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?

and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

71 Comments

  1. judyblumeismyhomegirl
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Samhita, thank you so much for this post. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I have always been extremely wary of the burning man crowd. A bunch of privileged white people going out to the desert to drop acid, listen to trance music, and dress up in “tribal” garb and “burn” the “man?” Please. Most of the people who go out and spend the thousands of dollars to get in and set up their art are, in fact, “the man.” What is the quote I am looking for – something like “rebellion” is usually just white men behaving badly. That basically sums up my reaction to burning man.
    Your post hit on the topics that every single article I’ve ever read on BM avoids like the plague: why is everyone out there white? What’s up with the huge entry fee? I’ve often thought about the role of women at burning man, since it seems that every photo printed of a woman there is some white thin “babe” who happens to have dreads and tribal tattoos wearing big platform boots and shiny hot pants. I guess what really gets me is that, as you alluded to, there is a definite possibility for outreach to artists who are not privileged and white, considering the amount of money coming in at the door. The fact that there is no outreach at all really speaks to the fact that the people who run BM don’t care about being more inclusive, they are perfectly happy sitting on their laurels and raking in the dough, which brings into question how progressive a scene like BM actually is. Answer: not very. Privilege remains with those in power, everyone else is excluded. Way to burn “the man,” man.

  2. winelips
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Hi Samhita, thanks for your thoughtful post. I’m a long time burner and I love reading all the different takes on the event.
    I would love for there to be more “variety” on the playa as well, but I’m curious as to what YOU would have the organization do to be more inclusive.
    Unfortunately I don’t think the ticket cost will be able to be reduced. Average ticket running about $275 means that for a week, you pay roughly $40 a day. When you think of what it takes to run a city, infrastructure wise, it really isn’t so much. And then add in the $ that this cost provides in the form of art grants, well, when you think of it, it’s quite a bargain!
    I remember one instance at a burning man about 7 years ago, that completely inspired and empowered me as a woman. I rode out alone to watch the construction of one of David Best’s temples. I pulled up on my bike and saw about 8 cherry pickers ( those things you normally see the PG&E guys in, high up working on power lines) in each one was a woman with a power drill. I watched as they rose up and began raising what ended up being one of the most awe inspiring structures that has ever been seen on the playa.
    It may sound trite to you, and I regret that I’m not as eloquent a writer as you to try to convey the emotions I felt that afternoon, but that vision stayed with me for some time and showed me that even as a girl I could be instrumental in making beautiful shit happen! After that experience, I went back to my hometown and immediately began plans on building MY camp the next year. Cut to 7 years later, and watch me as I help build domes, huge shade structures, kitchens, showers… 10 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what a phillips head meant. Now my tool box makes men drool. ;-)
    I would love for you to join my camp in 09. Perhaps you’ll feel more at home with us, people of ALL sizes and colors. We have folks from all over the world; male, female, black, white, brown, yellow but heck we’re ALL white out there after the first white out blows through. ;-) We also have a few skinny bitches but I bet you’d like them.
    I got involved with the burning man organization for a while and found that while Larry Harvey and his buddies started it, it’s the women in the org who made it what it is and make it all happen. (shout out to Harley and Action Grrrrl)
    I believe that everyone would love for the burn to be more inclusive as it could only broaden the experience for everyone. And I realize that complaining is a way or organizing your thoughts but move to the next phase of disgruntledness (is that a word?) and help make those changes you’d like to see.
    I’d like to help!
    Hope you return next year and do let me know if you’d like to join my camp.

  3. lolphysics
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    This is the best post I’ve read anywhere in quite some time. Like the first commenter, I agree. I’ve never been to burning man, and I’ve always given the environmental issue as a main reason. But there’s more than that… I always think of Ken Kesey’s Mountain Girl and the very limited roles assigned to “cool” “counterculture” women. They (we?) are supposed to white, thin, sexually adventurous , bisexual (but tending to date men and only sometimes sleep with women), and uninhibited… but still seeking male approval.
    All of that makes me uncomfortable, especially because I sort of fit the bill. I’m a dancer and the group that I dance with is physically and racially diverse (we have fat women! fat women who expose their stomachs when they dance! OMFG!). But the larger dance community, especially those who dance to the same electronic/trance music that we do, looks a lot like Samhita’s description of the women at burning man. We’re supposed to be bad ass… but bad ass in the sense of wearing really sexy boots and revealing clothing. You’re supposed to be comfortable with your body, but only if that body is “pretty.”

  4. Samhita
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment winelips. I mean I only went once and I can only comment on what I saw. I do not doubt for a moment that others have been inspired, motivated even had feminist dreams fulfilled on the playa.
    I think some things I would recommend is to actually do outreach in communities of color and have a certain percentage of the money go to working class, women or artists of color. I think that is a way to start. But the deeper problems with burning man about consumption, pollution, cultural commodification…well those are problems that exist in the very fabric of our society. I just don’t think Burning Man is a space where we are free of these things.

  5. Thomas
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Samhita, when you noted the absence of women from the quotes about America, I thought immediately of June Jordan’s “Poem for My Sister, Ethel Ennis, Who Sang The Star Spangled Banner At The Second Inauguration Of Richard Milhaus Nixon.” I can’t find it online, and my office copy of Norton does not have it, though later versions (like my mother’s, that I grew up on and where I first read it as a teen) include it.
    The poem closes, “Oh say can you see, my sister?/Say you can see, my sister /And sing no more of war.”

  6. winelips
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Oh man, I completely agree with you about consumption out there. oof! It’s a constant battle for me with some of my camp members.
    But you have to admit that the leave no trace policy completely builds awareness. Most folks I know that have been to the burn really takes this idea to heart once they are back in the real world. Even if it’s as small a gesture as not throwing their cig butts on the sidewalk anymore, the idea has already permeated their consciousness and that small step could have huge ramifications pollution wise if the rest of the community would follow suit.
    I’m just not sure that there’s a way to be free of consumption, pollution, and cultural commodification (*runs to look up commodification*.) even in the middle of nowhere. It’s a human based event after all.
    Plus Burningman is an event that cannot really happen close to normal civilization and to have it do so would take away so much of the magic.
    Also, in case you weren’t aware, some of the greatest art out there is provided by women. Lotus Girls fire art being one of the most spectacular installations each year.
    Again I hope you keep coming, and I love the idea about outreach in communities of color. I think that could be a great idea for something our camp to do. A few of our camp members volunteer at lower income camps every year maybe we should try to bring a few of those member with us! But you know how it is! Just trying to get food in your belly and keep your tent from blowing away is all consuming. Those grander visions take some time before they can come to fruition.
    The Burning Man organization can only do so much, the rest is up to all of us to try to reach out.
    Again thanks for the essay and your response. I love it that you actually went instead of complaining from the sidelines like so many people do. If you haven’t experienced it, your voice just doesn’t hold any weight.
    Thank you!

  7. fungus
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Having gone to Burning Man several times you bring up some good points and it’s interesting to see the harshest comments here from those who haven’t gone.
    The one comment about how all the photos are of the dreadlocked skinny white woman somehow dodges the question of the photographer and possibly editor entirely. I’ve seen women of different ages and colors and sizes at BM, but when a skinny white woman decides to bare it all the cameras come flying out.
    At one life drawing event in Center Camp various people were taking turns modeling for the artists. When one woman got up on stage topless and held a pose a few photographers were elbowing others out of the way and blocking the view of several of the people drawing.
    As for the cost of it, it costs a lot to have a major event in the middle of the desert for a whole week where everything has to be brought in. They’re pretty upfront about that.

  8. Lance Hunter
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    This was my second Burning Man, and my sixth burn (I’ve been hitting my native regional, Flipside, for four years now.) I really liked this write-up. It’s good to get both the positive and the negative out there about the event.
    Diversity is definitely an issue at Burning Man (and most burns, really). It’s generally a sore subject among many burners because, honestly, we’re mostly a bunch of white people that don’t really know what to do about it.
    Outreach is a good idea, and something that should be worked on. The best thing about Burning Man, though, is that it’s a do-ocracy. You know, the whole “if you think something needs to be done, go ahead and do it”. Organizing a burner outreach group would be an excellent project for those who want to increase the diversity.
    In fact, if you got enough volunteer steam behind the project, you could probably even get a chunk of that ticket money in the form of a grant from the BMORG.

  9. Posted September 12, 2008 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never actually been to Burning Man before, but I did have a piece in the WDYDWYD (Why do you do what you do?) Art Project that was on display. So, there was a least one other feminist there, albeit in spirit.

  10. Wendell
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the original post and the comments about BM–I haven’t gone and it’s educational to hear the variety of perspectives.
    I do see echoes of your critique of “Stuff White People Like” in this post, which has stuck with me in a good way.
    And a hearty thank you for pointing out electronic music’s origins by working class, people of color.

  11. Artemis
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your post, and I couldn’t agree more.
    Although I have never been to burning man myself (but I have been to the burn that happens locally) I have many friends in the burning man community where I live.
    You are correct, there is no diversity, especially when it comes to women. Although the men come in all shapes and sizes, the women are all willowy and thin, with a few rare exceptions. Being a bigger girl myself I have found that for the most part I am completely invisible to many of the men of the BM community (not all mind you, just most). Every party is dominated by one, and only one, “acceptable” body type for women. Tiny, skinny, and willowy.
    Everytime time I hear them pay lip service to being open and tolerant I snort inwardly and think “Really? Maybe you should try dating a woman over 120 pounds.”

  12. Posted September 12, 2008 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    The timing of this post is incredible for me. I was talking to a friend of mine earlier this week about burning man. I admit I did not know much about it, but after visiting the site, and doing my own quick and dirty research on it, I had some reservations that you’ve all but firmly confirmed here.
    In trying to express these concerns to him, I felt a bit dismissed as being reserved and skittish, but in reading about it through your lens also as a woman of color, I felt quietly validated for everything I tried to convey. I’ve shared this post with him with hopes he’ll perhaps see what it’s like to regard this event from a different angle.
    Excellent, excellent post.

  13. rileystclair
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    great post!
    i’ve never been to burning man myself but i know some burners and it was interesting to get a different perspective on the experience.

  14. firecrotch08
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate this post.
    I did want to say that I disagree with some of the previous posts. There is a sense of “Well if you want more people of color than it is up to you”.
    I think it should be up to EVERYONE to get more people of color involved to create the free and diverse environment BM claims to have. How many times are POC called on to be the token representative for change? Being as white as can be, I feel that my experience would suffer greatly with the absence of diversity and maybe *dare I say it* we could take on the responsibility of creating a safe, diverse, space.

  15. Posted September 12, 2008 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I went for the first time this year. I had the exact same reactions as the ones you describe, from the frustration at the lack of a SINGLE woman quoted on the way in, to the general lack of people of color, and a good amount of sizeism..
    although I did see a good number of women of size, as well, mostly out in the edger camps and not near the center or the biggest scenes. Not everyone was rail thin or porntastic (although that was definitely over-represented).
    I did have one super-annoying experience where the thongs&chaps&cowboyhats were clearly selected for participation over the non-bikini-wearing crew.
    However, somehow, I also left excited to return, for several reasons. For one – our camp did provide a sound system and music that reached (& represented) a larger spectrum of people. There were several hip-hop sound systems that I came across.. of course, that’s not the same as having lots of people of color, but since the music styles had been a block for me going before, it made me feel like things were opening up a tiny bit.
    and the extreme conditions in themselves create some of the magic –although they are what make it so costly, and also my feeling is that white people or folks w/privilege are just more likely to seek out physically uncomfortable situations and be willing to put themselves through it.. perhaps because many of us know it’s only temporary and by choice? –
    anyway, setting that aside or taking it into account, the improbability of the experiences there are something I found agood deal of pleasure in.
    And even though it is expensive to make happen, there is far less of an exchange system there- making many experiences totally voluntary on all sides (like the steampunk high tea & biscuits, the sno-cones and house music, or the bbq dance party in a dust storm), which is just a delightful experience..

  16. bitterjesus
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been going to Burning Man since 1997, and the event has changed dramatically in that time, moving more towards “giant desert rave with art” and away from “intense spiritual catharsis” (for me, anyway). Keep in mind, however, that what is out there (and what has not changed) is what people bring with them, and that’s it. There is no outreach to attendees, no advertising–the people who show up do so because, like you, they’ve heard about it and want to check it out. Without question, the event has gotten more expensive over the years as the fees to the BLM and the state and local authorities have gone up, and as the infrastructure required to support so many people has increased. The organization does make money, but a lot of it goes back into the event and to sponsor artists to create some of what you saw on the Playa. As to the subsidiary expenses, there’s no question that just showing up takes a fair amount of cash. I challenge you to find a workable solution–it’s easy to complain about the expense, rather more difficult to solve.
    On that point, I take specific issue with your phrase, “When I wake up dreaming of freedom, I am not thinking there is a massive door charge.” That’s because you are dreaming. Freedom always has a price, usually one paid in blood. In this case, the price involves evading the watchful eye of authority, which grows ever more difficult as the event grows larger. The Black Rock desert was chosen for just that purpose, but a big chunk of the money paid out annually by the Burning Man Organization is, to my mind and speaking strictly as an attendee, essentially a bribe to get that eye to turn away for awhile. It is, admittedly, a shortcut which cannot achieve true freedom, but it’s cheaper than the alternatives, which involve substantially more time, effort, and risk than a trip out to the desert. Burning Man emerged from Larry Harvey’s need for catharsis; in the past decades, it has grown to be much more than that, but it is not, at its heart, revolutionary.
    I will agree with you that it’s very easy at Burning Man, as in life, to be scantily clad while young, sexy, and female. That said, I feel far more free as a hirsute, flabby male to bare my gleaming, pale flesh than I ever do back in the real world, even at places like the beach. I’ve also seen plenty of scantily-clad or entirely naked women on the Playa who don’t conform to typical American standards of physical beauty, but they’re certainly a minority.
    Overall, I think that the one point about Burning Man that this article misses is that Burning Man is the stone soup of events. It is the role of the Burning Man Organization to provide the basic ingredients, but everything else is hauled in by the individual participants. The nature of the attendees, including the artists, is shaped by who has heard of the event and wants to attend. The art, music, and costumes reflect the culture through which Burning Man has spread by word of mouth. If you want Burning Man to be different, then change it. The quick and dirty route is to convince the BMorg to sponsor some sort of outreach program; the Burning Man approach is to reach out yourself, talk to your friends and community leaders and artists, get organized, and take Black Rock City by storm and show people what a difference you can make. If you don’t care enough to do either, why should anyone else?

  17. Posted September 12, 2008 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    This was my 4th Burning Man. As a white feminist woman of nearly 40, heavy, and a little shy, I am most certainly not Playa Barbie. I do know, from volunteering with one of the BM organizations this year, that there are reduced ticket prices available if requested.
    But having said those two things, I have to say that some of the very same thoughts occurred to me this year. I noticed that the “radical self expression” that the organization espouses seems to take the shape of large groups of people all pushing feminine stereotypes even further than they usually would. Part of it is the hootchie-ization of the women (of all shapes and sizes), as well as the feminization of the men. Did you notice how many of *them* interpreted radical self expression as wearing skirts?
    I found myself noticing more and more how this radical expression was so often actually very narrowly defined… lingerie, platform boots, colorful hair extensions, utili-kilts, cowboy hats… non-conformist conformity.
    I didn’t know what to make of it and I don’t claim to have figured it out. But it – combined with the lack of POC – did make me a little uneasy.
    The last thing I will say is that there are some positives that will probably keep me going every other year or so. We have an art car – it’s a true community art car. We let anyone jump on and I’ve met some really great people that way. I also had an art piece out there 3 years ago. It was fairly inexpensive – steel frame of a person, with medicine bottles filled with lights strung through it (Better Living through Chemistry?). It was only 8 feet tall, placed on the playa, and it really made me feel part of the community to contribute like that. I think I will submit another idea next time, done with materials I already have or can easily find.
    So I encourage everyone to try it once, see what you think, contribute to the “scene”. Maybe all of us together can get some true radical self expression out there :)

  18. Samhita
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    These comments are excellent, thanks for putting so much thought into them.
    bitterjesus-while I agree that it is on us to perhaps organize camps that are diverse or reflect diverse constituents, I think it is noteworthy that Burning Man has become predominantly white people. Why is that? I am cautious to say that perhaps people of color “didn’t try hard enough” to get there, but that is what it starts to sound like. When like most things, well off white people just have an easier time getting there, bottom line. Also, it was being brown that made me feel less comfortable about being naked. And I am generally very comfortable with public nudity.
    ellen-thanks for the tip. The art was all so incredible and I spent years in the SF diy warehouse scene so I know it can be done on the cheap. I am ALL about rolling with a crew that has a more diverse sound system. If I go again, I definitely want to go with a fat and happy camp that loves some hip hop. hehe.

  19. etoile
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m Caucasian so I can’t comment on the racist aspect from personal experience, but I am female and in either case, this article screams of projecting your own insecurities onto the event. Maybe you just chose not to go into details to back yourself up, but,
    “What i saw was thin, white bodies… 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.”
    You wouldn’t feel comfortable *why*? Were there other people telling you that your body wasn’t allowed? That your body wasn’t accepted or as beautiful as other bodies? Were people making comments or sending you clear signals that only the beauty of thin white girls were appreciated? Because if not, and there is absolutely no evidence in your article to suggest that there were *any* outside sources confirming that you would be made to feel uncomfortable, then it’s just your own trip. Period. It’s like the anorexic girl telling everyone that she’s fat and ugly, and, “OMG, everyone is looking at me because I’m so hideous!” when really no one is fucking giving a shit about what she looks like. In fact, no one is even really looking at her. Everyone is too caught up in worrying about their own shit, but she’s so concerned about her image that she’s looking for validation of her own insecurities were they don’t exist. Remember that whole drama over some contestant on The Apprentice saying to Omarosa, who is black, “Look who’s calling the kettle black,” because she was being hypocritical, and next thing you know Omarosa is aaaall up in arms about how the woman was making racist comments? Yeah. She wasn’t. Let’s not dilute real racism (and/or sexism) with stories of the boy who called the kettle black, okay?
    “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.”
    Maybe this is because I’m white, but I don’t understand this. How is it to be designed to make people of color feel more welcome? Other than your concerns over the music, which I have my issues with and will get to below, I don’t think there is anything specifically racially geared at Burning Man. There is art. There is music. There are camps that people set up independently. None of these components seem at all concerned with race. Why is it even entering into the picture? Last I checked, art and music transcend cultures and is to be enjoyed by anyone. I don’t walk into a hip hop event and go, “Eh… they should really make this more welcoming to white people. This is all about black people and I am clearly not welcome. Look at all the black people. And everyone playing is black. And all the music talks about black culture. This is offensive because they’re totally not making this appealing to ME as a WHITE PERSON.” No. I go, I listen, I dance, I shoot the shit with people, I jump around and shout out the lyrics, and I go home because enjoying music and appreciating art doesn’t depend on my skin color.
    “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.”
    The majority of music was trance, house and breaks because that’s the type of event it is. It is primarily an electronic/dance music event and those are the most popular forms of it right now on a commercial level. Stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Again, I don’t go to a salsa club and think, “WTF. What’s with all the fucking Latin music. This is totally exclusive to me as a Caucasian individual and reeks of narrowmindedness.” I went to the fucking salsa club to hear salsa music. I’m not going to go up to the band and say, “Eeeeey…. I know this is a salsa club and I knew that coming here… but could you play some Dolly Parton so you’re not catering only to Latin people? I’m white, and this sucks for me.” Again, let me clarify that these cultural music examples are not to imply that these types of music should be associated with any one race or culture. Once more, I believe their enjoyment crosses all cultural and racial lines. I’m using them to illustrate that even if you labeled these forms of music and art as “white”, it shouldn’t matter.
    Also, a lack of recognition? Again, maybe I don’t understand because I’m Caucasian, but how is this supposed to be recognized? Signs saying, “Give it up for [insert name of POC here] who originated this!”? A moment of silence? I don’t see anyone getting recognition for any type of music there, regardless of its origins. It is just enjoyed. Why is it so necessary to make it clear that a POC came up with these ideas? There were art cars driving around everywhere; I didn’t see people giving thanks to the Europeans/Americans for inventing the automobile. Did anyone else see this? No. It’s just there to be enjoyed by everyone. Doesn’t matter who came up with it.
    Finally, “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?”
    Something is not “right”? So let’s say that something appeals to white people more than other people… suddenly this is not right? There is racial exclusion going on? Part of celebrating cultures involves embracing these differences as something beautiful. By default, certain events will draw certain people, depending on the focus. A Native American pow-wow might appeal more to Native Americans because it resonates with them culturally. Chances are, most people showing up to the pop-wow will be Native American. Does this mean they are trying to deliberately exclude other cultures and that’s why they didn’t show up? Or that it was oversight on their part for not ensuring it appealed to more cultures? Does this mean it’s not “right”? If not, then why does this only apply to white people? That’s racist if it does. And no, it’s not “reverse racism” because that shit doesn’t exist. Racism is racism. Period.
    Burning man attracts people who like electronic/dance music, have a certain set of ideals, can afford to go (and yes, unfortunately this aspect *does* tend to cater to Caucasians) and enjoy a particular type of art. This has nothing to do with color (or gender). If this were “a white thing” then you’d see all types of white people there. But you don’t. I don’t see droves of line-dancing cowboys and gun-totting hunters kicking it at Burning Man because it doesn’t appeal to them. Does this mean that Burning Man is being exclusive? That we should try to cater to these people so the event can be all inclusive? After all, they are apart of world cultures as much as a POC is, correct? No. The event doesn’t set up hunting ranges and massive western music stages because it’s just not that type of event. Again, this has NOTHING to do with gender or color.
    Now, that’s not to say that I don’t have my criticisms of Burning Man. Trust me, I will be the first to point out its flaws and didn’t go for years because of these shortcomings and hypocrisies, but I think that racial and gender discrimination is not high up on the list. I’m sorry that you felt uncomfortable, but seems to me that it was due to your own personal, internal issues and you should take responsibility for that.

  20. MaggieGlass
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Yikes, etoile.
    I’m hesitant to even comment on your comment because it seems kind of pointless to start a back-and-forth, but I think all Samhita was trying to (rightly) do was discuss her feelings of feeling isolated in a supposedly inclusive atmosphere.
    I’ve never been to Burning Man and I don’t have any strong opinions on it, but I was pretty surprised to see you write that if people aren’t “making comments” about my body or pointing at me and laughing, then I can’t possibly feel self-conscious or isolated. It must be in my head. And in terms of race, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that people of color make art. So if Burning Man is a pretty well-known destination for artists, then the fact that it is mostly white SHOULD raise some questions.
    I think you need to look at the big, structural things Samhita and others are talking about. I don’t think you quite “get” it (I mean, the personal IS political!) and I also found your tone to be a little bit hostile.

  21. Posted September 12, 2008 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Samhita for posting this. I’ve rarely seen much comment by people of color, particularly women of color on this event.
    What’s really troubling me about this issue and a lot of comments on this article and even the whole notion of an American Dream theme, is that this all very much so ignores some hard realities of the situation: Burning Man is clearly no longer some underground event. It’s a very well established cultural and structural institution. It’s become the new Great American Holiday, like Halloween, but unlike the other holidays, it has a literal institution behind it.
    I have a serious issue with a lot of the language I’m seeing that calls Burning Man and instance of radical inclusivity, promotes DIY, and then actively refuses to take action to insure inclusivity is taking place and in fact places the blame for lack of presence of people of color on the people of color themselves. Like they’re the ones not being DIY enough.
    You can’t do that. That’s about as much crap as the American Dream itself: A dream that stakes its claim on an “Anyone can do it!” motto, screams about “melting pot” dynamics, while the whole thing has been built by privileged, mostly white people.
    If you go to Burning Man and embrace the whole idea and opportunity it represents, and you’re not actively using the collective power to implement some kind of new radical vision of society in the event you’re putting on, it’s all a bit fake. I think people should take this opportunity to make things better, not get defensive.
    It doesn’t undermine the event or the legitimacy of your transformative experience at Burning Man, by lordy, get some perspective.

  22. etoile
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    MaggieGlass,
    I’m sorry if my tone was hostile. To be honest, in large part if it came across as that, it is because it upsets me when people allow themselves to feel marginalized, especially when there is no need for it. It was my frustration over years of women unnecessarily feeling uncomfortable due to societal/media/peer/etc. messages saying that we should hate our bodies, *especially* when we have curves. I think women of color have some of the most beautiful human figures on the planet. They epitomize the feminine form to me. I, for one, know many people who share this view, most of whom happen to be men. I’m sure many people would have loved to have seen all shapes, sizes and colors out there. Did she even give a chance to find out? It doesn’t seem like it and that’s disappointing.
    That being said, for the record, I saw all sorts of women out there last year and was stoked by it. *shrug* Different lenses? Who knows.
    Anyway, as it goes, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and it sounds like in this scenario, Samhita consented to this without much evidence that she needed to. It’s not fair to blame that on the participants/contributors of Burning Man. It feels like it’s misdirected and like she carried some gender/race baggage into the event that could have been dropped at the gates.

  23. Posted September 13, 2008 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    I want in next because I want to create some distance… shift the energy… and say…
    Samhita, I love you grrrl. Thank you and the many other talented and courageous women bloggers of colour for speaking your truth knowing full well that you may endure infuriating feedback that lacks even a whiff of understanding of internal and systemic oppression. Bless your souls.
    For etiole and my sisters who are relating to her argument I encourage you to check out this resource. http://shemuses.net/2008/09/12/systemic-oppression-and-community-building/ I implore you to keep an open mind and give it a read. (I posted the resource on my blog because I didn’t know another way to create easy access. Excuse the self-serving plug)
    I think about and am in frequent dialogue with many white folks and people of colour on issues of diversity relating to individuals, organizations, events and movements. Personally, I have made a choice to move away from situations where people are increasing diversity because they think they should out of some moral imperative. I don’t necessarily knock it, but it’s not my thing.
    I am more interested in transformation. What kind of communities do we want to live in? Each time we throw a party, make a hire, consider the leadership of an event, consider who we will ally with… each of these are moments where we can choose transformation. And not for it’s own sake… but for the opportunity it presents for us personally, professionally and for our society.
    Now that is a conversation worth having, a vision worth pursuing, and something to invest time and resources in, and to commit to for the long term.
    I have your back Samhita. Thank you for shining your bright light.
    j

  24. Samhita
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    Etiole-
    Welcome to Feministing. So, I am not totally sure how to respond to much of your comments or what is motivating the nasty tone in them (except that when people are brought to confront racism in unsuspecting place they often get upset about it) but I can only hope we move forward in a productive way.
    I think the assumption that poc “allow themselves to feel marginalized” ignores systematic racism and that as people of color we are experiencing racism on a daily basis in situations that we are not succumbing to, but actually experiencing, noting and living. I am sure it is not your intention, but your “blame the victim” “your imagining it” attitude rings true of a very common attitude wherein poc are told if they just looked at it different, or acted right, it wouldn’t actually be racist.
    The fact that the majority of the culture at Burning Man is by and for white people, along with the commodification of mostly poc signifiers (native headressed, indian clothing, arabic clothing, etc), makes it about race, culture, ethnicity and cultural appropriation.
    I wrote a piece based on my observation of the racial, gender and class dynamics at play at Burning Man. To suggest that I “imagined” them and “people would have loved to see me naked too” doesn’t get at the heart of the problem. Burning Man is not a space where really really diverse constituencies feel comfortable. By this I mean, non-white people, women, disabled people, queer people, poor people. And many people have had this experience, not just me.
    My only suggestion is you hang-out, listen and learn here on Feministing about differing perspectives on the world and begin to understand how a woc might have noticed highly problematic racial dynamics at Burning Man.

  25. Posted September 13, 2008 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Samhita,
    I appreciate hearing your input on this subject. I’ve been waiting to read it.
    I admit to having an initial knee-jerk mental response, but then, I remembered my first burn–I’ve been twice–and the mixed feelings I had at times. (here is a link to a post written after my first burn–and coincidentally, was inspired by something from Salon that had to do with Feministing, which is how I stumbled into this place…anyway…http://lorriet.livejournal.com/132326.html).
    Let me start by saying, I’m an over-40, overweight woman. And yeah, it’s easy to only see the pretty, thin, willowy girls…the eye candy, playa barbies, whatever. And, there were times that that colored my view of the event. Not being a person of color, I can’t relate to how it would feel in your situation. I’ll have to ask my partner, who is a POC if it ever bothered him (he’s gone for years). The atmosphere can be very over-sexualized, it’s true. And most burners recognize the irony in the radical self-expression being expressed in such an atmosphere of same-ness.
    When my partner was first telling me about this, after I got done saying “I would never go to an event like that,” he said “Basically, this is a big party in the desert–if you go in expecting more, you’ll be disappointed.”
    The thing is, I did find some empowerment out there…but I found it in unlikely places. I found a really strong, amazing woman, one who I didn’t know really existed. (http://lorriet.livejournal.com/121664.html)
    Oh, and most burners really were not happy with this theme. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t go this year (that, and yeah, it’s really freaking expensive).
    I really have grown to love this event. Radical self reliance, radical self-expression and all that.
    Thank you for the food for thought. Sorry if this is disjointed…I’m up way past my bedtime!

  26. Posted September 13, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    thanks so much for this post. i keep having encounters with folks about burning man, and you’re able to state some stuff very eloquently that i’ve been grasping at for awhile. thank you for troubling things from inside the playa environment.
    i’m also interested in the environmental effects of such a large scale free-for-all event. i know there’s a certain amount of ‘hey, let’s clean up after ourselves’, but you’ve got a massive group of people on a wilderness space. the idea that you can throw this big a party without the land being negatively shaped by your presence in some way is not something i think is possible.
    it also brings to mind – re: your comments on expense of travel to BM – the whole aesthetic of wealthy white folks doing adventure/eco tourism to ‘exotic’/remote locales…. like, if you’ve got the money, you should be able to go anywhere, without consideration of environmental or social impacts, especially if your travel is billed as ‘eco’ or ‘alternative’. :-/

  27. anomrabbit
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Samhita–
    Thank you for writing this entry. This was my first burn, too. I’ve only started to process my thoughts about everything that happened.
    I do know, though, that the Critical Tits bike ride was the most objectifying experience I’ve had. I’ve done Critical Mass in my hometown, which is supposed to be empowering (in a way) for bicyclists; I assumed that Critical Tits was supposed to be empowering for women — a safe event where topless-ness was socially acceptable.
    Instead I found myself surrounded by hundreds of leering men, many of whom were taking photos and some were even filming! What happened to all of the restricted photography and camera registration that I had read about? I could tell that some other women around me felt uncomfortable, but there was nothing we could do. Plus, some women seemed to be enjoying this kind of “attention”.
    On top of the cameras, there were men yelling things like, “Thank you! Thank you for doing this!” — as if the ride was for their benefit. There were also a few men offering to mist the riders, but only there breasts; and one man had a sign that read, “I like your breasts the best!”
    I left the ride, put my top back on, then went to my tent and got fully dressed. I felt so objectified and isolated — the other women who had complained about the cameras had kept riding. I felt like I was the only one who had such a big problem with the photographers/videographers/etc that I had to leave.
    So, as a broad question for the other Burners here: What is (was?) the actual purpose of Critical Tits? In the past was it an empowering event for women? Or were my assumptions totally wrong?

  28. Ten moons
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Man, am I happy to have stumbled into this conversation. Thank you Samhita for bringing it up, and for sharing your perspective. I especially appreciate, as others have, your raising your reservations after having had the experience – I tend to find myself caught between somewhat uncritical embrace from burners or harsh critiques from people who have never gone, so thanks for opening up the middle ground.
    I of course have also noticed the dearth of POC, have struggled with perceived or real attitudes towards women and women’s bodies, etc. These can be deeply troubling even for a fairly skinny white woman; trust that anywhere that a single aesthetic ideal is seemingly upheld, even people who seem to meet that ideal are having a hard time (not to mention people who don’t). I dearly wish that BM were in fact a more body-diverse environment. The conforming non-conformity in general is a huge issue to work with – though my stance is that that’s what you do, work with it. Concede that anywhere where 50,000 people get together, not all of them are *actually* going to be radically self-expressive, there are going to be aesthetic norms and conventions that come up to create a sense of comfort and belonging, and work with your own reaction and response to that. Don’t complain, just don’t wear the frickin’ fur chaps, baby.
    On the diversity subject, I am very aware that, being white, I lack the sensors to notice what you might be noticing. But I have to say that, putting her hostile tone aside, I share some of Etoile’s questions (please read them as actual questions rather than attacks, though). Namely these two: First: Other than appropriation of external signifiers of POC and the financial barrier, in what ways specifically is BM an unwelcoming environment to POC? (and, please excuse my ignorance here, but I’d love an explanation of how said appropriation contributes to a non-welcoming environment).
    (Aside: speaking of the financial barrier, I know plenty of markedly non-wealthy folks who get themselves to the burn. It’s a question of priorities and strategies. Though clearly, no one under the poverty line is going to the burn, no matter their priorities – could this be more a class issue than a race issue?)
    Beyond generally pegging this as a racial issue because it’s mostly white and appropriation is happening (and it’s debatable how central this appropriation is to the nature of the event), I haven’t heard more specifics. *How*, at the event itself, should POC “be made to feel welcome?” How should the non-white origins of dress or music be acknowledged? How should “recognition to the race, class, culture and gender dynamics at play” be given?
    2nd, and more important, I happen to think this is a great question: “So let’s say that something appeals to white people more than other people… suddenly this is not right?”. I’m open to being wrong about this so please be gentle with me, but something in me rails against the idea that just because a certain event/environment appeals more to a certain demographic, there is something automatically “not right”.
    Let’s say that, for whatever reason, BM does appeal more to a certain type of white person. Is that inherently wrong? We could say we’d like to change that, or not, without pathologizing the existing environment itself. I’m a classical musician and see mostly white, affluent-ish people at concerts. Is something “not right” with Mozart? (You could draw parallels with other cultural/racial groups). There’s such an intricate web of influences at play here that draw certain people to certain places. Can we be open to the possibility that, at least sometimes, there’s nothing sinister about a less-diverse environment?
    The thing I most want to say, though, relates to the essential tension between BM as rich man’s rave in the desert and BM as “spiritual catharsis”, radically self-reliant, artistically expressive utopia. In this respect, and I feel quite strongly about this, my experience has been: Yes. It is both these things, and countless others. BM is the most striking instance I have ever experienced of one’s pre-existing filters and intentions creating the lived reality. Some will come and experience nothing but hedonistic, consumption-heavy vapidity; some will encounter their souls, break their hearts, split open their minds, and see beauty that will change their lives; and everything in between. None of these experiences is the definitive one or negates the others. It’s all happening, and it literally is what you make of it.
    I feel that your reducing BM to an “American holiday like any other”, or saying that it is a “culture of dramatic appropriation, elitism, consumption and lack of inclusion all within the guise of freedom”, is one sliver of the picture. In claiming to be the whole picture, it negates my experience of BM as a culture of dramatic generosity, openness to spirit and flow, magic, and transformation just as surely as anyone telling you your experience as a WOC doesn’t count because they didn’t have it.
    Sorry for going on at length – I’ve been thinking about this:)…

  29. jadzia
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, snarky piece raising some of the same criticisms and more:
    http://blog.hisnameistimmy.com/?p=12

  30. Samhita
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Ten moons-
    I think you (and etiole) should stop suggesting that because you are white you didn’t see certain things. White people that I was with and that I have talked to have made the same observations that I have made. Please allow me the ability to have my opinion both because I am a person of color and a critically thinking person. And I think some of your better versed anti-racist white brothers and sisters aren’t feeling that.
    Now, I am actually just annoyed at this point. Of course it is a class AND a race issue. Furthermore, given the exclusive nature of the event it doesn’t have to *try* to be unwelcoming, it just is. Now, I don’t deny that once you get to BM it is a very welcoming environment. But let’s hope as a person of color, I don’t have to have rocks thrown at me and called, “raghead” to recognize racial dynamics. The suggestion that the racism isn’t blatant, so it shouldn’t bother me is at best problematic. I can’t say that someone came up to me and said, “omg you don’t belong.” Racial belonging and not-belonging is much more subtle than that. Have you ever traveled to a country that is not predominantly white. People might not treat you different off the bat, but you do stick out.
    So on appropriation. You are lucky, I love this subject. Why should it bother me when white people wear the art and objects of people of color? Don’t people of color wear white people clothes? this is similar to a post we had up earlier in the week wherein people felt very strongly that it is vice versa so what is the big deal. I am afraid it all comes down to privilege. Growing up in a strict Hindu family, white self-proclaimed Hindus always bragged to me about how liberating my religion was. However, it was never liberating for me because I grew up in a strict Indian family without white privilege. I didn’t get to benefit from the freedom that white people feel when they choose to be Hindu. Same can be said for white men wearing Native headresses. Their people weren’t decimated by the white man, so it is not a statement of solidarity, but a moment of appropriation mainly because it is within the context of being colonized. White people that actually stand in solidarity with indigenous movements WOULD NEVER EVER DO THAT. Please believe, I know them.
    So to your second question. What is inherently wrong when lots of white people like something? So, I didn’t say all of it was inherently wrong. There are a lot of things I like that predominantly white people like. But something is wrong with that, not it. There is a difference and again comes back to class and race privilege. Do you think there is a lack of poc at classical music events because poc don’t like classical music? That would be wrong. It is because culturally, economically and socially poc and working class people face barriers to high art. Bottom line.
    Finally, I had a great time at Burning Man. My experience doesn’t negate your experience. My opinion is not the popular one, but a marginal one, I just have a big megaphone because we have a lot of readers. It can be true that both our experiences can happen and one doesn’t negate the other. But one does potentially locate the other in an axis of privilege that I am afraid you might have to think about, if this is bothering you so much.

  31. Ten moons
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Whoa, Samhita, I’m sorry I somehow came across as annoying. I may have invited that by mentioning Etoile. but I actually opened by saying that I did see a lot of what you were seeing – being bugged by lack of POC, etc. What I was doing, I thought pretty respectfully and with a certain effort at humility, was asking for more information about your perspective which *may* have not been accessible to me (since I wasn’t seeing it).
    It seems like kind of a lose-lose situation: failing to acknowledge the fact that you might validly see things that I don’t, because of my privilege=being blind to that privilege; acknowledging it=using my whiteness as an excuse for a lazy intellect/social conscience. How does one validly ask for illumination after making an honest effort to see as far as possible from where I’m standing?
    And the fact is that I didn’t get the answers I was asking for beyond a reiteration of your subjective perception and innate “recognition of racial dynamics”. By which – please understand – I am not at ALL saying “gotcha! and so there’s nothing racial going on, because you can’t prove it”. I’ve struggled enough to articulate feminist issues that others are completely blind to, that I couldn’t quite put into words despite being damn sure they were there, to do that. I’m perfectly willing to accept your word for it because you can sense this in a way that I can’t, being white (hence my original statement). But I was hoping to get a more concrete sense of how that happens – in order to help me sensitize to the dynamic, if you will, so that I actually *don’t* have to make that “excuse” in the future. Maybe the answer is there is none, which is fine. Please don’t get upset with me for asking.
    re: appropriation, I would never suggest the “vice versa” argument as a refutation. Again, my experience with that argument along gender lines makes the idiocy of that idea crystal clear to me. And again, all I was asking for was more concrete specifics. If this itself is offensive, I apologize. But again, how is it ok to ask?
    re: diversity: you actually *did* say it was inherently wrong. Quote: “If you are having a party and everyone is white, something is not right. Right?” I was questioning this basic assumption. I don’t think POC just “don’t like classical music”. but I do think there’s a complex array of influences at work – some economic, some social, some cultural, some spiritual, some ancestral, some beyond our ability to comprehend. Some of these are connected to injustice and inequality and are lamentable, some just are. The broad generality of your statement is what triggered me. really? I’m pretty Jewishly engaged and have been to plenty of communal gatherings where everyone is white. Were this all we did i agree something would indeed be very wrong. But as a slice of a continuum of social activity, where different processes of self selection bring difference cross sections of people to difference events, is JUST the fact that most people are white (or brown, or black) problematic?
    your last point: Your position is not at all marginal in terms of the “BM is merely a big consumerist party” line of thought. This line of thought doesn’t necessarily have to do with privilege, either, I hear plenty of privileged white folk espouse it, it’s a recurring media trope, etc. I hear it a lot, and it’s what I was responding to (“bothered by”, in your language).
    And regarding the axis of privilege: of course I need to think about about it! that’s why I’m here. I wasn’t feeling upset or “bothered” when I wrote (I now definitely am, admittedly) – I was feeling excited to engage these questions and curious to explore them. I now feel disappointed and alienated by what feels to me like a belittling response (“I’m afraid you might have to think about it”… It feels like you’re barging through an open door here). It feels a little condescending and disempowering to me to use just the fact that I’m passionate or verbose about what I’m saying as fool-proof evidence that I’m being triggered by my own unconscious biases. I kind of wish you would read my original post again in its own light and see whether perhaps you ascribed intent and tone to me that weren’t there.
    ouch.

  32. Cicada Nymph
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    I had heard of Burning Man but knew very little about it, which is why I decided to read the post and comments in hopes of getting a better picture of what goes on. I have to say, I am somewhat confused by some of the reactions. I thought the intent of these posts was for people to discuss their experiences, thoughts, and views on the event. I also thought that asking for clarification or pointing out parts of the post they disagree with was part of reading and thinking critically as long as it is done respectfully and not with the intent to put anybody down, victim blame, etc. That is why I did not understand some of the rather hostile (or at least hostile sounding) reactions to the original post. I also, however, do not understand why Ten Moon’s post got an annoyed response from Samhita. Whether or not I agree with her post I thought it was politely stated, thought out, and had no desire to offend. I also don’t think there was anything inherently racist or sexist in what she had to say, and if there was it was not purposeful. At the risk of receiving my own “angry response” I commend Samhita on taking the time to address the topics raised by Ten Moons and answer her questions but am afraid the annoyed tone prevalent throughout the response discourages respectful disagreement. It had a tone of “you’re wrong so shut up already”. Ten Moons may or may not be “wrong” or this may be a case where nobody is but shouldn’t dialogue be encouraged if only to help enlighten?

  33. treadingunderwater
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    “Other than appropriation of external signifiers of POC and the financial barrier, in what ways specifically is BM an unwelcoming environment to POC?”
    specifically, there are no other POC there. sometimes it’s hard to feel welcome when you’re the only one of your kind. specifically, it costs too much. specifically, the music is white people music. specifically, the founder is white. specifically, there doesn’t seem to be any artwork that recognizes POC.
    “How should “recognition to the race, class, culture and gender dynamics at play” be given?”
    i think the art is such an obvious place to do this. not having been to BM myself, i can’t comment on what the art is actually like, but i’m really surprised that (from what i’ve read of people’s experiences), given the theme this year, there weren’t more art exhibits acknowledging/criticizing slavery and the annihilation of native americans, two events crucial to enabling the american dream and still showing lasting effects in the daily lives of POC. to focus on the white view of the american dream and ignore alternatives seems emblematic of what samhita is talking about.
    “Let’s say that, for whatever reason, BM does appeal more to a certain type of white person. Is that inherently wrong?”
    no, but it makes it inaccurate to paint the event as truly welcoming and inclusive. it’s kinda like employment: it’s one thing to accept resumes from POC, it’s another to actually HIRE one. BM is saying “sure, we welcome you,” but no one is actually coming. by no means is that necessarily BM’s fault, but it does raise questions about the inclusiveness and priorities of the event.
    i think there’s a lot to the “conformist non-conformist” nature of the event that has already been criticized here, and a lot to BM fans’ response of “well if you didn’t like it, it’s your fault.” from what i’ve read, it seems that you need to buy into BM’s priorities (get naked, wear furry chaps, whatever) in order to enjoy it. there’s nothing wrong with that, at all, and it’s the nature of most events (i have to buy into the idea that sports are entertaining/important to enjoy a red sox game, for example) BUT it DOES mean that BM is actually not about “radical SELF-expression” but “doing what we’ve always done within these ‘radical’ boundaries that we have established.” does that make sense?

  34. Samhita
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    You know Ten Moons, you are right. I am annoyed with all the comments that have similar sentiments to yours, not just yours. Sorry it came out in my reply to you.
    I think many of the questions you have, have been answered either by me, other commenters and the original post.
    It is frustrating when you feel like you have to not only repeatedly validate your experience and analysis, but you have to provide concrete examples and solutions. Race, class, gender, homophobia, etc. are often more subtle than that. I recognize that wasn’t your intention but that is how it was received. Women of color are frequently asked to back up what they say as though it is their job to explain to “well-intentioned” white people why their thoughts, experiences and visions are valid.
    I had a great time at BM. These are some observations I had. I also suggested some immediate solutions above and long term ones, well I think the people that consider themselves the community of burning man should take themselves to task about real solutions. But overall, I don’t think Burning Man is inherently nefarious in its race, class, gender statements, I think society is and BM reflects that. I am taking issue with the belief that CM might disrupt that. It doesn’t and that is my point.
    What I do know is that when people of color get upset because a well-intentioned white person just wanted to know it creates a sense of frustration for everyone. That doesn’t mean the conversation can’t continue, but that is the reality at hand. And Cicada Nymph, thank you for the support and I am sorry if my response came off as stopping dialog, but it was honest and I think when we talk about these issues, all parties should be honest. Sometimes that honestly manifests as anger, annoyance, whatever.
    Talking about race is frustrating, it is annoying, it is difficult and frankly there is no right way to do it. I am just being honest about that and thank you for participating in this particular dialog. Perhaps other commenters can support you in finding the answers you are looking for.

  35. orangeplaid
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Samhita,
    Thank you for writing this, it helped me understand the part that I didn’t like about BM when I went. I liked a lot of Burning Man, but I still feel that there is room for improvement.

  36. Posted September 14, 2008 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    This is painful because it feels so familiar.
    Person of color speaks to issues of race and class to a predominantly white audience (I am making assumptions here please correct if I am off.)
    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.
    Person of color becomes further isolated and must apologize for having and displaying the impact of this experience in order for white audience to feel better and continue engaging.
    I am not a regular feministing reader. That is not intended as a criticism I simply haven’t been drawn. When I occasionally pop by it’s because I follow Samhita’s writing or another blog has linked.
    I am a feminist, was radicalized in the violence against women movement in my 20′s. I am a blond, white woman from Vancouver in my mid-30′s.
    I don’t find myself at feministing because these kind of racial dynamics suck and they perpetrate the oppression. I would much rather be hanging out at Racialicious, What Tami Said, The Cruel Secretary, etc where these conversation can happen in a broader context where all forms of oppression can be seen, appreciated and explored.
    It’s way more interesting and I imagine more supportive of the writers exploring the full range of who they are and their analysis.
    And yet, we end up in our own camps again. White writers here and women of color writers there. When I imagine an environment that would be -mutually- supportive to both audiences it is one where there is diversity and balance of the leadership/writers and a commitment to racial justice. From there their communities will represent, mingle and engage on a more level playing field. I think I have pretty much stopped believing it can happen any other way.

  37. alisarose
    Posted September 14, 2008 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    This was my second burning man, and I forgot in between them how disorienting they can be. You are thrown into a sea of people who are all wearing the same kind of brightly colored hair extensions. It feels like everyone is going with this internal flow and following the desert or whatever except for you. Meantime, you are wandering through this carnival a stranger, and being groped by the occasional person who you do not want to be groped by.
    The first time I was groped by a man at Burning Man I was waiting in line for snow cones and he asked me if I was hot. We were in the desert, so I said yes. He took some ice from his bag, pulled my breast out of my shirt, and started rubbing ice on my nipple. I was so shocked that I just said, “No thanks,” and stepped backwards. I think an appropriate reaction might have been kicking him in the shins. I had another incident with a man who really wanted to do some spanking, but bygones or whatever.
    Not a real feminist space.

  38. Posted September 14, 2008 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    In the 60′s we had hippie comuns,with free sex.
    Now we have the “Burning Man” with free sex.

  39. FuckDecaf
    Posted September 14, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Burning Man is not a space where really really diverse constituencies feel comfortable. By this I mean, non-white people, women, disabled people, queer people, poor people. And many people have had this experience, not just me.”
    Samhita,
    Some of the issues for POC have obviously been discussed above.
    The issue of class is an obvious one (always love hearing people telling me about how “you don’t need money” at Burning Man, or somehow using its front-loaded economy as an example of a socialist paradise.) The $40 per day is actually pretty reasonable (what does anyone pay at a camp sitebut these days?) but that is only part of the actual cost of attendance.
    The issue of disability is also a difficult one. Obviously this is partly related to the severe nature of the location. A person with limited mobility in a city has a much bigger challenge in the Nevada desert. I know people in the “community”" here that will attend local events but stay home for actual Burning Man for that reason.
    I was curious about your comment on queer people not feeling welcome, though. I’m not sure if you are queer or if this is something you heard from queer friends, but I am wondering how you (or your friends’) experience was so different from mine an my community’s?
    I guess it just surprised me to see queer people named as one of the marginalized groups at the event, while in my experience it is probably the most open and affirming event of its size outside of explicitly designated “queer” events.

  40. Samhita
    Posted September 14, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Fuckdecaf (best name EVER), I have heard from others about the lack of queer acceptance. You don’t see very much public gay sex, but I was only there for 5 days one time so I am not sure. It was clear that public straight sex was all good tho. What I have heard is that it is illegal in the state of Nevada and people have been busted for it.
    But it is great to hear your experience and good to know there are queer camps at Burning Man.

  41. mama's queer
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    First of all, Samhita, amazing. A friend of mine sent this link to me, a first time burner and long time queer feminist, and it spoke to so much of what i felt. The first thing i noticed as i entered Burning Man is the complete lack of quotes by women, and i thought to myself, this is surely not a good sign.
    As a white man, i must first say that it is NOT Samhita’s job to educate all us white folk on the issues of racism– it is our job to figure it out ourselves (and with Samhita’s help, which she has chosen to provide, and another huge thanks). If we happen to be ignorant of the racism that other’s experience, our first reaction should not be, “well PROVE it to me, ’cause i didn’t feel it!” It should be, “Really? Well please tell me more so i can join you in fighting it, ESPECIALLY since most likely i was complicit.” It is such a privileged ability to be able to act all innocent due to the ignorance that privilege grants us. Take Samhita’s word for it!! It MEANS something that there were few poc there. It is not a meaningless non-issue. Nothing is. And everything that Samhita has said and all the other beautiful feminist voices that complimented her have said goes to support this. Things could be different, and we should not be throwing our hands up in futility but instead should be listening to other’s concerns and analyzing our own position in it all.
    I want, however, to speak a moment to the discussion on queer bodies and camps that was just discussed. As a queer body, i did not feel safe, i did not feel “free”, and I certainly did not feel that the environment itself was queer. First of all, i cannot imagine a queer space that is predominantly white. To me, that is an oxy-moron. Queer spaces are about difference, not just white difference.
    As a traditional home-body, i must admit that i did not seek out every queer camp (of which there were, from what i could tell, relatively few in the grand scheme of things. and frankly, unless a camp proclaimed itself to be queer, i gots to assume it heterosexual– its a matter of survival, to say the least). and when i did wander to a self-proclaimed queer camp, BAM!, white (predominantly, though not exclusively).
    Now i know there is a lot of debate in the feminist community about the privilege of being queer, but honestly, in my queer community, it is not predominantly white. in the world of theory and academia, it might still be, but in the world of living, my experience has been one of great racial, class, and body-ability diversity (and, of course, gender).
    Two revealing experience:
    As the little activist that i am, i wrote the web-master for the BM website to point out that their “Getting Married at Burning Man” page was only devoted to heterosexuals and, considering the supposed BM philosophy, does this not seem a bit inappropriate. What resulted was a back-and-forth with the web-master (the same guy who produces the newsletters that are sent out to burners) where he insisted that, as it is illegal for queers to get married in Nevada, he has no responsibility to represent them. Not even a shout-out? His response: they can’t speak to EVERYBODY’s difference ALWAYS! To which i wondered, is not marriage a specifically HETEROSEXUAL issue? And if he is going to speak to one person’s identity, doesn’t he think it appropriate to speak to others deeply embroiled in the marriage concept (don’t get me wrong, i am against marriage, but i am also against discrimination, which i found in this lack of representation– a similar concept to the lack of poc bodies at burning man. The absence itself speaks volumes). Eventually, he stopped responding. This is a formative voice in the construction of Burning Man, completely ignorant to the homophobia he is perpetuating. And do we still think it is just a mistake that all of the quotes as we enter are men? If the power’s that be don’t get it, then maybe we should not take for granted the worship of a giant man standing on top of a big phallus. I bet he’s heterosexual.
    Second: I went to a queer dance. The theme was “Supremacy: The White Party”. Let me just say first that i respect the irony and crass “fuck you” attitude implied by this theme. The point was to “dress as your oppressor”, which of course requires everybody to acknowledge at face value the oppression around us. You entered to signs reading “AIDs cures Fags”, and “The only thing worse than a Jew or Mexican is their Transgendered child.” To say the least, the party did not sweep oppression under the rug, but rather placed in the center for us all to recognize and process. HOWEVER, i don’t care what the theme, i do not think walking into a room with a number of KKK-clad folk is an inviting space, regardless of the theme. In theory, the theme is smart and edgy. In practice, it stinks of privilege– the privilege of being able to “dress as your oppressor,” and it being an occasion to dance and make-out. Not to mention, when i see a KKK outfit, regardless of who is wearing it, i require that i process the history of what it means, and it is not an occasion for merry-making. Does this mean I lack a sense of humor? I hope not. I just recognize the necessary weight it holds. It reminds me of the man i saw in black-face this past halloween. Have we reached a time when this no longer has the weight of a violent racist past that it is now in vogue? People will see you. And some people will not be so comfortable dancing next to a faceless man in a KKK outfit. Come on queers!
    And I am going to make a guess that an environment where KKK outfits are bouncing about is the last place that poc are going to want to party– and rightfully so.
    One final thought. I was at a gathering drinking a delicious drink when i looked up and happened to see a white heterosexual couple on a tall stand having sex. After a romping couple of minutes, they were done, and as they laid back, the guy threw his fist in the air and punched it, a motion proclaiming, “Yes! I rock! Look at me rock!” To which all the men around started cheering (and couple of women too). I couldn’t get so excited. I’m afraid that public heterosexual sex is EVERYWHERE, just perhaps not so blatant. it is not as if you really have to go to burning man to find it, or even act on it. and if i ever had a voice to cheer for it, it died long ago with the violence that accompanies not being heterosexual. it did not make THIS queer body feel “free” to see it, but reminded me, yet again, of the privilege that some bodies have over others, no matter where you are.
    believe me, i am excited about going back :) but give me a Burning Queer, or a Burning Feminist, and there might be some revolution with that excitement.

  42. epona
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    let me begin by saying i am not trying to invalidate your experience. i merely want to tell you about some of the things you may not have seen. as they say, it’s impossible to see it all, even if you do get fear-of-missing-out-syndrome. burning man is much like the kaleidoscope you mention – every participant sees something completely different, even if they are staring at the same thing.
    there are a few things i feel i need to address.
    keep in mind that i am a volunteer for burning man, i work for the dpw, and as such, am probably terribly biased.
    but i am also a woman of native american decent, and this was my experience.
    while i was there i saw lots of cynical art and satire inspired by the american dream theme. take, for instance, the street signs! they were all named for american automobiles. and lest you think this was some attempt at glorification of the american automotive industry, note that they were all the worst models. did you see the esplanade signs? they were chopped up auto parts, covered in blood. i helped make them.
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3295/2830754065_eb1eaffd6c.jpg
    all of the street signs had a backdrop of a bloody tire print as well. tongue-in-cheek criticism of overconsumption via the automobile. stretch it to symbolize the blood of people dying in this war for oil if you will. which brings me to this gem of a sign:
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3259/2830762675_beb8473278.jpg
    i saw an xmas tree covered with credit cards. a brick house mutant vehicle with comments about mortgages. a man walking with a ball and chain covered in money. all of which seems to criticize rampant consumerism. as for women artists, you can’t ignore the flaming lotus girls (most of whom are quite curvy, and EVERYONE wants to kiss a flaming lotus girl! the flg was started in 2000 when a bunch of women decided they wanted to weld large pieces of steel to make sculptures that spit fire, and they wanted to learn how to do this in a male-bravado free environment. they created a safe space for women to learn traditionally male skills without feeling intimidated. also out there kate raudenbush constructed a replica of the capitol building entitled “altered state”. she incorporated a mirage of mythical creatures and native american imagery in a skeletally-etched white “birdcage,” complete with swings. and then there was this fun comment on the electoral system:
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3197/2827205440_52796c5e86.jpg
    sure, there are lots of skinny people dancing around in their finery. but i did see, and work with, all shapes and sizes. several people of color and of asian descent were on my team.
    there are plenty of women in the dpw these days. i can think of nothing more empowering than being handed tools or stepping into a bobcat or hyster and getting the job done. we were not valued for our good looks so much as our hard work and our skills. i went there knowing nothing about repairing bicycles and was placed on the yellow bike crew. it was not assumed that i could not fix things because i was a woman, rather i was appreciated for my quick learning skills and competency, regardless of my gender.
    another point i would like to make is you get in free if you volunteer. if you really want to go and can’t afford it, work the event. the steep ticket price is not so steep when you consider what it costs to build an infrastructure designed to support 50,000 people for a week. we have to pay the federal government a fee for every person that sets foot on their land, per day. i know some music festivals that charge a similar price for only four days, not eight. for your perusal, here is a link to the financial report, complete with a chart breaking down their expenditures. no one at burning man is getting stupid rich from this shindig. you said they must have made over 10 million in ticket sales? in 2006, they spent over 10 million
    some of that money is given away in the form of artists’ grants. most of the larger scale work you’ll see out there is funded by burning man and/or its sister organization, the black rock arts foundation.
    in this environment, i often found, what you need others will provide. countless times i needed something and it was given to me with no demand for something in return. people needing food were fed, needing watered were watered. flats were fixed by strangers. rides were given.
    what do they do to make it appealing to people of color? well, what do they do to make it appealing to anyone? FIRE! this was an event started by artists who like fire. more artists who like fire showed up, and it became a pyromaniac’s playground. not being a person of color, i cannot perceive, nor generalize, what people of color like to do on their summer vacation. is this something people of color would generally be interested in if effort was made to inform them? i cannot say. is this something they would be drawn to? maybe we need to look further and question why there are not more people of color seen in the kind of community this event sprung from – underground artists, writers, and performers of the alternative subculture, punks, and anarchists.
    burning man has always had a “no spectators” credo. what is there is what people bring to it. you want more american black music, bring it! my camp for one introduced me to the wonders of hip hop. i do believe there was also a dub music camp or two.
    in regards to ethnic costuming, personally i saw the native american headdresses as a reminder of who was here first, before the american dream began. and as a person of cherokee descent, i uttered an internal “right on!” honor our ancestors by remembering where this country came from, or who it was stolen from, rather. there was a quote by chief joseph on the gate entry signs that moved me to tears:
    “It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
    the keffiyeh or shemaghs you see are merely an article of practicality or functionality. i wear one in the desert. it was designed by desert dwelling peoples to provide protection from direct sun exposure, as well as for occasional use in protecting the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand. there is more than enough dust out there to make such a garment a necessity. where is the line between cultural appropriation and utilizing someone’s superior invention for practical purposes?
    it’s true, its not the greenest event on the planet. but they are trying. in 2007 they installed a vast array of solar panels to power the event. another sister organization, black rock solar, donated solar panels they constructed to a local town. we recycle everything possible, and compost everything possible. the commissary uses plates, cups, and forks made of biodegradable corn. most of the dpw are still there, cleaning up every cigarette butt, every goddamned sequin and feather shed from some silly person’s boa, every safety pin, and other items you wouldn’t want to touch without a hazzmatt suit on. they will be there until october 4th, ensuring the playa is spotless, so the blm (federal bureau of land management) will pass us during the inspection and we can do it all again next year. apparently we rate number one in the country for cleaning up after ourselves.
    what does it do for the community outside of its bubble? burning man brings riches (and mild irritation, surely) on the surrounding communities of the black rock desert, namely the residents of gerlach and the natives of the piute reservation in wadsworth. i have neither the time nor the space to get into the accomplishments of burners without borders. they began when katrina hit. the team that helped construct the temple went with their heavy machinery skills to rebuild a destroyed vietnamese temple in biloxi. then they moved on to clean and rebuild homes in nearby pearlington. they built homes for the needy in reno. they clean up beaches in san francisco. they are currently in peru. they take the skills that they have learned and nurtured at burning man and are taking it out to the world, filling the niches where government and society fail to step up to.
    burning man is made up by its attendants. we (the dpw) create the infrastructure, and you bring the flavor. we make the pot, you fill it with your stew. it is the island of misfit toys for pyromaniacs.
    as one of my friends who’s never even been just said: “Just an observation of the Burning Man effect. It makes people who participate more aware of their world. It makes people more aware of the people around them. It’s an ideal to aim for when living our daily lives.”
    gosh, i have run on. i hope you can see that yeah, nothing is ever perfect. but it is what it is and we try to be good people.

  43. Posted September 15, 2008 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much, Samhita. As my friend (female) and I drove in on Monday at 3am, she read the quotations out loud to me. I started to notice, about 1/4 of the way through, that there wasn’t a single woman represented in the imaginings of the “American Dream,” and I pointed it out to her. She couldn’t believe that there wasn’t one woman, but I could. The rest of the event, the second time we’d been there together, felt like a manifestation of that conspicuous absence in the quotes. As two women alone at the event, we found ourselves the recipients of a lot of unwanted attention. There were a number of times where I felt as though men were making us into a spectacle, rather than treating us like two people who were there with our own goals and desires. We’d been there the year before with two men, who are friends of ours, and we found men’s treatment of us really different without the male presence at our camp. Though I had been aware of the serious problems with how women are treated at the event last year, it felt markedly different this year.
    In addition, one of my burning man “experiences” commented to me that he was so amazed at how there was no racism there. I could hardly believe how naive a statement that was and retorted that was because there were almost no people of color…and as a white boy, it seemed odd that he could make such a diagnosis.
    You’ve said it all much more eloquently than I am able to right now, but I wanted to appreciate that you’ve raised a lot of the complications of attending such an event. Of course it’s not “all bad,” and not all of the men do this, and not all of the women do that…but there is room for change.

  44. Posted September 15, 2008 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Before I get on with my critique of Samhita’s article, I’d like to agree with her on one point: the welcome signage. It amazes me that, in an office that is mostly run by women, they couldn’t come up with one quote — or demand that there were quotes from at least a few famous women — welcoming everyone to the event. C’mon, ladies!!! I know it’s in you to stand up!
    And now with the critical bits:
    Having been a Burning Man participant for 10 seasons (1998-2007…did not make out for 2008), I have seen people of all colors, sexes, creeds, political viewpoints, and occupations take up space on the playa for that week in the desert (and for longer as employees and volunteers), and to me, it seems as though you, along with a few other people commenting here, broke a cardinal rule of Burning Man: you were a spectator instead of a participant.
    If you or anyone else attending are unhappy with the small amount of people of color at the event, then by all means, it’s up to you — and anyone else feeling this way — to bring friends of color into the event by the thousands. Transform the space. It’s up to you. There’s no “keep out” signs, no reason for anyone of any color to not show up and create what they want at the event.
    Additionally, Burning Man is as expensive or inexpensive as YOU choose to make it. For myself, as a young woman paying her own way through two private schools, the only vacation I could afford to take was to work for Burning Man as a photographer, rigger, heavy equipment operator, and construction chargehand for 6 weeks out of my summers from 2000-2007.
    Before I got a paying job working for the event, my way to have a wonderfully cheap Burning Man experience meant I got off my ass and roamed the playa wearing a tool belt and offering to help other artists and camp builders. You don’t need to be very skilled to do this, or even have tools, but instead the only thing required it your willingness to help. From 1998-2000, I paid between $300-$500 for each year I went out. How did I do this, people may ask? I set up a camp with friends, then wandered the playa in search of work exchange so I could find good food and libations, cool costumes, and to meet new people. In short, I PARTICIPATED. In 2000, I spent 3 months in the desert, making a movie (with a grant I received) and interviewing everyone I could find. I didn’t whine about rich people spoiling everything, or who had a cooler costume than me, or how fat my naked gut and ass — they’re both ample — looked in comparison to some of the Top Model wannabes I encountered from time to time. I just didn’t give a shit, period. Instead, I made the event what I wanted it to be for me, which is all that the organizers ever ask of anyone.
    In fact, the first person I ever officially met at Burning Man was at 6:30am on Tuesday, after I’d just arrived at Burning Man in 1998 and set my tent up in the wrong place. A 70-something naked man riding a bicycle approached me, asking if I needed any help. I looked up in my dawn stupor to see an elderly gentleman who had no shame, no bullshit, no guilt, and who possessed the most wrinkled, saggy ass I’d ever seen. I decided then and there that if this old guy didn’t have a problem baring all in the desert, then why the hell should I?
    I chose not to go to the America-themed event this year — too much going on at home — but I guarantee that if I go out again, it’ll be as one of a crew of several hard-working women who are continuously bucking trends by surviving in male dominated fields (is anyone up for some topless forklift driving?!), thus paving the way for other women looking to do the same, and while others are sitting at home, moaning about how sexist the world is, I’ll be out there, changing it for the better, one Man at a time.

  45. Burning_Feminist
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    So, after fuming for a bit about this article, what I’m left with is feeling that Samhita *could* have invited her peers to join us and start to create a more radically diverse environment for all of us, but she didn’t. She told us and her peers that Burning Man was a place where they weren’t welcome. That part makes me mad.
    The part that makes me sad is that she is, effectively, by stepping up to her virtual podium, shutting down the potential of the diversity that she could create by saying “People like me aren’t welcome here,” which isn’t helping to solve the problem…
    If the message that you send out is that people like you aren’t welcome, then people like you are going to get the message that they aren’t welcome, either.
    And, that’s not true. You may, like me, have to work a little to find the place where you’re welcomed, but you will be welcomed.
    My advice would be to volunteer to participate in something that you enjoy, like working with the art team or the radio station or the greeters or the gate or the post office or the ice camp or at the café or the web team or whatever it is that rocks your boat. You’ll get a lot more out of your desert experience if you actively participate in creating the society that you’ve chosen to live in for that one week.
    One way to do this is to take a look at the website, see what needs doing, and get ‘er done! You won’t be able to get anything done alone, because it’s such a big job to do anything out in the desert, so you’ll kind of be forced into a community—if you’ve chosen one that is full of “stuff you like,” then you’ll be surrounded by people that like the same stuff you do. You’ll make like-minded friends and you’ll find your place.
    If, for instance, you want to make sure that the signs on the way in are diverse, well… Get on the sign team and make that happen.
    If what you want is to be invited to the kind of party that happens in Black Rock City because some people don’t know what to do with freedom, except get naked, have sex, take drugs, get drunk, and take pictures of each other, then I think you should re-examine your priorities. I mean… I’m not welcome at those parties, either, and I love Burning Man. The difference could be: I don’t want to go to *that* Burning Man. I want a different Burning Man and I work my bottom off to have the kind of Burning Man I want.
    Really, the truth is that we’re all just a big, old band of outsiders and others and geeks and freaks and everything else and a lot of us don’t really fit in much around here, either. Depending on which team you join, you could find yourself among any number of all kinds of people who are working to create something bigger than themselves and just fit in somewhere… You could find yourself side-by-side with each of the people that you’ve mentioned in your article, plus many you didn’t mention! :-D
    However, it *is* true that we’re missing some of our people—people who haven’t discovered us yet, people who could make the entire desert experience better for all of us, people who could step outside the boundaries of what *is* and create the future of the event. But Burning Man doesn’t advertise. People have to find us… And find a way.
    What we need to do is *help* that process along—help the people that don’t know that they belong with us, learn that they do, in fact, belong with us.
    The basic thing, the core issue is: We each have to work on this issue of separation and inclusion in our daily lives. Each of us needs to create a broader base of community, inclusive of all kinds of people and tell our communities about our desert experiences—to welcome them into our hot little hearts and encourage them to participate by helping us to create the kind of change that we want to see. WE have to participate to create the kind of change that we want to BE.
    This works a lot like an internet meme does… I tell two friends, they tell two friends, and they tell two friends and so on… I believe that we can do this. I know that I, personally, have contributed to a greater diversity, but one person does not a movement make. Everyone has to work at this, including you, dear author.
    Community is an ART and we need all kinds of artists.
    The Decompression party is coming up in San Francisco. There’s a call for participation at the website: http://www.burningman.com/blackrockcity_yearround/special_events/decompression/decom2008.html. “To reserve a space for your art, theme camp, mutant vehicle, or performance at the SF Decom, please email flambe(at)burningman(dot)com TODAY so we can accommodate and celebrate YOUR imagination and spirit.”
    See? We want you there. We really, really do.

  46. Posted September 15, 2008 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry but I have a lot of problems with some of the language you use Burning_Feminist.
    A woman of color said that she found a space to be somewhat exclusionary and uncomfortable on the grounds of her race and gender and your response is “if the message that you send out is that people like you aren’t welcome, then people like you are going to get the message that they aren’t welcome, either”?
    Yes, other people of color WILL get that message from she wrote. Because when a person of color says to other people of color, “I felt uncomfortable being a person of color there,” they are going to take a second to think about it.
    What you are doing with a line like that is criticizing a woman of color for having spoken up in the first place and naming her oppression and trying to own it. And other people of color are going to come on here and see that a lot of people trashed on Samhita for raising issues like this and think, “Maybe she’s right!”
    If you are serious about Burning Man being a space of radical inclusivity, the onus is on those who are involved with Burning Man to help expand the culture of it and do so joyfully. Take the opportunity and really expand this project and help change the world. I would think that’s what we all want.

  47. Posted September 15, 2008 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    I think there’s a clear lesson to learn from a lot of this:
    People of color, don’t depend on us white cats to be your allies. When you tell us that our space (which is, you know, everywhere) isn’t entirely welcoming to you, we won’t necessarily respond positively and the exchange might end up hurting.
    You are going to have to do it yourselves.
    And it really shouldn’t be that way.

  48. Mina
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Samhita posted at September 12, 2008, at 11:58AM: “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.”
    Thanks for pointing this out! I like all of those genres, in part because I can’t hear the differences between them (well, apart from hip-hop and reggae) enough to like one and dislike another. Now you’ve reminded me that I need to go learn more about who and where all this good sound comes from (I wasn’t aware that any of it was “white”).
    Samhita commented at September 13, 2008 5:38 PM: “Do you think there is a lack of poc at classical music events because poc don’t like classical music? That would be wrong. It is because culturally, economically and socially poc and working class people face barriers to high art. Bottom line.”
    Having none of your socioeconomic groups’ arts recognized as “high art” is one of those barriers, right?
    epona commented at September 15, 2008 10:06 AM: “the keffiyeh or shemaghs you see are merely an article of practicality or functionality. i wear one in the desert. it was designed by desert dwelling peoples to provide protection from direct sun exposure, as well as for occasional use in protecting the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand. there is more than enough dust out there to make such a garment a necessity. where is the line between cultural appropriation and utilizing someone’s superior invention for practical purposes?”
    Great question!
    Legba Carrefour commented at September 15, 2008 11:44 PM: “What you are doing with a line like that is criticizing a woman of color for having spoken up in the first place and naming her oppression and trying to own it. And other people of color are going to come on here and see that a lot of people trashed on Samhita for raising issues like this and think, ‘Maybe she’s right!’”
    Exactly. There’s a huge difference between speaking up about how your experience was different and saying she shouldn’t have spoken up about her experience in the first place!

  49. Burning_Feminist
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    WE have to participate to create the kind of change that we want to BE.
    This is a way of interacting with the world that is unique and special and key to how things work at Burning Man—key to how change is created at Burning Man.
    There’s a difference between saying that *WE* need to do something about THIS, whatever THIS may be (and the potential for THIS is so awesomely huge in our community), so that we can create a community where everyone is welcome and saying that *YOU* need to do something about THIS.
    I did say anywhere that the author should not have spoken up about her experience. Only that it made me sad, and mad, that bringing up this issue without creating solution while, in fact, demanding solution from others, can discourage people like the author from participating.
    Obviously, I feel that this issue needs to be addressed and I gave several concrete ways to begin to address it.

  50. ripley
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    Burning feminist, you missed the point people made multiple times in this very set of comments, as well as one made countless times before. telling people who are the excluded ones that it is up to themselves to get included is discriminatory and relies on privilege. It is victim-blaming.
    don’t pretend that burning man is different from the rest of the world while it (and you!) replicate the exact same practices from the real world. In the real world, when a person of color points out that they are not well represented in an institution (high-paying jobs, congress, etc), white people lecture them about how poc should make themselves more welcome, as if it’s all on them and there are no barriers (“create your own solution” to white racism, people of color!). And now you are doing it with burning man. What would have made burning man different, on racial terms, from the rest of the USA, would be if Samhita didn’t feel the way she said she felt. But once she points out how she felt, it’s too late to say it’s not like that. It would also be different if other people didn’t respond the way you and others have responded, but i guess it’s too late for that too.
    again, I saw a lot of the same things as Samhita did, and like her it didn’t mean that burning man was all bad for me. I will totally go again, but I wouldn’t kid myself or you that it’s without its problems, familiar problems.

215 queries. 3.221 seconds