Burning Man 2008: The American Dream


So it has taken me days to filter through all the different things going through my head about Burning Man. For those who have never heard, Burning Man is an annual party that attracts almost 50,000 people around the concept of art, life as art, self-sustainability, self-reliance, hedonism and music and to experience all of this in the desert for 1-2 weeks. Living in San Francisco for the last seven years, I certainly crossed paths with many that were life-long burners and had my own preconceived notions of what to expect. Some of what I had heard resonated, but nothing I had ever experienced matched up to going to Burning Man. What does a feminist woman of color see at Burning Man?
Well first and foremost, the art at Burning Man is as incredible as everyone claims it to be. I always hated those people that said, “sorry man, you don’t understand, you have to see it to believe it,” and I will spare you such proclamations. However, there is something about the huge scale of the art set in the dustiness of the desert that creates surreal visuals that can’t be compared to much else I have seen before. The art made my trip to Burning Man worthwhile.
But, you are in the desert with almost 50,000 people in city built in weeks with streets, neighborhoods, themes and entire communities. Obviously you see much more than art. I will attempt to express what I felt, saw and experienced in the most coherent way possible.
The theme of this year’s Burning Man was the “American Dream.” Sounds corny, but my assumption was that in a space like BM we would see multiple moments of disrupting what we understand to be true of the American Dream. Perhaps new ways of envisioning borders, critical perspectives on the legal status of human beings or anti-war statements. Well, clearly I got a little too post-colonial fantasy making on myself, because every attempt at playing on the theme that I saw at Burning Man, failed. If I saw another American flag/peace symbol juxtaposition I thought I might keel over. When driving in they had quotes posted from key framers of American democracy, Alexis de Toqueville, Milton Friedman, even MLK. But they didn’t have a quote from a single woman. Apparently, woman have never had anything to do with the framing, design or development of democracy.


So what was the role, place, and experience of women at Burning Man? Obviously, I can’t generalize, there were so many different kinds of people there I can only elaborate on what I saw and what I felt. The first day I was there, a middle aged doctor, wearing a skin tight leather skirt started a friendly conversation with me. He asked what I do and of course this got into a conversation about feminism, which he was very supportive of, claiming his North Berkeley roots. He stated, “well Burning Man is really a feminist space, if you think about it….” So I did, I took myself to task to think about the idea that Burning Man was a feminist space. As I looked around at all the naked bodies slinking around everywhere. Noting that there weren’t many people of color or really many different kinds of bodies. What i saw was thin, white bodies. Most of them weren’t totally naked. Usually they were wearing something, like hot pants, or a cowboy hat, showing the rest of their body. I immediately realized that I wouldn’t feel comfortable naked. I would stick out, because I was curvy and brown. That didn’t feel very feminist.
Playa barbie on the other hand doesn’t have this same problem.

Taking my top off to feel free on the playa, didn’t feel free to me. It appeared that one of the keys ways for women to participate in the freedom of the playa was to show off what they got. But according to the video above and much of what I saw, I was alone in my criticisms.
So what do they mean when they say Burning Man is a place of freedom? You don’t need money once you get there sure. However, you DO need money to get there. A lot of it. Tickets go for 2-300 dollars not to mention the thousands of dollars spent on gas money and equipment to survive in a climate that is not inhabitable. They might as well have said, “we are having a party on the moon, hope to see you there!” The free, liberatory space the BM claims to be, can only be so, if you have the resources you need to get there. When I wake up dreaming of freedom, I am not thinking there is a massive door charge.
So after assessing in my head the bogus hypocrisy of all the rhetoric and politics of BM, I also had no choice but to take to task the dramatic underrepresentation of people of color in music, attendees and art. There isn’t much to be said because so few people of color in attendance kind of says it all. Beyond the expense of the trip, they don’ do much to make it appealing to people of color. It is not the kind of space where we are made to feel welcome, it is not our space and it was not meant to be. Given that Burning Man must make at least 10 million dollars on the door fee alone, you would think some of that money would go to outreach or funding artists and musicians of color, but it didn’t appear to be that way.
This lack of a POC presence also had a strong impact on the music. The majority of the music was trance (mostly psy-trance) house and breaks. Almost all of these forms of music originate in either world of American black music, but there was a total lack of recognition of this fact. More working class, people of color oriented forms of electronic music (dub-step, drum and bass, techno, electro-breaks, hip-hop or reggae) was not to be found, except in a few key places, my people and I were very happy to find. This total lack of inclusion to world music and the music of working class people and people of color felt strategic, even if it was simply an oversight. As much as BM wants to exist in a bubble, let’s be real, nothing that happens in the US is in a bubble. If you are having a party and everyone is white, something is not right. Right?
Now this total lack of people of color wouldn’t be as startling if there wasn’t an over representation of all things people of color. White people on the playa felt very comfortable donning “ethnic” cultural artifacts, styles of dress, architectural and artistic styles. The influences were profound. I saw at least 5 white men wearing full Native American headresses and tribal face paint. This is made worse because Nevada is home to some of the poorest reservations in the country, so not only was this insensitive but it is blatantly offensive (even if it is done in the guise of their version of the “American Dream”). Similarly, I saw many folks wearing traditional Arab dress and wrapping kafiyah’s around their heads. In one instance a young man actually took his off when sitting next to us. I will never know if he did it because it was hot or because he couldn’t figure out if we were of Arab descent or not, but it occurred to me that he wouldn’t have even thought he might run into some folks that might be offended. We caught him in his free space.
It were these key moments that colored the ways that I experience Burning Man, even though I did come back with kaleidescope eyes planning my next years return. For the people of color that were there, it was nice to see them and I can only hope this gets into the eyes of someone that cares enough to take up the task of making BM a more equitable space. I understand that is not the purpose of BM, (frankly, it is not green friendly AT ALL, but we can only cover so much here) but if you are going to unapologetically appropriate different cultures, I think it is important to recognize the broader social, cultural and race implications of such a move. In order to stay true to the supposed progressive roots of BM there must be some recognition to the race, class, culture and gender dynamics at play.
The search for making a culture of their own, the majority white constituency of BM have created a culture of dramatic appropriation, elitism, consumption and lack of inclusion all within the guise of freedom. It is another American holiday like any other and honestly, it is fun. I suppose it doesn’t get more American Dream than that, now does it.
Other people have experiences they want to share?

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71 Comments

  1. ripley
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    Sorry to add more, but I should say it’s not just how Samhita (or I) felt, it’s not just about feelings, it’s what IS.
    Burningman is vastly white-dominated. that’s just a fact. the things that make that so are probably connected to the things that make a lot of institutions white-dominated, many of which were named by Samhita and other comments so just pretending it’s up to individual poc to change that ignores all the forces that make burningman so white-dominated to begin with.

  2. puckalish
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    oh, my, i totally forgot that criticism is not a part of change. damn the critics! pull yourself up by your bootstraps!
    seriously, trust that Sami was a participant, but that doesn’t rob her of the ability to have a critical analysis… geez! i’m astounded… and i’d say more if there weren’t so many eloquent folks who’ve already said it (ripley, legba, alisa, jodie, lolphysics, etc.)
    shoot, take your damned blinders off, people… recognize that critique is a big part of how to change a community and grow our consciousness… and i know folks who haven’t posted on here are thinking about these issues now and THANK YOU SAMI for that…
    but y’all who are reacting defensively need to recognize that Samhita’s criticism is in order to help build a better place… thinking is a big part of doing… so do some thinking before you think that Sami’s not doing anything, okay?

  3. Posted September 16, 2008 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    No one told the organization that something had to be done about Hurricane Katrina—A bunch of people just got together and went and *did* it.
    No one told the organization that they needed to put solar energy in the hands of the locals—A bunch of people just got together and went and *did* it.
    That’s how it works. That’s the key…
    Radical Inclusion, Radical Self Reliance and Radical Self Expression are challenging and difficult. They are also really, really rewarding and gratifying.
    Check out these pages:
    Mission Statement
    http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/about_burningman/mission.html
    Ten Principles
    http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/about_burningman/principles.html

  4. chancluda
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    Alright, I’m a little exhausted at continously having read posts by white people not understanding POC issues and a woman of color always having to validate her experiences. Once again, it’s always the person of color who has to carry the burden of talking about race and racism, and all of a sudden it’s up to Sahmita to bring her ‘diverse’ friends to change this and to provide the solutions since she brought up the problem….Shittt. This gets exhausting fast. If that’s in fact how this work is going to be done, by leaving it up the ‘diverse people of color’ to bring their friends, to white spaces (every space?..) we have a long way to go.
    A common theme I read is that white was the excuse for ignorance on POC issues, but it’s not. Because many POC aren’t educated on the issues either. In order for people of color to know that an event/space is for them, it has to be specifically targeted at them (in their neigborhoods, hangouts, etc). Clearly, if something like, let’s say… a school board meeting is announced with a letter home to the students (in english), then it is not a space for Spanish speakers even though it is advertised as ‘open to the public’. My parents aren’t going to show up to this school board meeting. If my little brother came home with a letter from school in Spanish saying there will be translators, etc etc, then they know it is a space for them. So even though a space is advertised as open to the public, it rarely is because of costs, transportation, language and other barriers. Not just that but because of hostilities as well. And I don’t know all this because I’m a person of color, I know because I take the time to find out. It’s not that it just so happens that only white people show up. It’s because the event was created that way.
    Hang in there Samhita…. and thank you so much for bringing this up. I know what it’s like and I know how it feels like to have a ‘disenfranchised’ white person retaliate when you never even attacked.

  5. Jenny with the Axe
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    Wow. Etoile’s comments are pretty much a blueprint of unconscious privilege… and with a few changes of nouns, it’s the same thing a lot of men respond with when I explain that I as a woman feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in a setting.

  6. misty15
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    Wow. This is great! I had so many reservations about Burning Man, but I decided to go, because I felt like I couldn’t really understand what I was uncomfortable with until I had gone, experienced it, and seen how all the ideals had played out. This was my first year, and while it was great, I noticed some of the things you guys have mentioned as well.
    The event that most bothered me was critical tits. It’s the biggest event on the playa, besides the burn, and I just don’t get it. How are thousands of women going shirtless because the organizers tell them to, because it’s empowering, actually empowered? It’s pressure instead of waiting for women to feel completely comfortable in their own bodies, and it’s completely objectifying them. The name alone only focuses on tits! Why are they so critical? Wouldn’t it be nicer if the women were recognized as the critical element in this? All of my female campmates went (except for the one older woman… hmmm…) and they all came back saying that they felt a bit uncomfortable during the bike ride but that some of the attention during the ride (such as men gifting them things) and the afterparty were amazing. Apparently men are mostly restricted, and they are only allowed in the party as servers for the women. I still didn’t like this… it seemed just like they were being paid off for designating their bodies as objects of desire. Interestingly, there is some reasoning behind it to empower women. I heard that the camp which runs it (the event is planned and carried out by women, not men) probably won’t continue it next year due to the time and energy commitments, and won’t pass it on to any of the many men who have stepped up to try and take it on… because they want it to remain in the hands of women. I think that at the start, somehow, it was really about the strength of the women of burning man… it’s just that being placed within a culture that doesn’t know how to deal with it has broken it down. Anyone with more direct experience of this event, please fill me in on anything I’m missing!
    Another uncomfortable moment happened one night when a thin young campmate (admittedly a playa barbie) went out one night wearing tights and pasties. She expected to be comfortable – but was continuously eyed, asked for hugs, and followed. It became ridiculous, and she had to find a shirt to wear. Why is it that women should feel uncomfortable in an environment where older men strolled around naked all around me? I felt more free, more comfortable with my body, and more alive than I do most of the time (wearing costumes and a cowboy hat for sun protection, continuously, as I am unable to do in real life) – but I still wouldn’t have felt comfortable strutting about naked. And, I feel like I should have, considering all that burning man stands for. I even fit in fairly well with the stereotypical burner, physically, being white, although a bit curvier and paler. So it’s not just about color, or bodies… it’s about how others react to your body. Why should it ever be ok for someone to grope you, like someone (sorry, can’t remember your username!) described happening? For some reason, people think that when a girl is being free, it’s free for them to sexualize, not just free for herself.
    Don’t get me wrong – I loved the event, reservations about the objectification of women and the environmental cost (which is HUGE! and should be addressed more by the attendees if they care about the world they live in) aside. I was able to see the partying raving all night with glowsticks side, the biking culture, spiritual side with the temples, altars and healing sessions (thank you HBGB healers! I love you guys!). There was so much to do that by choosing not to attend certain events and centering my experience around things I valued, I felt like I avoided feeling objectified or singled out myself.
    And I still wanted to address the other issue – race. The bm website does talk about how racial inequities are being addresses, I remember seeing it while reading the survival guide. In fact, there was an outreach and research group looking at it, if I remember correctly. I think that they are aware of the issue, but it’s moving slowly precisely because of how bm grows – through word of mouth. It’s difficult for a centralized group to try and change that dynamic, it’s up to the participants to reach out and stress the appeal of the event and the possibilities for everyone. Those who go should force the pattern of racial division to change by challenging their own social structures, patterns and beliefs and inviting people who aren’t white, wealthy or into techno, and helping them find ways to come and contribute what they want to be at the event.

  7. Posted September 16, 2008 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “No one told the organization that something had to be done about Hurricane Katrina—A bunch of people just got together and went and *did* it.”
    As someone who went down to New Orleans for multiple long stretches in 2006 to do relief work and political organizing through Common Ground and has done New Orleans solidarity work since (especially around the issue of public housing), I think it’s great that you went down there.
    But to take this analogy and run with it, under no circumstances should the people of New Orleans have had to rely on a bunch of white, out-of-town, privileged, do-gooders to come down and help them. The Feds and the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans should have institutionally been capable of responding to their needs. Leaving it up to residents and to the goodwill of some people who showed up well after the fact doomed nearly 2,000 people to their deaths and has permanently altered a city to which hundreds of thousands of working class blacks will never be able to return.
    I completely understand your position here and I respect you but you can’t simply slap the DIY idea onto issues like race and gender. And this is about problems that exist far outside of Burning Man, and I think Samhita was hoping that when they reared their head within Burning Man, it would be a locus of seriously working hand-in-hand around these problems, or at least taking them seriously and not responding to them oppositionally.

  8. Burning_Feminist
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Again, what I said was that WE need to work on these issues. That the onus is not on the organization, but on US, the participants—Not on HER, not on YOU, but on US.

  9. winelips
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Hey Misty 15,
    Organizers don’t tell women to ride in critical tits, they do it because they want to.
    just sayin…
    Me? I like to ride behind the rows and rows or worshipping men along the sideline. I like to look at their butts.

  10. misty15
    Posted September 17, 2008 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    Winelips, you are completely right. The girls choose to ride, I suppose I meant to say that everyone gets very excited about it and there’s a hype about it being a woman empowering event… and I don’t see how it really plays out as one. It seemed like all of the people I talked too were somewhat let down by the actual event.
    Have fun checking those butts out though. :)

  11. Smittydc
    Posted September 17, 2008 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi,
    Long time burner, first time poster. I’ve really enjoyed the comments here and have a few thoughts.
    I am not always comfortable at burningman either, but my experience has been that when I do try to push my comfort zones and try new things, or express myself in new ways, I am supported more often than I am shot down. So, Samhita, I am sorry to hear that the city made you feel uncomfortable at times.
    What captures my excitement at BRC is that the city provides a blank slate where everyone has a space to do “their thing” whether that’s share their music, their art, their politics, etc. If I don’t like, or am offended by, “their thing”, then I turn around and find something I do like. It is this type of “freedom” that I think people refer to when they talk about the city — and it flows to and from the participants. The beauty of the city arises from this chaos — from everyone expressing and sharing their passions. Personally, I’ve embraced that freedom to wear bizarre costumes, build strange art, talk to strangers, and generally be more fearless. Sometimes people respond to what I like and sometimes they don’t — most of the time they probably don’t even notice.
    When people respond to experiences like Samhita’s with “if you want something there, do it” (often annoyingly toned), they are trying to convey that they really support whatever the hell you want to do, and they want you to feel comfortable bringing it and sharing it. I think the “do it” people get frustrated because they can’t understand what’s stopping you (from bringing different music, for example).
    Obviously, I can’t speak for every attendee’s attitude, but if you did or didn’t want to go naked it shouldn’t have anything to do with me, my thoughts, my fashion sense, or my color — it should have to do with whether you wanted to go naked or not. I can’t promise that nobody will be rude or treat you differently – this isn’t a utopia – but it’s my experience that your choices would blend in and add to the city’s community with little comment.
    Regarding there being no POC at burningman I have a couple explanations I’ve heard bantered about in the past:
    1) There ARE POC in the city. I certainly have seen, camped with, danced with, and talked with, people from all ethnic groups, continents, and cultures — and probably in more meaningful ways than outside of BRC. They are there. Could there be more? Definitely.
    2) There are more white people at Burningman because it appeals more to middle/upper income white people because it provides them a community — while a lot of minorities’ have closer family and community ties back home. This might be getting a little too sociological for my taste, and assumes some things about both groups… but I think there’s a grain of truth in it. A lot of yuppies have abandoned church/extended families/community, and the “Burner” urban-tribe is an appealing substitute (year round, even).
    Regarding no women’s quotes on the entrance signs: You’re right, and besides that the signs sucked in general this year. Too much politics and pithy sayings we’ve all heard before; not enough insights and thought provoking. I’ve made a mental note to send in some suggestions next year to ensure they never suck so much again.
    That’s all. Samhita, I hope you enjoy your stay at BRC more next year. I’m glad to hear you’re coming back.

  12. leslie
    Posted September 18, 2008 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    first, hey samhita, remember me? we met on the night before your 30th outside at mighty, you invited me to your party in the same space i’d had my 50th, and we totally connected. i loved meeting you and your passion and energy inspires me. it was very cool to follow a link in the burning woman tribe and find your blog. and i see that you’ve stepped right in the middle of the burning-man-is-evil-and-over argument and the burning-man-changed-my-life conversation.
    i’ve been going to burning man since 96 off and on (this was my 8th and final year), and seen a lot of evolution. on the one hand, it is without a doubt the most creative, freeing, transformational and oh-my-god event in this country, possibly the world.
    and on the other hand… i understand what you’re describing. there’s a superficial element that has evolved over the years that is distracting enough you might think that’s all there is. i admit, those dreads-for-a-week barbies chafe my ass sometimes because i have real dreads, and the people with their store-bought looks make me roll my eyes too, since my clothes are made by hand and one-of-a-kind (my ego, she is such a bitch ;^).
    and then i talk to someone i’d pegged as a playa barbie and realize that she is a remarkable human being, with a great brain, and doing great things in the world, and i am reminded once again that you can’t tell always a book by its cover. nor can you assume that someone wearing something from a different culture doesn’t have a personal reason for that. not that they even have to justify what they choose to wear to anyone. that’s what choice is, and in black rock city, a lot of people choose do things you or i might think are stupid.
    again, i totally get the irritation, and some choices are offensive if we choose to take it that way, but the truth is that my irritation is no one else’s problem — those are just people doing what they want to have the best kind of experience they can. who really cares if you or i think they aren’t cool enough, or smart enough, or conscious enough? they’re doing it how they do it, and they get to decide that. even if they have very, very cheesy taste and look like rubes or hookers. who knows, maybe next year, they’ll have broken out of their shell and be totally original and amazing. i hope.
    i have noticed the lack of diversity in black rock city. then i thought about it more and realized two things:
    first, diversity in my book isn’t just about skin color and where your parents are from — it’s also about ranges of incomes, ages, professions, religions, life views, nationalities, etc., and in that light, burning man has a vast spectrum of people. even though some of the trappings that help us distinguish those differences in the real world are gone, the people are still diverse. i think that thinking about diversity in terms of color is limiting.
    then second, i realized that no one can be held responsible for enforcing racial balance in black rock city. burning man is an entertainment event when it comes down to it, built from the work and inspiration of a few underground art subcultures, and the demographic of the city that forms each year is representative of the demographic of those communities. as media and social networking has spread the word about it, the event has grown and grown, and it has attracted more mainstream people.
    but still, the core burners seem to still have basically the same demographics i find when i go out dancing at night, or to certain kinds of art events. in fact, a lot of those are the same people. they have a vision of what they want to bring to the playa, and the event is the convergence of all those thousands of people’s visions.
    do you really think it’s the responsibility of an event organizer to push for some kind of racial quota? i don’t think so. i was once at a bhangra show i was one of three or four non-indian people in a room of about 600. was it the promoter’s responsibility to make sure there were more white people there so i would feel more comfortable, or the event would have more diversity? of course not. is it the hiphop producer’s responsibility to do outreach to whites if their audience is mostly black, and the bluegrass producer’s fault if the audience is mostly white? no, it isn’t.
    we are all free to self-select what we do in our leisure time. and whoever wants to go to burning man is welcome to come and co-create the city. you want to participate? buy a ticket, show up, and do it.
    looking back, my previous camps didn’t have much racial diversity, though they were always very international. this year, my posse was very mixed. my camp had african-american, white, malaysian, scottish, me in my 50s, kids and teens. our neighbors were latina, african, and lesbian. and they were all burners.
    it’s like the blind men and the elephant. it’s impossible to grasp the whole thing at once, so we end up thinking that the small bit that we experience must represent the entire creature. but it doesn’t.
    your point seems to be that burning man as some kind of independent entity is responsible for ensuring the kind of diversity you would like to see in the world, but it’s just not that way. if you want to create more diversity, bring it.
    you truly must be the change you want to see in the world, and black rock city is the living example of how that might evolve.
    (hope to run into you again soon. i have some burner friends who are feminist women of color i know you’d like ;^)

  13. mama's queer
    Posted September 18, 2008 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    “we are all free to self-select what we do in our leisure time. and whoever wants to go to burning man is welcome to come and co-create the city. you want to participate? buy a ticket, show up, and do it.”
    the amount of interest and passion in response to this post is a testament to the power of burning man to inspire radical and diverse thinking. however, we find in the quote above
    what i feel is the most pervasive disconnect in all of the responses criticizing samhita’s post.
    to imagine that “we are all free” is to ignore systematic and pervasive racism and opprssion. we are not all free to do anything. there is no such thing as “choice” in our culture, because if all you can choose is a or b, and both of them marginalize you at best, than that is not a choice.
    being “welcome” is also relative. if there are only a few poc at the event, and you have grown up experiencing the effects of racism, then you know that regardless of the spirit of a white dominant event, it is still a white dominant event, and you cannot trust that that is a welcoming space– to do so could mean walking into an all-too-real violence.
    i think it is important to remember that all us white folk CANNOT KNOW what it is to be a person of color at burning man. all heterosexual folk CANNOT KNOW what it is to be queer at burning man. of course, you can imagine, especially with the help of people like samhita. but i seriously question that considering the many responses that continually insist it is her job, and poc’s job, to deal with the racism and lack of representation at burning man. clearly we’re dealing with much deeper things than just choosing to grab all of your poc friends and making them populate burning man for the sake of diversity. and if this is true, then we all have a lot more work to do.
    and if you can imagine real change occurring without the powers-that-be at burning man making an active effort at the same time (and i am not talking about quotas), then i personally cannot imagine a truly safe and inclusive burning man. change needs to happen at all levels. and i find one of the most disappointing things to be that burning man actually claims to be such a revolutionary space, when that revolution is still imagined by a very homogenous group of people (and that homogenous group might be diverse by clothing and job, etc., but in our culture, there is a hierarchy of difference, and race is much more valuable than the hat you choose to wear).

  14. Posted September 19, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps I’m babbling in the comment below, but this thread has been on my mind for quite some time, and I wanted to add a few thoughts before this thread drops off into obscurity in favor of more important topics.
    To paint a picture of who’s babbling at you, I’ll say I’m Irish and Cherokee and come from a long line of angry drunks. We’re inventive and clever, my grandparents grew and picked all of their own vegetables and cotton, and my great-great grandmother escaped the Dawes Rolls resettlement by running as fast as she could back to TX when she realized her culture was getting screwed.
    **********
    Maybe part of the reason I’m missing the point here is because I’ve spent much of my life traveling. My father worked in construction for most of his life, and we lived in and visited a lot of countries where we were often the only non-American people around for hundreds of miles. He insisted that we live modestly (the travel pay was put into his retirement account), see as much of the country as possible, and we were made to learn as much as possible about where we were, rather than expecting the people of whatever country we were in to extend themselves over us. Unique approach? Perhaps, but it’s colored (no pun intended) everything in my life from my approach to work and gender to where I live and how I get along in the world no matter where I am.
    As a consequence of both extensive travel and of not having much money (I paid my own way through school and was raised in working-class neighborhoods), I’ve never been afraid of or had a problem with going to or living in places where I’m a minority, and I’ve always had to look under the surface of skin and language to find common ground, even if it means I’m challenged in the beginning just on the basis of skin color.
    Therefore, when I am a “wop in a hip-hop crowd” (Coolio – “I Remember”), I’ve not noticed nearly as much as, say, someone who has lived in an exclusively white (or rich, or poor, or black, whatever) community for much of their lives. My thought is “It’s music, I like it, I’m buying a ticket”, not “Oh, I’m going to be the only non-black person around for 20 miles”, and I typically don’t notice unless someone else points it out and says “Whoa…you’re not ‘one of us’” after they’ve approached me out of curiosity, something else I don’t mind these days as long as it’s not continually hostile.
    My lousy financial status has meant I’ve had to find inventive ways of participating in parts of American or upscale culture — or even finding a job in my field — in places seemingly reserved for people from another world. It’s usually meant I’ve worked for event planners, won a contest, worked harder than anyone else around me, learned to be a part of the band, or just got lucky. Occasionally, I’ve been able to afford the price just because I knew whatever event I wanted to attend was something I just couldn’t bear to miss, and thus made it work by working extra hours or two jobs or whatever I could do.
    It’s my choice to go to a concert or an event where I might be a minority, but it’s not my choice to be denied a job because of my race or gender, and that’s the main difference I see in the posts here. I’ll fight for anyone who is dismissed based on race, gender, or sexual preference because it’s total bullshit, but just because you’re not the dominant race (or just because an event isn’t “diverse” epidermis-wise) participating in an event doesn’t necessarily mean the people are racist, but rather that, like a poster mentioned above, when you do something cool with like minds, you tell two friends who tell two friends etc. Sometimes you end up with a “balanced” mix of people because there is general interest or because people can bend the event themselves to represent a large swath of the community. Sometimes this takes time and those people communicating with one another (rather than feeling weird for participating outside of their given sex/race) and you end up with a majority of one race/gender/sex preference, and then it’s up to the participant to look for similarities under the surface and to drag their friends along.
    For instance, if I want 50 white people to go to a Brazilian music festival just because I’m uncomfortable in my own skin (sounds pretty silly and self-conscious, doesn’t it?) then I have to expose them to the music I like in order to bring them along, right? I can hardly expect anyone from that community to reach out to me based on race alone (rather than for the love of art and music), and shouldn’t expect them to. It’s up to me to make the first step, to venture into new territory, and to rant and rave about how wonderful the experience is, in order to get others to participate outside of their experience.

  15. fadedz
    Posted September 20, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    There are quite a few responses on the Burning women Tribe on tribe.net if you wanted to expand your perspective on this.
    But I will add here as I did on tribe,
    BM is what you make it. Plain and simple.
    If you dont see color, then recruit color.
    I didnt see any dykes out there, so I went and recruited dykes to come out there. and it worked.
    I made my experience.
    I would love to see a sexy curvy brown woman running around. If you feel discomfort in doing that, It’s all on you girl. cause the bm community would embrace your sexy womanly figure. If curvy women of color dont go out there and participate, than it will be a skinny white girl world. But to complain and not do anything about it is the reason why you had a bad time.
    To complain and not do anything about it, is why burning man is not for you.
    to complain and not realize that most burners embrace all that they encounter, all colors, all traditions, that whatever a person feels like doing, they are given permission to do just by acceptance of those around them.
    You complain like a typical human existing in this sheep like world.
    The reason why burning man has 50,000 people go repeatedly is because most of them know how to embrace the experience.
    Your diatribe clearly shows that you do not.
    My sympathies for your expectations.
    You leave those at home when you go to bm and you clearly did not.

  16. neon
    Posted September 21, 2008 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Hello, I find this to be a very interesting thread. I have been thinking about it for days since I first read it.
    It’s notable to me that most of the people who seem to “like” what you are saying are people that have not been to burning man and are glad to have their fears validated.
    You, on the other hand, have been there. And I think you are still in the very early stages of discovering what burning man is. As the event grows, I think sometimes it’s easier to stay in our regular-life perspectives and miss some of what is different there that does not fit in with those perspectives.
    I sincerely encourage you to try again, because I think that there is amazing growth there for you.
    I say that because of what happened to me:
    My first year, all I saw were thin women in amazing clothes that my curvy overweight body could never wear. I covered up and hid my body. It didn’t seem to fit in. I heard about the critical tits parade (where thousands of women ride bikes topless), but there was no way I would go or even watch.
    My second year I wouldn’t go to that parade either, but I considered watching. Then forgot about it. I heard there were pervs there and that validated my fears about going.
    My third year, I gathered some girlfriends, discussed my issues with baring my scarred and very imperfect breasts (and rest of body) in public, got a lot of support and went and participated in the parade. It was amazingly healing and liberating, even though there were annoying gawking men there. I also discovered there were very supportive and wonderful men there as well.
    My fourth year, I found out there was a “Human Carcass Wash” where people first volunteer as “washers” and then go through a line of body washing stations and have their body washed by others. Again, my body issues prevented me from participating.
    My fifth year I considered going tot he human carcass wash but didn’t. My friends went and told me all about it and I was sad I couldn’t get myself to go.
    Between my 5th and 6th years something happened. My friend got breast cancer, had a double mastectomy followed by a reconstruction. We went to a burning man regional event at a lovely location with a strong “clothing-optional” vibe. My friend and I decided that we would plow through our body issues by BEING the people that we wished we could see there: two large women with lots of scars and imperfections. I was scared at first, but I did it long enough to get comfortable and finally get past my lifelong issues about not having a flat stomach, and having large breasts with scars from a surgery gone wrong.
    By the time of my 6th burning man I was FREE of the cultural crap about women’s bodies that I had lived with for 49 years. I signed up to be a “Greeter”, the first person that people talk to when they drive up to burning man. And for 4 hours I greeted– in the nude! I got to welcome people to our city (burning man) in a way that DEMONSTRATED that ALL bodies are welcome. You see, I created the very vibe that I wish I had been able to feel all those many years ago.
    It was an amazing experience. And, you know what? I realized that my 1st year, when all I saw at burning man were tons of thin women, it was because that was who *I* looked at. The women my size were invisible to me because I was focussed on my own fears and issues.
    Now, I’m not saying there are tons of people of color that you didn’t see, but I do think you didn’t see what was there. And part of what that is, is that there really IS room for all, room for you to create what you want, room for everyone, room to see AND experience something other than what you already think and currently live in.
    I wish for you to see burning man as a process rather than an event and give yourself the chance to find there exactly what you are seeking.
    In love and respect…

  17. squadratomagico
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    For those of you who feel that only commenters with “insider” BM credentials offer reliable critiques of the event: I have been to BM three times, and likely will attend again in future. I am a burner, albeit an ambivalent one.
    Burning Man certainly is not a feminist event, contrary to the leather-clad doctor who characterized it thus to Samhita. In fact, I’ve encountered the most consistent, daily misogyny of my life at BM: every.single.day I have spent on the playa has been rife with it. It’s a fact that one’s worth and status in many sectors of BRC are directly proportional to one’s hotness and youth. And for all it’s claims to countercultural values, BM constructions of hotness and youth are, curiously, exactly like those of mainstream American culture: young, thin, white, blond, and waxed.
    I daresay BM is more misogynistic than mainstream American culture. In my “real life” I am respected somewhat for my education, career, and other achievements; at BRC, I usually am judged by my physical appearance alone. Anyone who says this event is “radically inclusive” is dreaming.
    So why do I go? I go because, despite the prevalence of misogynistic and other bullshit, there is a sense of playfulness at BM that I value. I cannot quite articulate what I mean by that, but it’s important enough to me that I let the other shit roll off my back. I put up with the continually vexing aspects of the event because of those brief moments of play. But proportionally, it’s 20:1 in terms of bullshit:transcendent moments. Don’t go unless you are ready to overlook a lot of asshattery in search of those brief connective glimpses.

  18. gracie-bird
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    “Some members of that audience are offended and react by blaming and accusing. Others are more open minded and yet expect the person of color to both defend their position and educate them.”
    While I’m very against knee-jerk reactions and defensive posturing, I have a few questions about the second statement.
    I’m with you on the inappropriateness of making a poc defend their position – I tend to take someone’s word for it if they found an event exclusionary. But if Samhita posts something in a blog to, as far as I can see, educate her readers, is she then barred from further educating them in the form of responding to their questions? I understand that answering the same questions over and over must be tiresome and frustrating, and that some questions can be downright insulting which, in that case, I wouldn’t begrudge her the option of ignoring them. But when someone responds with an inoffensive query for the purposes of exploration and furthering the dialogue, I don’t see how it is suddenly introducing a new and crude notion of a poc educating his or her readers when the post was specifically designed to do so.
    Apologies if this is out of order, or if I’m missing something due to privilege, but I’ve devoted a lot of thought to this and am wondering where the line is drawn. I fully understand the inappropriateness of expecting every poc to act as educators or representatives of race, but I’m having difficulties finding the inherent wrongness in expecting someone to be able to answer questions about an educative statement.

  19. sansserif
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    so I know this is sort of old but I wanted to chime in regardless on the “yay samhita” side
    1. I am really tired of the oh-so-clever role reversal example: I don’t expect other (insert people of colour) to make me feel welcome in a (insert non-white racially homogenous space here)! I don’t feel weird being the only white person around! no one cares if you’re black! mostly what I hear in arguments like this is “blah blah blah privilege, everything is easy for me surely it must be the same for you, stop complaining”
    2. I am also tired of the ‘you are responsible for ending racism’ argument. leslie’s comment of “your point seems to be that burning man as some kind of independent entity is responsible for ensuring the kind of diversity you would like to see in the world, but it’s just not that way. if you want to create more diversity, bring it.” ignores the fact that the problem is that what lots of people are ‘bringing’ are the same old classisms, racisms, sexisms, ableisms, etc. that pervade our non-burning man society. a person of colour ‘bringing more diversity’ to burning man is not a solution nor is it their responsibility.
    3. as chancluda pointed out: being white is no excuse. I guess I fall somewhere within the boundary zone between ‘white’ and ‘other’ but I pass as white pretty often. I won’t deny my own privilege but I am not going to hide behind it either. my small confused naive white girl brain is not incapable of seeing and learning about privilege and neither is yours. give me a break.
    4. and for everyone who was all ‘geez why are you so angry in your responses samhita I just wanted to have a constructive dialogue but your response was really hostile’, suck it up. as far as I can tell samhita’s a human being and not a saint, which you’d have to be to not get angry when confronting this shit day after day after day.

  20. squadratomagico
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Another thing occurred to me that I’d like to add:
    So many burners here have commented that, if Samhita or others feel that something is lacking in their BM experience, it is up to them to change the event in some way — either by bringing in more poc, by designing an art piece to present the critique, etc. As as BM participant, I understand that this is part of the “no spectators,” DIY aesthetic of the event.
    But I think what’s so facile about this line of reasoning is that it assumes that the event is so self-evidently meaningful to all attendees, that they should dedicate significant energy towards trying to alter it’s demographic makeup, its culture, its music, its social mores &c. That’s a pretty tall order to ask of someone: “Hey, you felt alienated from BM and experienced little sense of community there? You have minimal personal investment in this event? Well don’t just critique, act! It’s up to you to change all that!” Honestly, I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous!
    Such sentiments ignore the fact that those who feel unwelcome or alienated from the event have little motivation to invest the time and effort required to re-make it (or part of it) in their own image. The organizers, the volunteers and those already committed to the BM community should be meeting these critiques and responding to them constructively (rather than defensively, which seems to be the default here) so that a more diverse range of humans feel the event is worth their energy and perspective. We commit to the things we care deeply about; if BM leaves someone cold, why the hell should they commit to changing and enriching it?
    The point is: there are plenty of causes to which a progressive person may choose to commit time, money, and energy. If BM is alienating to a particular individual, rather than rewarding, then it’s absurd to ask such a person to choose BM as a recipient for their time, money, and energy, rather than another, more welcoming community. And this is one reason why white privilege and masculist privilege has been perpetuated in BM culture: the community is set up in a way that those who benefit from it now, are most likely to engage with it; they therefore tend to reproduce it’s culture as it currently is configured. I find the ideals of pure volunteerism and DIY culture as appealing as anyone; indeed, they are central to my life in many ways. But the risk, especially when we’re talking about an event of 50K people, is that these ideals can lead to a self-selective culture that reproduces its own errors, weaknesses, pathologies, and dysfunctions.
    Samhita’s suggestion that BMORG set aside some funds for artwork and artists who embody greater diversity would be a modest first step towards trying to change this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the BM organization to step in in order to redress and rebalance a little.

  21. susanb
    Posted July 3, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    this is so crazy to sit there and what this. I am not sure if this entertainment. I will not being show up for this.
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