Fighting Words is Tonic's opinion column. Send pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where any given black person draws the line between a safe, rational choice and outlandish, even or life-threatening “white people shit” varies depending, on how adventurous we feel. But we all have a line. Self-preservation dictates where each black person locates the threshold into white nonsense that they simply shall not cross, whether it’s because it will get them clowned or because it could get them killed.
What happens, though, when what lies on the other side of that threshold has benefits at least as bountiful as its risks, or potentially more so? What if it could help end addictions, improve relationships, advance careers, treat depression, or heal trauma…but could also result in jail time? Maybe there’s a grey area for white people shit.
If there is, microdosing is right in the middle of it. An enduring trending topic among the non-melanated, the term refers to a protocol for taking sub-perceptual doses of psychedelic drugs. The Silicon Valley biohacker community is usually credited with the explosion of the technique. Members have been actively experimenting with small amounts (1/10 to 1/20 of a regular dose) of LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics for productivity and wellness since at least 2011.
In recent years, their ideas and practices have become popular among wider circles of… well, white people. Articles such as “How LSD Microdosing Became the Hot New Business Trip” from Rolling Stone and books such as Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (hint: it’s way different than Ice Cube’s) are furthering America’s conversation about the potential benefits of psychedelics. But there are few, if any, black voices contributing. Why?
The way our criminal justice system is set up probably has something to do with it. Black people are six times as likely to be arrested and convicted on narcotics offenses than white people, though they don’t take drugs at higher rates. Sentencing inequities mean that a black person could serve up to twice as much jail time as a white person committing the exact same crime.
Meanwhile, white guys are proudly dropping acid on their way to work. Some of them are even achieving accolades as a result of their illicit drug use. Some of the reported benefits of microdosing among the “rise and grind” set include increased creativity, productivity, and focus. All of these qualities are great for the techies taking the trend to the top. But in an industry that is already known for being overwhelmingly racially homogenous, it's problematic that some (read: white) people can now receive promotions by enhancing their cognitive functioning through an act for which others (non-whites) are more likely to receive harsh penalties. It’s just one example of how white privilege has evolved.
The inequities exacerbated by the microdosing trend extend beyond the tech industry. Picked up by a growing contingent of the yoga-pant-wearing, Whole-Foods-shopping crowd, microdosing has taken on a different vibe—less utilitarian, more free-flowing. However, the underlying notes of privilege and oppression remain. This isn’t a new problem for wellness culture. As is the case with Himalayan salt spas and organic groceries, cost is a common barrier to access regarding many mind-body-spirit life-enhancing techniques. The same goes for being able to afford to microdose in a controlled environment.
Cultural appropriation also comes into play when considering who gets to access wellness products or practices. McKee points out that, though the current American phenomenon is usually linked to Dr. James Fadiman and the aforementioned “biohackers,” taking small doses of psychoactive compounds to boost mood and perceptual ability has been done for centuries by groups like the Bwiti of Gabon. Although practitioners of the West African religion use strong doses of iboga for initiation ceremonies, they take small doses during weekly religious ceremonies to facilitate emotional connection with others and to their higher power.
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Indigenous cultures have long been attuned to the benefits of both small and large doses of local entheogens. The difference is that the goals of their use aren’t believed to be influenced by Western capitalism or individualism, but by the communal good.
The divide between wellness and blackness is unfortunate, considering that there are many health problems in the black community that microdosing may be able to alleviate. “We have some real issues—physical issues, mental issues, emotional issues,” McKee says. “I know people on psychotropic meds, and they’re walking around like zombies. I can see where [microdosing] would benefit them.”
And it’s not just wellness culture’s microdosing movement that lacks melanin—it’s anthropological research as well. “Across psychedelic trials from 1993 until 2017, 82.3 percent have been white," says Tehseen Noorani, a Marie Curie research fellow in the anthropology department at Durham University. He does note, however, that the lack of safety around reporting use could skew the numbers—there might be “greater use amongst non-white populations than appears to be the case from the reported statistics.” Given the increased stigma and higher risk of arrest, it makes sense that people of color may be wary about coming forward. Still, current data, as well as his own experience, suggest that psychedelic research is overwhelmingly white.
“Inclusion and exclusion criteria [for research studies] select for whiteness in many ways—for example, demands for a college degree, good family history of mental health, being able to commit a lot of time to study participation,” he says. “None of these explicitly exclude non-white people, but intersectional inequalities conspire to ensure it is white—and male, and more well-off—people who participate most.”
This is changing, if slowly. “I would say that scientists are working to remove the barriers, to differing degrees and with differing levels of success,” Noorani says. He suggests that simple factors, like compensating for the monetary costs associated with participating in a scientific study of microdosing, might make a difference in participation among marginalized groups.
Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and professor at University of Connecticut, is one of the scientists working to bring more diverse populations into psychedelic research. As she explained to Tonic in a previous piece on the topic, having therapists of color involved is key. A black therapist is “much more likely to empathize appropriately” during research sessions with black participants, Williams says.
Williams thinks black therapists could also help increase access for the black community after psychedelic therapies are approved. “We need more therapists who work with minority communities getting trained in this therapy so they can go back to those communities and ensure this treatment isn’t just offered to wealthy white people.”
While the country waits for science and politics to converge in black folks’ best interest, some people are taking matters into their own hands. Brother Kilindi Iyi has been a well-known psychedelic activist in the black community for decades. So was the late Kai Wingo, an urban mushroom farmer and advocate for “mushroom medicine.”
McKee, who co-founded an online group called Women and Entheogens with Wingo, insists that this is essential. “We need our own spaces,” she says, “just so that we’re not bombarded…by people’s lack of understanding about who we are.”
When it comes to the healing uses of microdosing or psychoactive amounts of entheogens, McKee says there is a cadre of black people already carving out safe(r) spaces to enhance their wellness. “It’s a whole underground movement,” she says. And no matter where an individual’s opinion falls on microdosing, it’s hard to deny that it's underground movements that have traditionally produced some of the best things in blackness.
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