Transcending Boundaries: Identity and Oppression Within Psychedelic Culture
Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong. Terence Mckenna
Part of what psychedelics do is they decondition you from cultural values. This is what makes it such a political hot potato. Since all culture is a kind of con game, the most dangerous candy you can hand out is one which causes people to start questioning the rules of the game. Terence Mckenna
The popularity of psychedelic experiences has skyrocketed in recent years with the advent of the internet and widespread acclaim of Ayahuasca and DMT. Transformational music festivals are spreading across the globe at an astonishing rate while breeding a unique and trendy sub-culture. As this neo-psychedelic culture evolves and grows, important questions are being raised.
With such an increasing demand for plant medicines around the world, we are seeing people profit off of the destruction of ecosystems and the defacement of beautiful plants simply so that Joe Shmo can order root bark online. How sustainable is psychedelic culture, and what steps can we take to ensure that these teachers are here for future generations to explore? With the incredible speed at which so called “conscious” music festivals are springing up, how can we create spaces that are both transformational and sustainable? Are these festivals even supposed to be sustainable in the first place, or are they simply big parties for people to get away from dominant culture? What is dominant culture anyways and how does it play out in the spaces we create? As psychedelics help us to transcend conditioned conceptualizations of identity and culture, how can we apply these realizations to our daily lives?
All of these are important questions that must be addressed by our community if we wish to see ourselves as having a legitimate role in the ongoing struggle for an autonomous and sustainable world. This said, most of the dialogue that I’ve seen taking place so far has been focused on the environmental implications of the psychedelic experience. As an environmentalist, I am absolutely ecstatic to see this happening. But even so, we live in an interdependent universe; no struggle is separate or more important than the collective human struggle for a peaceful and functional world. To quote Audre Lorde, a radical black feminist and civil rights activist, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
So without disregarding the urgent need for an ecologically minded culture, I would like to make the point that the environmental issues that we face today are one in the same as the systems of racism, patriarchy, and classism that have come to dominate our lives, and that our efforts towards creating an all-inclusive and sustainable psychedelic revolution are moot points if we fail to recognize how entrenched we are in the dominant power structures of society.
I grew up in a small and rural state that is over 98% white folks. As a person of color, growing up in such a non-diverse state exposed me to the myriad of ways that white-supremacy continues to dominate our culture while remaining invisible to most white people. I was never very good at sports, but because of my African heritage it was expected of me. The fact that I was not good at playing basketball was a qualitatively “white” trait according to the other kids at school. I was constantly questioned for not speaking the way black people are “supposed” to speak, or dressing the way we’re “supposed” to dress. Even my teachers seemed surprised that I was as academically competent as white students. There were about three or four black students I attended high school with, and the white kids would rank us according to who was the most black. My hair was a constant source of stress; white kids found it “exotic” and took it upon themselves to touch it, grope it, or stick pencils and other objects in it; things that if they did to a white student they would be punished for. Even before I ever experimented with cannabis or substances of any kind, it was a regular incidence that white students would approach me asking to buy drugs because they genuinely assumed I must use and sell drugs simply because of the color of my skin. The fact that I didn’t take substances at the time was a surprise to people, like it was some sort of anomaly. I was tokenized by close friends for being their one black friend; as if I were an object one could own to prove that they weren’t racist.
So why am I sharing this and what does it have to do with psychedelic culture? Well, growing up in the midst of all of this I did not recognize these things as white-supremacy. They bothered me but I just assumed that’s the way things were and I didn’t really ever question it; it never really struck me as blatant racism. I embraced anti-blackness and did all I could to appear white. I changed my hair and did all the same things the white kids did, and eventually came to unconsciously hate my blackness. I hated being a person of color, I hated having natty hair and I hated that I was too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks. I had internalized a lifetime of trauma and micro-aggressions against my race. As my education and experiences evolved and grew, I eventually came to start questioning these things and see them for what they are. But it wasn’t until I took mushrooms for the first time, as a freshman in college, that I really began to come to terms with my identity and how the society in which we live had shaped it.
In those few short hours my entire life was turned upside down, inside out, and shot through a quantum tunnel. I came out the other side of that experience a new person. A new person no longer burdened by years of internalized oppression, completely at peace with who I am and for the first time excited about the person I could one day be. I remember that point during the trip where I was getting higher and higher, drowning in my consciousness and soaring through the cosmos. I could feel myself breaking down, everything I ever knew was crumbling around me. I could feel myself dying, going to somewhere I knew I would never come back from. I eventually reached a place beyond all social conventions; beyond language and reason, a place outside of time and space, and void of any sense of self or identity. I was one with God, where everything and nothing came to merge in a beautiful non-dual paradox. Nothing there mattered. Everything simply was. Concepts of race, gender, and sexuality were beyond irrelevant; they simply didn’t exist. This was the totality, the source, and the final destination of everyone and everything. Here all simply was; there was no equality because there was nothing to be equal to. Here everything was, and is, and forever shall be, one in the same.
That introductory experience shook me to the core. My initial instinct was the same as most; to get the hell out of the system. Drop out and pursue a life of meditation, psychedelic exploration, and unconditional love for all things. It wasn’t too long before I realized that dropping out isn’t a viable solution and I began to look for psychedelically-minded people in hopes that they had experienced what I just only gotten a glimpse of. I sold as much of my things as I could on Craigslist and took off for the West Coast in search of ultimate truth. I knew I had stumbled across perhaps the most profound experience a human being could ever have, and I knew in my heart that this was the cure-all the world had been waiting for. How could someone have such an experience and continue to be complacent, just another cog in the machine? Like so many others, I put my faith in God and sought out hippie culture where it seemed most prominent.
I was gravely disappointed by what was waiting for me on the other side of the country.
Where I had hoped to find open-minded and compassionate communities I found excessive over-indulgence, dogma, ignorance, racism, sexism, elitism, escapism, and a contempt for any perspective that didn’t encourage eating as much LSD as you possibly could. It seemed that nearly every event I attended was swarming with privileged white folk who spent their money on culturally appropriated clothes, festival tickets, and drugs.
Where were all the colored people at? Well from what I observed, most of them were on the streets, working minimum wage service jobs, or incarcerated. Most black people I talked to didn’t have an interest in psychedelics at all and associated them with rich white kids. Other activists I was able to connect with seemed to scoff at the notion of DMT being a profound catalyst for radical change. “Why smoke DMT” they said, “when you can spend your time closing down a factory or occupying a building? Why focus so much on personal liberation when you could be working to liberate others?”
At the time I didn’t have any answers. All I knew is that psychedelics had provided me with an insight into the nature of things that motivated me to do everything in my power to make the world a better place. I couldn’t understand why so few others seemed to recognize this. I couldn’t grasp why almost everyone I met who took psychedelics was white and upper class, and why psychedelic culture seemed inaccessible to so many people. Why were working class people fighting amongst themselves for liberation when the most liberating of all experiences was a just a puff of vapor away? Why were all these so called neo-shamans just as racist and ignorant as the kids I went to high school with?
One thing I have learned through my continued psychedelic exploration is that there is no such thing as a cure-all. Psychedelics open a door to an entirely new way of experiencing and engaging with the world, but it is entirely up to us to walk through that door. Taking LSD or mushrooms might temporarily break down barriers and catapult us to a realm of ultimate understanding where things like race, gender, and sexuality are trivial at best; but unless we apply these lessons and work to educate ourselves after we have come down from the experience I’m afraid to say psychedelics might just be a big waste of time.
We are in the midst of one of the most turbulent and disturbing periods of Earth’s history, though we still have the power to create a world in which we want to live—but we have to reach out and grab it, we cannot afford to sit and wait for it to come to us.
Groups of the radical left have the skills and education to organize, mobilize, and work for meaningful change in our communities; but the individuals who make up these groups are as entrenched in dominant culture as anyone else. One thing that a lot of groups struggle with, particularly environmentalists (which is a predominately white movement, despite the fact that people of color are most adversely and directly affected by climate change and ecological destruction), is carrying traumas and systemic forms of oppression into the group in which they are organizing. Being raised in a society that promotes, even requires, white-supremacy makes it difficult not to see racism trickle down into social movements. Groups such as Rising Tide North America and Earth First! are radical environmental groups which focus on challenging ecological genocide within the framework of industrialized capitalism. They recognize that the fight for clean air and water is the same as the fight for prison abolition, the same as the fight for women’s rights; and they actively work to dismantle all of the ways in which oppression bleeds into the movement.
My argument is that the fight for the sanctioned use of psychedelic chemicals for self-exploration is just as important as any other struggle and could play a monumental role in effective and accessible social movements. What better a tool to use to overcome internalized racism than a chemical that temporarily breaks down virtually everything we thought we knew, that destroys boundaries and barriers, shatters social constructs, and reshapes our sense of self, our very identity? What could be more effective than that which allows us to actually see the ways in which the personal translates to the interpersonal, and vice-versa? Imagine how much more effectively we could organize if those in the radical movements of our generation were not separated by false dichotomies, if everyone had equal access to an experience which shows us that we are all reaching for one ultimate goal, that the labor movement is fighting the same system the environmentalists are, the feminists are engaged in the same struggle as the anti-racists, and the LGBTQ community has as much of a stake in the struggle as the curanderos in Latin America or the children of the Middle East.
So why is there this apparent separation between cultures? Radical organizing and psychedelic culture seem to be at odds with one another, but I believe we are fast approaching a point in time where these two separate cultures must merge and learn from one another or perish. How can we do this, what does it look like, and what are we waiting for?
I am no scholar, but I can pick up on patterns and it is increasingly apparent to me that psychedelic culture is bourgeoisie culture. “Conscious” music festivals which claim to be accessible and transparent are inherently pillars of the status-quo when they charge money to attend said events, automatically excluding huge groups of people. There is a reason that festival-goers are almost entirely white, upper class people. We cannot expect everyone to flock to DMT when those who advocate it completely fail to address how it resonates with the struggles of others and fall short in making it an experience that is accessible and safe for all people to participate in, not just those who can afford to buy it or extract it. Psychedelic gatherings need to be spaces where women, trans and queer folk, and people of color feel safe; where they can feel secure and empowered to heal themselves and the trauma they carry. I challenge the psychedelic community to make itself more available, to put forth the effort to learn about how we carry systemic oppression and violence with us even if we do not blatantly see it.
What could this look like? I think we are on the right track, and I think that the conversations taking place on the DMT-Nexus and at certain psychedelic gatherings (such as Boom 2014) are a step in the right direction, but we cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal. As suggested by the Nexus moderator Snozzleberry, I can envision psychedelic-minded people coming together to create an autonomous space for organizers and activists to retreat to when they are feeling burnt out, or even facilitating workshops and educational opportunities for folks to learn about entheogenic experiences. As a community we must make ourselves accessible. Otherwise, I’m afraid we are failing to see the forest through the trees.
As a person of color, I can honestly say I do not feel like I am welcome, or a part of, psychedelia and this deeply saddens me. It is truly heartbreaking to see such a beautiful and life-transforming experience roped off and made available exclusively for a select group of people.
I don’t know what the solution is, and I doubt that there is just one answer. I believe that psychedelics have the capacity to truly revolutionize people and to empower those who are conditioned to believe they hold no power, or that they are inadequate and undeserving of love, compassion, and respect. I would one day like to see those who have been brutalized, hurt, and traumatized by our culture healed and inspired through psychedelic exploration; to reclaim the psychedelic experience as a universal human right and not a trippy past-time for the privileged few.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I’d like to end with a quote by the well known Ram Daas.
Love is the most transformative medicine; for Love slowly transforms you into what psychedelics only get you to glimpse. Ram Daas