I May Destroy You has been widely celebrated for its stark and brilliant portrayal of the life of a Black millennial in London. Friendships. Dating. The trappings of social media. Therapy. Sexual assault and all the shit that comes with it. And then there's the partying, which goes beyond a few casual tokes of weed.
Party drugs – MDMA, ketamine, coke, pills – isn't something we're unused to on British TV (see: Skins, Peep Show, This is England '90). But when it comes to the depiction of young Black people onscreen, this isn’t exactly common practice. Seeing protagonist Arabella and her Black mates getting “on it”, while jarring, also feels weirdly refreshing. They do bumps of coke in the street, have deep MDMA chats in the club, hang around hoping to pick up. We know the Black experience in the UK is by no means monolithic, but still: on TV there have always been activities which are often seen as being not “for us”.
Casual class A drug use is often deemed a “white thing”. This arguably doesn't come from nowhere. In the past year, a government report found that 94 percent of all people who used cocaine in Britain were white, with only one percent of them being Black or Black British. Moreover, 90 percent of all people taking ecstasy were white, with again, only one percent being Black or Black British.
But this doesn't mean that no young Black people do drugs when they party. Bayo*, a 25-year-old art student from Essex, says that he goes out and takes party drugs pretty regularly. “My drug of choice is definitely coke, followed by acid,” he tells me. “It’s always quite funny when my blackness gets called into question by other Black people when I’m doing a cheeky line or two. It’s still pretty taboo.”
Bayo's right about drugs being taboo for some in Black communities. Here in the UK, alongside awkward school lessons and finger-wagging government campaigns like Talk to Frank, many raised in African and Caribbean families grew up believing drug use was nothing short of anathema. As kids of first generation immigrants, the idea that we would compromise the hard work our parents put in to giving us a comfortable life in the UK by doing something illegal might be considered the ultimate betrayal.
“I was always told that if I were to touch a drug, I would go straight to hell,” says Miranda*, a 26-year-old Londoner from a Christian Jamaican family. “I think there was a complete lack of education and the dialogue was fuelled by fear more than anything else.” Bayo agrees here, pointing to his upbringing in a Nigerian Pentecostal Christian environment. “I grew up in the church,” he says. “So I was really strongly against it just because it was really ingrained in me by my parents that it was sinful.”
Given that drugs aren’t always part of the dialogue within Black communities from a young age, many seek answers for themselves from external sources. For Miranda, it was her white friends who filled the gaps of knowledge when it came to drugs. She realised the effects of drugs didn’t always result in tragedy. “I had white friends whose parents were doing coke and ecstasy back in the 80s and 90s, so they had a bit of an awareness about it all and about correct doses.”
For Karl*, who is mixed race and attended a public school in west London, taking party drugs was a way to assimilate into a wholly white environment. “It was just filled with middle class white people doing cocaine from the age of 16,” he remembers of his school. “I’d always thought that drugs were really disgusting up until that point, but it was almost weird to not be involved so I just sort of fell into it. Cocaine and pills were just part of the culture.”
Upbringing is only part of the equation when it comes to drug use though. Data shows that cocaine use over the past year was around 22 times more prevalent among those who had visited a pub or bar at least nine times in the last month, and around 36 times higher for ecstasy. With many Black people shying away from the pub, it makes sense that their level of recreational drug use might be less high.
Proximity to whiteness also comes into play when it comes to clubbing. Club nights that cater towards a majority Black clientele will often play genres such as hip-hop, R&B or Afrobeats – genres that don’t historically have cultural links with drugs like MDMA or coke.
For Dami*, a 22 year-old student, going out with Black friends is an entirely different experience to when she is out with white friends. “I have a few different friendship groups, but the way I party with my Black friends is just different,” she shrugs. “Without generalising, when it comes to music, you just wouldn’t drop MD at an R&B night, it’s just not a thing.”
Electronic music may have originated in Black, Latinx and LGBTQ communities, but here in the UK, much of the scene can feel pretty white. Just take a look at DJ Mag's list of top 100 DJs and you'll notice only two Black DJs: Carl Cox and Black Coffee. Plus we know that London nightlife has long had a racism problem, with questionable door policies and rave shutdowns. Black people who attend these events, men in particular, often find themselves being reduced to stereotypes.
“I remember going to a festival and a rumour went around that I was selling pills,” Karl says. “I think it’s just because I was the darkest person there. There’s this perception that if you’re at a majority white event and you’re Black, then you’re going to be a dealer as opposed to being there for the music or to have a night out with your mates. You’re effectively reduced to being a prop there to just facilitate white people and their enjoyment.”
Miranda says she’s been stereotyped by Black dealers too. “I’ve been out with white friends and seen Black guys who are dealers and only approach my friends and not me. They just assume that it’s something that I’m not into.”
While many young Black people taking these drugs do so with white friends, there are obviously differences in the way that drug use is policed. This means that Black people might be more lowkey about their drug use. Dami says that her friendship group is aware of the racial disparities when it comes to sneaking drugs into raves.
“If I’m with a mixed crowd, the Black guys will never take drugs in, it’ll always be the white girls and if there are no white girls, then I’ll take it,” she says. “We just all know that if you’re a big Black guy and you’re caught with anything then you’re finished.”
Basically, Black people take party drugs too – it just comes with some added nuance and risk. But that doesn't mean it's not a thing. Contrary to what we've always seen on TV, there are plenty of Black people who are out experiencing that side of partying, just as much as some of their white mates.
I May Destroy You is one very rare and welcome example of actually seeing this aspect of Black Britishness reflected back at us on screen. This is important. We're not a homogenous group and our experiences deserve a nuanced portrayal. Just because you don't see Black Brits getting on it nonstop doesn't mean it's not happening.
*Names have been changed to protect identities