Radical Self-Inclusion Is Harder Than It Looks: The "Real World" Dynamics That Infiltrated Burning Man

Last Tuesday, I, a Burning Man virgin, arrived at Black Rock City. If you'd have blindfolded me and told me we'd arrived on Mars, I'd likely have believed you. The playa, a dried-up alkali lake-bed, is a flat expanse of white, shifting dust bordered by mountains that you can only see when the air is crystal clear. The people spread across it were in ridiculous costumes or totally naked, and all astride fur- or LED light-covered bikes. It was like I'd entered another universe entirely — a phenomenon made more apparent by having spent seven hours in a small car to get there.

As the week went on, I got used to the foreignness surrounding me. Huge art installations that seemed to have just grown organically from the playa seemed normal. Trampolines, tetherball courts, and hammocks scattered randomly between camps seemed merely convenient. A lifeguard tower that sprang from the dust could be taken at face value. A dressing room, complete with a long runway, offering three tons of free costumes to all participants, was just a place to go and get dressed in the morning. Stripping naked, dancing to techno, and being sprayed with water and soap foam surrounded by 80 or so other gyrating strangers became a daily shower. By Friday, things that would’ve seemed strange when I arrived on Tuesday were just facts of life.

What was interesting about how quickly I adjusted to the alternative universe of the festival was that, in many ways, the point of Burning Man is to be at odds with certain perceptions of the "real world”. The festival was founded on 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation, and immediacy. The effect of all of these is to create a world where societal norms are turned entirely on their heads.

What I found most fascinating about my week on the playa, however, wasn’t the things that were different — manner of dress, concern for others, substance use and abuse. I expected most of those. Rather, what threw me for a loop were the things that were the same.

And they weren't all good things, either: Real world expectations like women being more concerned with their bodies than the men were, for instance. Every day I would spot multiple completely naked guys strutting their stuff all over the desert, but over the course of the week I only saw one woman letting it all hang out.

There was also a phenomenon (documented in the Burning Man weekly newspaper) where certain mutant vehicles (things with wheels and engines that their owners turned into massive, beautiful, otherworldly dragons and ships and octopi that pumped music and traveled all over the playa, day and night) were exclusive about who they let on, preferring to only let on young, heavily made-up, skimpily dressed women. These women, called “sparkle ponies” in Burning Man slang, were looked down on by the community at large. Seeing this gender dynamic in the Northern Nevada desert surrounded by art installations and funk bands was jarring.

No less jarring was a distinct lack of racial diversity in the population. Though both sexes and all ages appeared to be represented, the faces around me during that week were overwhelmingly white. An incredible, and very brave, speaker took this issue on during a series of talks at Center Camp. “I’m scared,” she said. “I’m terrified. Because I’m black, and I’m looking out into a sea of white faces.” I don't think anyone at the festival or its organizers was or is racist, but rather that this lack of racial diversity speaks to bigger issues, like access to both resources and ideas. Tickets to the event aren’t cheap, populations from lower socio-economic brackets of all races are barred from being able to participate.

Hearing about the event in the first place is also, in a sense, a luxury. It takes a certain level of comfort and security to start talking about radical self-reliance and radical free-expression and trying to find communities that support those ideals. For me, those conversations happened at my (mostly white) East Coast liberal arts school. Without that access, how are you supposed to hear about or come up with a way to go to Burning Man?

What those “the real world” vestiges invading Burning Man proves is that no matter how badly we want to be able to escape and leave behind the shackles we feel society places on us, we carry a lot of them regardless, like weights on our subconscious. Why wasn’t I comfortable running topless or fully naked around the playa? Why couldn’t I break down that barrier that I sensed? What can communities do to be more inclusive? How do we ensure that women (and men) are judged on who they are, not on what they look like? How do we stop carrying around those judgments that we have internalized?

I wish I could say I know, but I'm clueless. However, one of the best things to come from my week on the playa was this: Everyone tries to bring a little bit of Burning Man back with them. Whether it’s playa dust, a newfound appreciation for LED lights, or a vow to look strangers in the eye and say something, if each of the 68,000 Burners can bring back a little bit of their experience into “the real world” maybe we’ll be able to make this place a bit more inclusive — and a bit better.