BlogDiversity in the psychedelic movement: how to do better? (A conversation with Camille Barton)

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Diversity in the psychedelic movement: how to do better? (A conversation with Camille Barton)

13-12-2018

Last year, I saw an article about the lack of diversity in the psychedelic movement, Why the psychedelic community is so white, posted in a Facebook group related to trance festivals. Interesting! Of course, I read the comments. Half of them were in the style of ‘We are all humans, I don’t see colours, no need to divide the community, Namaste’. Well. As a queer white cis-women, I have never faced racism, but I have always felt uncomfortable around people who refuse to acknowledge asymmetric power relationships. Doing this, they invalidate other people’s experiences and derail the conversation. This is even more true in environments where I expect people to show a bit more awareness. Indeed, ‘Discussing misrepresentation, marginalisation, and the importance of equal opportunity with people who have never been misrepresented, marginalised, or denied opportunities because of their identity is exhausting’ says Ismail Ali, Policy Fellow at MAPS[1].

Are we all one? Ask your favourite tea

Fortunately, many commenters were willing to discuss the challenges that the psychedelic community, at large, needs to face. To me and to most people who have an interest in this topic, psychedelics relate to elevating consciousness, to breaking down barriers and to becoming a better version of ourselves, both as an individual and as a society. The wide psychedelic community, including scientists, advocates, artists and psychonauts can be compared to an ecosystem: it needs (bio) diversity to be strong, balanced and resilient.

In order to take an honest look at the psychedelic movement and to highlight issues and initiatives in this vast field, I had a conversation with Camille Barton. This London-based artist, social entrepreneur and social justice educator wears many hats. I wanted to ask her about the SanQtuary, an intersectional[2] safe space for the LGBTQIA+[3] community she set up at Shambala Festival in the UK. I was impressed by her talent in articulating topics such as plant medicine, politics, self-exploration, the war on drugs and social justice. You will therefore find mentions to her work and words throughout the entire article. After all, explorers of the mind know that everything is connected…

Research and Conferences: Beyond White PhD Males

A few years ago, the world of psychedelic research and conferences looked a bit like the top management of a big European or North American company: overly white, overly male and mainly people from rich, privileged backgrounds. Why? Without any thought process and incentives to ensure everyone’s participation, institutionalised structures don’t reflect society’s diversity. Positions of power end up in the hands of the same old same people, leaving little space to the others who have to prove twice as much to reach the same position. And besides reproducing discrimination already existing in this world, the field of psychedelic research and conferences has this particularity: it’s about (mostly illegal) drugs.

Many, including Camille Barton, thought that the war on drugs was an American story until they researched the subject. Experience as well as studies have shown that in the UK and France, for instance, people of colour (POC) are way more likely to be arrested or harassed by the police than white people, especially for ‘suspicion’ of drug possession. ‘The war on drugs is not only in the USA, it is global. The mechanisms are the same […] If a Black person dies in custody and the police say they had drugs on them, it is accepted and not even questioned.’ As Ifetayo Harvey, Communications Associate at the Drug Policy Alliance in the USA sums it up, Black people risk their lives every day just by being Black. It is then no surprise they hesitate to speak openly about drug use!

In addition, if the researchers, academics and speakers presenting and networking in a psychedelic conference all look the same, some people don’t feel comfortable attending; they may feel that they are the only ones not only looking ‘different’ than the majority, but also thinking from a different perspective. Having all eyes on you is not easy, tells London-based grassroots researcher and event organiser Darren Springer.

This situation is changing though. Organisers receive feedback and critiques, and therefore realise the need to make their event more inclusive. As a result, discussions are scheduled on different aspects of diversity. For example, Camille Barton was invited at the 2017 Psychedelic Science Conference to deliver a Community forum titled ‘White Allies and Anti-Racist Practice in the Psychedelic Community’. The room was completely full, a sign of real interest in the understanding the question and getting tools for action.

Most importantly, the people who feel underrepresented or not included are taking initiative to foster concrete solutions. See for example some proposals made by the Community forum participants: having affordable tickets for POC and locals from Oakland, incorporating lived experience, related to identity and historical context, as factors within research, or including numerous panels that consider oppression, intersectionality, and intergenerational trauma experienced by POC, indigenous, and LGBTQ communities at future conferences. In general, more can be done upstream. Inclusion at an event will happen more naturally if people with different backgrounds, genders and skin colours are present at the early stage of organising. 

To illustrate that point, here is an interesting story that took place at the prestigious Transpersonal Psychology Conference in Prague in 2017. The male chair of a panel on the future of science wished this was the ‘last all-men panel’ in the history of this conference. That triggered a quite welcome and chaotic movement of women in the room. Some of the essentialist talks ensuing made me cringe, but who cares, diversity is also about different world views. The key point is: if women were represented on stage before the panel started, everyone would have benefited from the scheduled discussion with qualified experts.

The ‘last all-men panel’ of the Transpersonal Psychology Conference

Somehow (call me an idealist), I feel confident that the very needed conversations on diversity will prevail in the future whenever a topic is tackled by a group of people who represent only a part of the demographics. This is up to all of us to push for change and to support those who take action to add more voices to the conversation on psychedelic science. As a result, we have more chance to better research psychedelic substances and develop practices to heal those who need it the most, and to reform drug policy to end the racist war on drugs. On this topic, you should definitely check Camille’s initiative RE:GENERATE, a Black-centred UK arts festival focusing on the intersections of drug policy, racial justice and liberation.  

Plant Medicine: Knowing History, Celebrating Diversity

To address diversity in the psychedelic movement, it felt important to talk about the use of plant medicine. Most of the traditional knowledge comes from indigenous people all around the world: for example the Mazatec (Salvia Divinorum, mushrooms), the Huichol (peyote), the Babongo (iboga), only to mention the plants that have been researched, experienced and made popular in the Western world. Even though similarities exist in the way different peoples use plant medicine, their cosmology, rituals, languages and practices are extremely diverse. As people who may benefit from plant medicine at some point in our life, how to celebrate this cultural diversity in a respectful manner?

The first way is to acknowledge the incredibly violent past all indigenous people went through, namely colonisation and destruction of their culture by white missionaries and settlers. This helps us understand the current struggles of indigenous communities all around the world. Thus if we want to benefit from plant medicine to heal ourselves, we cannot turn a blind eye to the past and present suffering of the Amazon people, for instance. Their lands and rights are constantly threatened by (mining and agribusiness) corporations and central governments that benefit from power relations inherited from the colonial past. We must also remember that their now trendy plant medicine was once deemed as ‘barbaric’.

Justina Serrano Alvarez, Shipibo Onanya. Photo by Marlon del Aguila Guerrero/CIFOR

We, as Westerners[4], need to be respectful and listen. Indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon are currently organising to react against ‘spiritual extractivism’, the fact that most tourists come to benefit from the medicine, often in retreat centres ran by foreigners, and leave with no consideration for the communities who have passed on their knowledge generation after generation. Last summer, the Coshikox, the representative body of 35,000 Shipibo, Conebo and Xetibo people of the Peruvian Amazon, convened the first convention of ancestral healers in Yarinacocha, Peru. This exceptional gathering resulted in the formation of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo Association of Onanyabo/Ancestral Healers and the Yarinacocha Declaration, a strong call for self-determination. Have you ever drunk ayahuasca? Do you, or friends of yours, consider doing so? Please take a moment to read the Declaration after this article. Spoiler alert: spirituality and politics cannot be separated and we must question our consumerism.

Besides that, you may know someone who turned into a self-proclaimed ‘shaman’ after spending a couple of weeks in Peru. We can surely laugh about it. However, if we see ourselves as part of a movement for awareness and progress, it is also our responsibility to publicly disapprove of potentially unsafe practices and of cultural appropriation, ‘the fact of extracting resources from ancestors without honouring these ancestors or their descendants, without recognising what they are given’, elaborates Camille. It can be a controversial topic ‘because I think sometimes we don’t really go enough in the depth of it”, she adds[5]. To make it simple, it’s about lacking care, a value that should be key within our community.

An easy way to avoid using other people’s knowledge, and therefore to be respectful of traditional indigenous plant medicine is also to (re)-connect with our own plant medicine folklore, if any accessible or left. Explore the forgotten and new traditions of our geographical area or ancestors, including herbalism, witchcraft and even religion! The British occultist Julian Vayne, in his amazing book Getting Higher, gives a lot of tips on how to craft your own psychedelic ceremony and rituals. I will certainly get back to this wonderful trip bible in another blog article, but just keep in mind that (local, hand-picked, self-grown) plant medicine received in your own framework and cultural environment may ‘speak’ in a language[6] that is yours. By the way, if you understand some French you should definitely check out Billy Ze Kick and its wonderful song ‘Mangez-moi’ (Eat me), that was number 2 in the music charts in 1994. Anyway.

No need to be clumsy and try to imitate other cultures when we can invent new practises, co-create and have fun in the process. With respect and wild imagination, everything is possible when it comes to create a meaningful personal or collective experience with the ingredients at hand. Magic mushrooms and morning glory can be grown or grow [7]almost everywhere in Europe. In addition, Dutch magic truffles are a fantastic blank canvas to work with. Bonus point: chewing these tasty little chunks (hummm, rotten nuts and battery acid) may give you a real sense of ceremonial challenge, unless you prefer the easy tea. 

Towards a More Inclusive Festival Culture

Thinking about Western-looking, modern ceremonies leads me to the last area I wanted to dive in regarding diversity in the psychedelic movement. Some festivals and events can be fantastic places for mind-opening, transformational experiences, and I would easily label them as ‘psychedelic’: creative art and music gatherings, Burning Man regional events (or ‘burns’) and, of course, psy-trance festivals. I love going to these events because they are also places where spiritual, political, social discussions can take place within the workshop programme. I also tend to notice there a wider array of (visible) gender identities than, let’s say, in a rock festival, and many people travel from various countries in the world to attend. 

Though we should ask ourselves the same questions as with scientific conferences. Who organises these events, who performs or teaches, or not? And how inclusive are these spaces for people who feel they don’t belong to the majority in terms of identity?

Indeed, I am often struck when I see line-ups almost exclusively listing male DJs, or when I attend a workshop or discussion where love and relationships are only considered as heterosexual, without any nuance. In the broad festival culture, Camille Barton senses that ‘people feel so enlightened to be in those spaces, they don’t consider the ways that we are all complicit in reproducing harmful patterns that can be exclusionary of certain people. There is a lot of cultural appropriation in festivals, see the example of Native American headdresses.’  If you often go to (psychedelic) festivals, you probably see what Camille is referring to… ‘Native American people have repeatedly asked Westerners not to wear these because they’re very sacred to them and their culture (…) There is generally a lack of care for the communities where these cultural relics are coming from. There is an argument for appreciation and respect and how we’ve always shared things culturally, but it’s not happening like this 9 times out of 10.’ Camille also generally witnesses a ‘dominance of white privilege, of not really understanding the ways that many people are often affected at festivals by racism or micro-aggressions’. 

In order to bring more care and discussion into festivals, she took action. ‘Growing up going to festivals in the UK, I can’t remember coming across a gay or queer space, with people who looked like me. Where there were Black or Brown people, queer folks, non-binary folks.’ Inspired by the work of queer POC elders who provided such spaces in totally different environments in the past[8], Camille curated the SanQtuary last summer at Shambala Festival in the UK. The SanQtuary is a safe and cosy space with the priority to welcome people who face multiple oppressions. And of course, other people are welcome as well!

The SanQtuary at Shambala Festival 2018. Picture by by Angela Dennis

The SanQtuary looks and feels like ‘an old granny house’ says Camille, with a wood burner, rugs and medicinal tea. Though your grandma probably would not keep a political library with books on queer sex, radical love and activism, display Stonewall posters and offer harm reduction material. If she does, please contact me, I want to meet her. After talks and workshops in the daytime, the SanQtuary turns into a party space in the evening with performances and DJs. There, visitors can have fun, socialise, relax, find support and ‘information that will be useful in their journey’ beyond the festival. Typically, if someone wearing a culturally appropriated item wanted to enter the SanQtuary, the discussion that is not often happening in the wider festival venue would quickly take place there. The goal is not to blame and shame, an approach that makes people defensive, but to share in order to provide the person with information they probably ignored.

The SanQtuary received tons of positive feedback and welcomed many visitors. Camille Barton is confident it will be back next year at Shambala. I also hope the concept spreads across other festivals in the psychedelic scene. Places like the SanQtuary are efficient, much needed tools to help some festival goers to feel more welcome, and others to learn and hear about marginalised stories, all of it in a beautiful caring environment.

Discussions at the SanQtuary – Photo credit Angela Dennis

To welcome and celebrate diversity in the psychedelic movement, we can use various approaches. At the end of the day, it boils down to three steps of action: first, being aware of the issues by listening to those who raise them. Then, finding ways to repair the harm they caused, in the past and now, while honouring peoples and cultures that provide us with ancestral knowledge and practices. Finally, working together to ensure a more diverse and vibrant movement, using all the tools that appear necessary to do so. Action speaks louder than words, so I’ll stop writing now and let the artist, creative and healer Kufikiri Imane remind us: ‘Diversity is a luxury of those who are included, and it’s a necessity for those who are excluded.”

Author: Sonia Conchon, owner of psychedelic B&B Firejuice!

Notes & references

  • 1 Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
  • Intersectionality recognises the interconnected nature of social categorisations. A person belonging to multiple discriminated categories (race, gender, class, etc.) faces multiple, overlapping issues.  
  • 3 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexuality... and more! The world of genders and sexual identities is vast.
  • 4 All my excuses if you, reader, are not a Westerner.
  • 5 For those who want to know more, Camille refered to The Witches Union Hall’s zine on cultural appropriation in spirituality.
  • 6 Metaphorically speaking. Or not. Whatever.
  • 7 Even though the psychoactive morning glory varieties originate from Mexico. 
  • 8 Such as the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project in South London, whose work was undone in the 80s by the Thatcher government with laws like Section 28, rendering public talk about homosexuality illegal! See the documentary movie Under your nose, by Veronica McKenzie/Reel Brit Productions.


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