Black Rock City: A Black Queer Woman’s Perspective

For several years I have been seriously planning my first Burn. While attending Fusion, a festival outside of Berlin, I was introduced to some of Burning Man’s core principles. My experience at Fusion remains one of my fondest festival memories, even though it is also darkened by receiving the news of Michael Jackson’s death, and it left me wanting to venture to the “source”. For the last three years, I have been planning my trip to Black Rock City (BRC). I subscribed to the newsletter and let Jack Rabbit speak to me about everything from employment opportunities to art grants. I watched Spark, a documentary on the gathering; I enjoyed many a conversation with so-called Burners, my friends who maintain community all across the globe; and I even created a private Facebook group for close friends who might be interested in attending with me with a clearly stated purpose of queerifying and colorizing BRC that much more.

For whatever reason 2015 was my year. Sitting across from a veteran, I entered the madness of ticket sales in February and successfully bought two tickets. I danced a jig and shouted happily before knowing that the veteran wouldn’t be so lucky (he, of course, was able to find tickets later). I started to connect with even more Burners in London and discuss the best way to “do” Burning Man (BM) when traveling from across the pond to get there. I asked a close Black girlfriend if she wanted to attend with me. She knew from the previous year that she would be eligible for a low-income ticket. But just as in the previous year, she still felt like she wouldn’t be able to afford all the other costs that come together. I asked a white male queer friend, one of my closest friends whom I can trust in any environment, if he wanted to go. He said that he couldn’t afford it. I asked another white gay friend, who also would be eligible for a low-income ticket, and he declined as well due to costs. So I asked someone who identifies neither as Black/POC nor queer. She said yes. To later pull out just four weeks before our planned arrival in San Francisco. After not seeing me for several weeks, she decided she couldn’t trust me to ‘take care of her’ in the desert. All of my friends saw this as a blessing in disguise. No one should expect to be taken care of, and I certainly wasn’t going to the desert to coddle fragile white femininity.

After all of these pre-event ups and downs, I was close to giving up. I sold my tickets and wanted nothing to do with it. But two Burner friends, who hadn’t given up on the idea or me, helped me find a way. I bought a ticket, at a slightly higher rate due to improper currency conversions, found an RV to share, and off I flew to SFO.

It is impossible and also tedious to write a blow-by-blow summary of my time on the playa. In the following, I will address, however, the things (experiences, encounters, exchanges, etc.) that most affected me and my space in BRC.

Day 1

After a great flight and a great sleep at an Airbnb in the middle of Berkeley, I spent hours buying stuff in Target in San Leandro where I would meet most of my RV crew. The last thing I had imagined myself doing was going to BM with an entirely straight, white crew, but that’s exactly what happened. It was not only not ideal, it was uncomfortable. Two guys, both originally from England though one currently lives in Chicago, and a woman from Cali who works in NYC. From our written communication, I recognized red flags with the woman but was determined to make it work. Also, I knew I wouldn’t spend that much time in the RV anyway. Immediately I hit it off with the guys which put me at ease a bit. The first ignorant comment came from the woman, who acted as my co-pilot as I drove us from Reno to Gerlach. A literary agent, who felt it necessary to describe her clients by their identifying characteristics that align best to my politics (a Black transgender blablabla, a Black woman blablabla), she spoke of her interest in working in certain areas. However, she couldn’t pronounce the name of the NYT bestselling author, who is currently to be found on everyone’s newsfeed. When I corrected her pronunciation of his name, while also explaining that I could put her in touch with him, she blurted out that she can’t pronounce his name and that doesn’t matter anyway. This coming from the daughter of Russian immigrants. Nothing new, nothing worth discussing further, because I know how the conversation ends. But I took note and understood not to take her masquerade politics seriously, if she wasn’t even interested in properly pronouncing the name of someone currently touted as one of the most important contemporary authors.

Day 2

Arriving at sunrise was beautiful. I got to see the sunrise every morning on the playa, and each one was breathtaking. Since I was scheduled to teach yoga at 10:45am, I didn’t bother going to sleep. I went and found some friends at their camp and chatted about the adventures of just getting to BRC. I left their camp and walked to my class. On my way there, an older white man shouted out to me from across the way that I had on a decent costume, but […]. I cut him off to say that I wasn’t in costume rather I was about to teach a yoga class. He then asked why I would want to teach yoga and “get all hot and sweaty” and questioned why I wasn’t more concerned with “Black Lives Matter”. Instantly I asked him what he knew about it, which left him silent. I had no desire to engage this person, who apparently was not only ignorant but even more so interested in provoking. I didn’t want to bring that negative energy into my yoga class. Furthermore, I had already been really clear about the fact that, no matter the ignorance, I wasn’t wasting my time at BM educating folks. My first encounter with non-greeter strangers in BRC was one marked by ignorance; I felt targeted due to my race. Later while leading my class in savasana, the final pose of class, I saw a Black man walking to his bike. He had on a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. I tried to silently tiptoe to the exit and, at the same time, not disturb anyone, but to no avail. He was gone before I got there, and he didn’t see me waving. I hoped to run into him somewhere else on the playa.

Later in the day, while having a good time with the two guys from my RV crew, I happened upon one of the most beautiful and meaningful camps in BRC, Que Viva! camp. Laura Diamond describes her purpose for this camp as follows “It is my goal to introduce a program to provide greater inclusion for underrepresented artists at Burning Man, those trapped in poverty, especially artists of color.” At my first visit, I didn’t meet Laura, but I did meet and chat with her husband, Oh Tony. I gave him a huge hug and told him how finding this camp meant everything to me that day. Seeing “Justice for Mike Brown” and “Black Lives Matter” banners helped me to feel less isolated. I knew there was at least one place for me to go to find like-minded people who care about the things that I care about. I vowed to return. And I did.


Day 3

After teaching an early-morning yoga class at 7am, I was approached by a participant who writes for the Daily Beast. She asked me how I was enjoying the event. I told her that I came with a critical eye. Without missing a beat, she asked if that critical eye had to do with the fact that BM is a white middle-class (male) event. This observation from an older white woman from the US felt spot on.

I spent the entire day re-connecting with a special friend, who invited me to a small celebration that evening. At this intimate gathering, I was mis-identified several times. Two white men assumed I was my friend’s playa partner, as she is also a Black woman with locs. A white woman grabbed my braided hair after greeting me, because she wanted to feel the texture of my locs. I was surprised that this still happens in the States. I was under the impression that we had moved past such primitive behavior from which I have had to defend my hair in Germany. But apparently I was mistaken. I politely took my hair back out of her hands, but she avoided speaking to me the rest of the night. I know from her friend, who identifies as a woman of color, that she felt uncomfortable with the situation and didn’t know how to apologize. Yet another person thought I was the Black woman from his camp. I don’t know what she looks like, but I do know she was the only Black woman staying at his camp. When I kindly explained that he couldn’t possibly know me, because we hadn’t met yet, he became upset with me, defending himself even after I had already moved on. The worst comments came from a white Australian guy with locs no less, who stated that he, as a skilled tradesman, can’t find work in the States because of the Mexicans, who are all unskilled tradesmen and willing to work for less than he is. I gave him a moment to correct himself but to no avail. He continued down this racist trail for a bit. When I asked him to refrain from assumptions, he hunkered down and swore that 80% of the brown people in California were Mexicans and none of them had training. He said that I needn’t be offended, because he is also a tradesman; he wasn’t looking down on the work. I tried at all costs to avoid him the rest of the night, but he continually approached me, and rather than calling me by my name, called me “Soul Sistah”, presumably to show me just how down he was. I was someone’s +1 to this intimate gathering, and I felt completely alienated.

A true highlight was the long conversation I had with a woman artist of color, especially because of my current art project for Black women artists and women artists of color, and the mini-coaching session I was able to offer her. We both left that conversation feeling uplifted and have vowed to stay in touch (which we have already begun to do).

Some might think these are isolated events, but over the course of the entire week, I was – from behind, from the side, from the front – called by other people’s names and even engaged in conversations by people, who assumed I was another Black woman. There is more that defines my appearance than my race and my hair.

Day 4

This day was meant to be catch-up-on-sleep-day, which I did a bit, before hanging out with the guys from my RV and their new friends. Unfortunately, we lost each other pretty early in the evening on the playa. I lucked out and discovered Camp Questionmark )?(, where beats were heavy, on the same night that Major Lazer and the likes of Diplo performed on that very stage. I was thrilled to find the spaces where rap/hip hop/beats were the main attraction. I am a fan of most music, but the EDM spaces were becoming monotonous. I later danced to Prince and MJ at Planet Earth before riding into deep playa, which is a task at night with all the deep sand! I eventually found another spot with some chill yet heavy beats where I danced for a while and ran into a dude, first-timer, from Oakland (turned out he was actually from New England but has been living in Oakland for about a year and a half). We decided to move on together and wound up at an art car playing funk and soul (NOT Disco Fish!). We jammed there for a while and were joined by a woman, first-timer, from Santa Barbara. She asked us when did we actually – rather than physically – arrive on the playa. I told the story of my encounter on the way to yoga class. That’s when I felt like I arrived. After everything felt magical with the beautiful BM greeter staff and finding people important to me quite quickly, that encounter felt like a true arriving. A reminder that BRC doesn’t offer equal magical or even surreal playaland to its entire population. She was deeply moved by my story and asked if she could share it with others. I said yes. She also told me a story of a friend’s encounter with a racist BM ranger. I was shocked. Eventually, the guy from Oakland offered his 2 cents by saying that there are always assholes in the world, BRC or not. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them. Because, in the end, all people want to be good. I turned to watch sunrise.

Day 5

With my new friend from Santa Barbara I ventured to Bubbles and Bass for some early morning beats and bubbly. And met all the people I would’ve met, if I would’ve gone through with my original plan and attended the drag show the night before. I also met one of the organizers of one of my favorite gender questioning camps on the playa. Later that evening I went to their smoothie party and met loads of great men, women, trans+ and no label folks of all races. I enjoyed great conversation with one of the organizers. And I found myself finally able to articulate some questions that had been on my mind since arriving. This particular organizer and activist has been going to BM for over a decade and, in that time, has always been provided a low-income ticket. However, as noted above, a lot of costs come together on top of the ticket price, especially if organizing an entire camp. In art and activism, as a member of underrepresented or minority groups, one must ask oneself when does protest and when does resistance have a greater effect. On the one hand, this camp and the many others in the gay-/queerborhood offer home to the many queer-identified citizens of BRC. And that is something to be celebrated. At the same time, many more such people can’t or choose not to attend BM. In a comprehensive cost-benefit-sustainability analysis, does it make sense to spend the time/money/effort on building these camps at BM, where only a select few can experience and reap the benefits, or does it make more sense to create a new space where a larger portion of the targeted population can attend, enjoy and radically self-express with like-minded folk, not as outliers but in the center?

Day 6 til the end

From time to time I also engaged people I saw wearing mock Native American headdresses. Besides the fact that they are super MOOP-y, why would anyone choose to wear a mock something on sacred land as a non-Native American? I have no idea. Some people responded positively and even took it off. Others cursed me out. Either way it was just that important to me.

For the rest of my time in BRC, I tried to find a balance between connection and solitude. I enjoyed sunrises from the playa alone, early morning dance dates, teaching yoga, practicing partner yoga at Center Camp, jamming to a Prince cover band, and so much more.


The core principles that I began and ended contemplating the most are radical self-expression, immediacy, radical inclusion, gifting and leave no trace. In general, I feel that the core principles should be re-written as principles that BRC aspires to, not as states of being.

Radical self-expression

With the population composition of BRC, this does not feel possible to me in my body as I present. Regularly burdened with questions around my hair, my gender, my sexuality, which acted as reminders of my being othered, I found it was not possible to feel completely free in my self-expression. I cannot radically self-express if my self-expression is constantly called into question or seen as an educational opportunity to strangers.

 

Immediacy

This core principle, one I aspire to daily in my mindfulness practice and in each exchange, is what allowed me to recognize people’s intentions and their hearts. But this is my life everyday. As a minority – yet member of the global majority- it is constantly demanded of me to have understanding and compassion for the ignorance of the privileged majority. So many conversations I engage in leave me drained, because white-straight-cis fragility doesn’t want to put in the work to understand truths that have been made clear to me since birth. My wish is for a shift. If the citizens of BRC don’t understand everything they see, then at least just let it be.

Radical inclusion

Most people I talk with seem really concerned with what they call an epidemic of plug & play / turnkey camps. I met someone who was hired to build a plug & play camp. He is a music video director and producer and one of the nicest people I met on the playa. He told me what it is like to work for the super rich folks. It isn’t any different than what I imagined it to be. In my pre-event planning I met someone who is financially comfortable and perfectly happy with using turnkey camps, that offer him a full package of ticket, food, water, and camp. He’s also a nice guy. While I understand the conversation around these types of camps and why they are problematic, in my personal opinion more for other core principles like radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort and participation, I find it interesting that these camps evoke more of an uproar than the fact that BM, even with a low-income ticket, is not affordable to a large portion of the potential BRC population. Moreover, as census data shows, the racial/ethnic makeup of BRC is predominantly white with 87% identifying as such. But looking at the racial composition of permanent staff, this isn’t surprising. And when Larry Harvey, the face of BM in the media, believes he can speak for Black people simply because he lives in a Black neighborhood, was married to a Black woman and has Black (step)children, it is obvious to those of us who are actually Black why this isn’t going to change much any time soon. Instead of seeking out Black diversity consultants, he could seek contact with Black Burners.

Gifting & Leave No Trace

As an economist, these two principles were very intriguing to me. But I’ve left the experience disappointed. While I love the fact that I went home with amazing schwag from beautiful people, mostly artists!, I wasn’t able to observe a gifting economy that would be reproducible without money. For reasons that are well-known in the “real world”, Center Camp offers coffee and ice with the exchange of hard currency. (I’m not really clear on why it’s offered at all; plenty of folks make their own.) And all of the donations to the camps offering drinks and food are made by people, such as myself, who have spent money somewhere else to acquire/purchase said donated items. Unlike in Ricardo’s model in BRC most people didn’t produce the paper plates, juice and bottles of booze that they gifted to the camps needing those items.

While BRC stayed cleaner than any event (mostly festivals) I’ve attended on this scale (or even smaller), people seemed to become less mindful as the days went on, or perhaps as the city filled to capacity. I have to wonder if this principle would even be as propagated and emphasized, if it weren’t one of the main criteria of getting to come back every year. BRC has its own airport; that must certainly leave a trace. Items, such as feathers, glitter and sequins, that used to be banned were in full effect this year, and I haven’t heard one report of someone being asked to change or remove an item. It’s up to the hundreds of volunteers to remove the leftover MOOP.

BRC shouldn’t be a police state; we have enough of that in the “default world”, but it could act more authentically in realizing its core principles.

These are my thoughts, my opinions, my experiences. This is my process.

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