been flocking to their workshops, trainings, and virtual ceremonies throughout the lockdown, seeking both community and information as they confront the demons of isolation.
The Sabina Project’s ceremonies are open to everyone, but integration circles are only for people of color. “We just want to guarantee there is some safe, judgment-free space, free of the white gaze, to process journeys,” she says. Fearing a judicial system that’s stacked against them, Wright and James facilitate only ceremonies with substances that are legal in the United States. Citing an ACLU study in Maryland that found African American men 900 percent more likely to be arrested for simple possession than white men, Wright says, “The consequences for us to do anything illegal are severe.”
Those consequences are why many Black parents warn their children away from all drugs, psychedelics included. Buchanan said during the webinar that when she was growing up, everyone knew the story of her father’s best friend Lonnie, who tried acid after he returned from Vietnam and went crazy. “Every Black community has one of these stories,” she says.
“What’s crazy,” Wright says, “is that most of these [sacred earth medicine] practices come from people of color. They convinced us to denounce these very powerful tools and replace them with pharmaceutical drugs that are killing us.”
“These medicines are part of our cultural birthright,” Williams said in her lecture last February. “And I believe we lose more when we step back and choose not to engage. It is true that it has not always been safe for us, but I hope we can come together as a people, create our own safe spaces, and become empowered to reclaim psychedelic healing for ourselves, our loved ones, and our community.”
Support The Sabina Project by checking out its new merch collection. They’ll pay that support forward by giving 5 percent of all proceeds to the Mutual Ceremony Fund, which provides monetary assistance for bipoc looking to explore psychedelic healing work through The Sabina Project’s workshops.
Featured image by: Brian Asare