[Thank you Kernal for sharing your pictures]
First Burn 2010
In 2010 I went to my first Burning Man. 19 years young, I was lost and eager.
I arrived on Sunday night. I set up my tent which would be my home for the next week. Just me and my bike thrashing through the dust.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for or what to do. For the first time I didn’t have any life instructions. I wasn’t actually sure what I was supposed to be doing. I hadn’t gone with any close friends and with no one to show me the ropes I found myself riding around alone trying to figure out how one ‘does burning man’. I would latch onto acquaintances in camp and try to follow people around to try and feel less alone but most of what I remember was being drunk or high, lonely or lost.
I can tell you a couple of experiences from that year but I can’t remember much. I remember starting off Monday morning off with white wine, beers that night, and by mid week I was doing a fair amount of powders paired with psychedelics and by the end of the week I could hardly stay awake.
Saturday night is burn night. Nearly the whole attendance at Burning Man comes to witness this huge structure of a wooden man get burnt to the ground. The wind picked up (as it usually does) forcing dust into my eyes. My goggles felt worthless and everything was clouded with poor judgement and sand.
I was blowing cocaine up my nose(I don’t even like coke) to stay awake and clear my nasal passages. I didn’t know where I was going and the one thought I vividly remember was ‘I wonder if I’m going to fucking faint out here’ but I managed to get back to my tent.
I pretty much slept through Sunday all day and managed to get up for the temple burn but I was KO-ed. Done. You could have shipped me back to San Jose in a box and I wouldn’t have been upset about it at all.
2010 was such a shit show, I’m not sure what motivated me to go again, but I did.
In 2011 the theme was Rites of Passage which ended up being the year I let go of control. I fell into myself. I let myself be exactly who I wanted to be.
I somehow hit that sweet spot where I was taking just the right amount of drugs and drinking just the right amount of alcohol so that I felt great during my experience there. Since I was feeling more comfortable being myself I felt more open to connecting to the people around me.
Sober Burn 2015
In 2015 I went to Burning Man sober for the first time and the best part about being there was being present. I didn’t put any substances in my body to change my brain chemistry.
I slept when I wanted to. I ate when I wanted to. I chilled when I wanted to. Some nights turned into mornings and I watched sunrises on rickety scaffolding with friends. I went to recovery meetings nearly every single day. I didn’t experience any kind of fomo (fear of missing out) like I had in other years because I was present with my feelings. I knew what I wanted to do and I easily executed that. Ironically 2015 was the dustiest most gnarly year for weather. I mean white outs that lasted days on end. I couldn’t even set up my tent for 2 days. It looked something like this.
Yet I was unaffected by the dust. In fact it was enticing. The dust storms forced me to surrender and be led by the elements. I had to answer to nature. I was no longer in control. Sometimes the white outs were so thick someone who was walking next to me was barely visible.
Cristina approached me at camp and made friends with me. Her crew took me in like a stray cat and I ended up hanging out with them for the entire rest of the week. They became my community and helped guide me through my first sober burn. I went home feeling refreshed and happy about my sobriety. I’ll forever cherish the relationships I made with the crew that year and to this day Cristina is still my best friend to this day.
Burning Man 2016:
The year Burning Man burned me…
I set things in place this year. A comforting 2 years of sobriety under my belt, I had a dog sitter, more than enough baby wipes, and I even made my bed before I left.
I felt ready!
I felt responsible!
I felt confident!
This year was going to be a sure win.
All the preparation for Burning Man creates an anticipation that’s agonizing. I kept running the list through in my mind trying to remember anything that I could have forgot. It kept me up at night.
It’s like the night before Christmas and all through the house, palo santo is burning in massive amounts.
I had just lived through a couple weeks of hell prior to getting on to the playa. Everything that could go wrong financially, emotionally and physically did. I was shutting down going into the event but I was head strong. This was the plan, I couldn’t diverge from the plan!
When we drove onto the playa I didn’t feel excitement, I felt apprehension. Had I really thought this through? Was burning man going to be worth it?
The more I built myself up for the experience the larger my expectations were and thus I set the stage for disappointment.
Attending The Burn With A Partner
This was the first year I attended Burning Man in a monogamous relationship. I was excited to show Isaiah a new community. I had identified with this culture, the art, the open desert, the raw environment, the hard work… all of it was something I felt I could relate to.
The world has always harbored some heavy yet hallow truths about humanity. These hateful truths get translated through violence and injustice. It was what I was reading on Facebook and scrolling through on Instagram. We were talking about in class and I was hearing folks speak about injustice on the radio. These hallow truths were the prime focus everyday. The experience Isaiah lives was the perspective I was only just waking up to.
I felt like I had something to prove to him. I wanted to prove that we were connected through a common community. I wanted to prove the world wrong. A world that seems to constantly be shouting how separated we all are. I wanted an experience that reached a place of neutrality among people. A place where, at the root of it all, we were true loving comrades.
I wanted to prove that magic really does exist.
I pushed him to come and I told him how much it would mean to me if he came.
He was reluctant. Maybe I should have paid more attention to his apprehensions? Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed? Maybe it was all how it was supposed to be….
Stages of Denial
1) Anger-Absolutely not!
2) Defense (never been challenged before)-How dare you…//I would never…//Why am I being pointed out? Why am I being challenged? I am only trying to help. I am not a racist.
3) Embarrassment/Shame-Wow. I did do that. I’m a piece of shit. My behavior affects other people.//Not wanting to face people.//Carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.
4) Personal experience-Oh my god, this is how they must have felt.//Having your own experience with oppression directly or indirectly.
5) Denial or Change-Bury it down deep/or/Acknowledge it and educate oneself. This is where we have a choice.
It’s a privilege to be able to deny another persons experience. Inherent bias is a selective perspective. It’s all happening around you and yet you can’t see it. It makes me think about the book turned film Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. In the film there are monsters called hollows.
No one can see them except for two characters. These hollows kill you by eating your eyeballs. Kind of ironic being that you can’t even see them.
To me, that’s what I think of whenever I’m trying to explain racist behavior to someone with inherent bias. It’s so glaringly obvious to me. It’s as if I can see all these ‘hollows’ (being microaggressions/racism) crawling out of a persons mouth when they ___insert__ racist__commentary__ here__. It’s as if you can see monsters hanging out, cackling wearing culture like it’s play thing. Once you see them you cannot un-see them.
Even though I am mixed race I also have the power of passing privilege through the lense of colorism. I can anamorph my way into assimilating when it’s convenient. For instance, I understand what it’s like to be made fun of for the shape of my eyes. To be told I drive bad because I’m Asian. I also know what it’s like to place a complaint and feel heard. To ask for help and receive it. I can channel my inner white lady so to say… Two Dope Queens explain it perfectly in a hysterical way. Fast forward to 5:43 and take listen.
My friend Mike told me every time he gets pulled over by a cop he immediately sticks his hands out of the window. I have never felt like I’ve had to do that when I’ve gotten pulled over by a cop. So yeah. Passing privilege. That’s a thing.
My relationship with Isaiah held up a mirror forcing me to recognize my position on a level of stratification. If it weren’t for our relationship I might have never given an honest look at myself.
I was in denial. I hadn’t ever had to take a close look at the power dynamics of Burning Man culture. I’m from California, I’m mixed race, a lot of my friends are mixed race. As if those facts would suggest I am not a racist.
The reality is I had only just become introduced to the meaning of microaggressions. I mean sure I’ve grown up hearing the words racism, homophobia, and knew that those were bad. Racism is bad. Don’t say racial slurs. Homophobia is bad. Equality for all.
Who me? A racist. No way!
So so wrong.
White Open Spaces
Do you ever feel like you’re in a room and you’re looking around in hopes to meet someones eyes who will confirm that you are both seeing the same thing?
Do you ever want to say “Hey! People! Can we all point out the obvious for just a second?!”
That’s how I began to feel at Burning Man. Once it ended and I had to return home to Portland, Oregon it got even worse. The ‘hollows’ were lurking everywhere so to speak. However, I’m skipping ahead here.
At Burning Man I would look around and I noticed that there weren’t actually as many folks who looked like me or Isaiah compared to the attendees who looked like my white friends.
This is where race and class collide.
The color of your skin does 100% contribute to how many opportunities are available to you economically. Now without turning this into a sociology powerpoint I’ll just sum it up with the difference between being rich and being wealthy.
Wealth is passed on and being rich is something that’s earned.
I am not saying that poor white people don’t exist. I’m saying that if you’re white you have a higher chance of getting out of the trailer park than a POC person getting out of the ghetto. America is designed for white folks and you are allowed to be everywhere. If you’re a POC you have limitations on where you’re allowed to be. Hence: gentrification. I’m saying if you’re white you have more social mobility within the scale
What does that mean? Well for one, you can go out on a bender, have a yucky or glamorous drug habit (you choose), go to rehab and have a way higher chance of getting back on your feet within your lifetime. How do I have more mobility within the scale?The chances of me being homeless are very slim because although my family is not wealthy most of them have housing.
Now let’s remember, Burning Man is different than all other festivals. In fact, old school heads will say :”It’s not a festival. It’s a city.” And I’d say by definition that’s actually true. It functions very similarly to a city. There’s a post office (I sent my mom a post card once), a DMV, there’s a ‘hospital’, there’s on call therapists, etc. However, when mimicking a city we also come across the social aspects. Especially when the city has a population of 70,000 people.
What does a city need? Resources. What have we been trained to believe? Resources are limited and cash is king so hold onto what you got because you’ll lose it if you give it away. So be greedy because capitalism.
Burning Man runs on a ‘gift economy’ which is rad. There is no money once you get there. However, every year I expect to drop about a G minimum. Between, food, water, camping gear, gas, camp fees, ticket and the hotel room (for after the burn) it’s easily $1,000. A lot of POC’s cannot afford a $1,000+ ‘vacation’. Economically it’s a space that’s more available to folks with financial privilege.
Then the twisting of the dagger is the cultural appropriation that happens at these events. The class of people who can afford Burning Man are mostly white. Let me go ahead and rip off your hair style, rituals, deities, music, clothing, vernacular, but no you aren’t allowed because you can’t afford it.
Culture is borrowed at events like these. They lack the substance of the true tradition behind a lot of these practices. Yoga classes, saying namaste, Japanese tea ceremony, bowing as a greeting, native drumming, singing bowls, Tibetan prayer flags, etc. are all borrowed. Those are not innately from European cultures.
Your Privilege Is Showing
Here is where race, class, and denial all collide.
This whole time I had been concerned about Isaiah and myself witnessing appropriation and I ended up I putting my hair into fake dreadlocks. My justification was that I was using them to protect my real hair but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t choose them for the aesthetic. Isaiah had expressed some discomfort in me wearing fake locs and I got defensive about it.
I want to be completely transparent here. The way I look at it as of right now is I was protecting my privilege. I was being challenged and I didn’t want to feel compromised. I knew my hair was going to get mangled in the desert, I had already bought them, got them put in and I wasn’t going to take them out because that would have meant changing my plans.
There are things that I know are blatantly not okay… such as, the use of African American Vernacular English/ebonics, bantu knots, native American head dresses, native war paint, all forms of orientalism, bindis, geisha outfits, mini Chinese silk dresses (you know the ones), oil-paper umbrellas, etc.
Now I was faced with my own appropriation and I didn’t realize it until he brought it up. I could have found another way to wear my hair. Instead I took someone’s feelings and disregarded them because it was inconvenient for me. Someone whom, at the time I was incredibly connected to and was very much in love with.
I looked at Isaiah right in his face and I said “Well I’m going to wear them.”
It’s a fucked up thing to do to someone period, but especially someone you care about and I guess what I’m saying is, that’s how disgusting and powerful having privilege is. It has the ability to blind you.
I also got to choose to put locs on or take them off at my convenience. I was unaffected by the judgement that comes with wearing locs. They were temporary. I hadn’t grown them out and suffered through the physical process, stereotypes and condemnation that comes with wearing locs. I hadn’t earned them. I bought them.
Now what’s wrong with anyone wearing locs? Well clearly I needed to educate myself on this one because I was the asshole who wore fake locs. So that’s exactly what I did. I read many articles which will be linked within the paragraphs below.
Today the preferred name for dreadlocks is locs due to dread’s negative connotation.
Read more at EBONY http://www.ebony.com/style/history-dreadlocks#ixzz4sRUwZoXb
Follow us: @EbonyMag on Twitter | EbonyMag on Facebook
What is it about locs that make it more than just a hair style or aesthetic?
Well for one the amount of time it takes to grow and lock your hair. It takes two years before they are even considered ‘mature’. Contrary to what many people might think, they require a lot of up keep and maintenance. It’s an investment of your time and pain. A friend of mine would have to cut them when two lock together. She told me it was painful at a lot of times. The heaviness of the dreads pulling down from the root of your head and creating headaches. The literal weight on your head and the physical sacrifice one puts themselves through to wear their hair in locs.
Dreadlocks in Jamaica
The dreadlocks hairstyle first appeared in Jamaica during post emancipation. It was a means of defiance for ex-slaves to rebel against Euro-centrism that was forced on them. The hairstyle was originally referred to as a “dreadful” hairstyle by the Euro centric Jamaican society. It later evolved to the term now used: Dreadlocks. Jamaicans also use the term Natty Dreadlock.
The history of locs in America comes from slavery. Slaves developed locs when they were kidnapped and forced to make their voyage from their homeland to America. Without having a way to comb through hair the result ended up being locs. This is why locs symbolize a letting go of possessions. It also is a celebration of natural hair. Instead of putting products into your hair that will make it straighter or relaxing your hair you can wear your hair naturally. For many it is a political statement and a religious vow. A lions mane is associated with locs. The locs symbolize the mane of the lion in the Lion of Judah.
Across the globe but certainly in America and Europe we measure beauty by a Euro-centric standard. Euro-centric standards are, skin lightening, straight hair, anglicized features, being slender, etc. A lot of POC’s do not fit into these beauty standards and are told that something is wrong with them. Folks are belittled for not fitting the mold and are told they are ugly, unprofessional, or dirty. For years you are made fun of and shamed for the way your hair naturally grows but then told we want this for ourselves. Now we want to be like you.
For instance, locs.
Locs are being portrayed as cool and edgy by Kylie Jenner but Zendaya’s ripped to shreds when she wears hers. What the media is communicating is it’s really only cool if we (those who look European/white) do it.
It’s also being portrayed as if it’s some new style which disrespects the historical significance of locs. The true beauty and ritual that come with locs are completely disregarded when it’s summed up as a new trendy hairstyle. I argue that locs can be appreciated and understood on a higher level by learning about the history rather than stealing it.
Now when I was growing up I feel like the portrayal of black culture was heavily limited to only rap or R&B music and sports. Making a statement that says, you’re allowed to be black and successful only in these areas. However, I feel like I’m witnessing something different in 2017. It’s not just rap or basketball that’s being popularized in the media but black culture as a whole. The deeply rooted characteristics and rituals that are specifically from black culture are imploding all over the internet as a new trend. The way people talk, dance, walk, pose in pictures, what they wear and want to look like. It’s just something that I noticed. It seems like instead of honoring a culture by being more open and aware of it, a culture that’s been beaten down for hundreds of years is now what folks with privilege in America are stealing and profiting off of it to call it their own.
One of the articles I read pointed out how unaccepted locs worn by African American/POC folks are in professional spaces. I had to ask myself when the last time was that I saw a person in office with locs. I couldn’t think of one. Or a police officer or anyone in the military. I personally hadn’t ever seen anyone in the workplace (like in an office) wearing locs. I even started to google it and there were only more countless stories of people being told they had to get rid of their locs or get out.
Again when Euro-centric traits are the beauty standard I believe those traits are deemed as the most professional, acceptable or attractive. However when you’re white something about this seems to change. I haven’t seen any of the strippers I work with in the strip club wearing dreads. None of the African American performers that I’ve worked with wear their hair natural. I have seen WOC have to work harder to make their money while white women seem to be deemed more attractive. None of which is in anyone’s control but it’s also just fucked.
I believe what I experienced was my biggest exposure to how I contribute to systematic racism. I was long over due for a reality check. I believe we are all long over due. I didn’t know how to handle receiving all of this information because frankly it was fucking disheartening. It was sad. It was enraging. I internalized it and made it about me. I was emotionally and physically raw. My trip into Burning Man was complete shit.
This was not about me. It was time for me to wake up.
I’ve spent a lot of time being worried about if what I say comes out racist, homophobic, oppressive to any marginalized group. I feel like I’m hiding for my benefit, so I won’t get called out and feel uncomfortable.
I’ve wanted to write about this because I’ve learned the most from people who I’m on the same level with. People who I trust are being honest. I respond better to people I consider friends and people I can relate to when they point out my faults. I trust them. So maybe someone I know will read this and they will learn something. I feel like the least I can do is take the time to pass on my own experiences. Maybe I can help get through to folks who will listen to me.
I’m not saying boycott Burning Man. I’m saying go in with glasses on that allow you to see the ‘hollows’ in any space that you are in. Every environment will give you material to work with and use your privilege to benefit someone who suffers from inequality. I do believe a place like Burning Man gives you a lot of opportunities to do that.
So how do we (those of us with privilege) use it for good instead of evil? What if every time you wanted to complain about how fucked up things are you did something about it? It can be something small. Say hello to a stranger on the street. This creates connection and connection creates community.
Complaining about the environment? Plant a flower, hug a tree, thank a rosemary bush. Spend a day, hours, minutes in nature appreciating. Find a CSA farm and help out there. Ride a bike. Go for a walk.
Complain about our jail system. Why don’t you write an inmate a letter? Send an inmate stamps, cigarettes or a book. If you’re in a 12 step program why don’t you offer some service and talk recovery with them.
Complain about racism. Go shop at POC owned business. Go buy art from a POC artist at your local market or at a shop in town. Ask your friends if they need anything from you. You would be surprised what the power of an ear can do. Learn about history of a heritage that isn’t out of our history books.
Another thing. Educate the people around us. Don’t let people say or do fuck shit. I’m not saying shame them. I’ve been learning about call out culture and how it’s not only harmful to others around me but also myself. If the aim is to create solution then embarrassing someone isn’t going to get us as a society there. We all fuck up but it’s your choice to learn from it or deny it.
If I can tell someone wants to learn and wants to do better then I will take the time. I will express my boundaries. I will tell them how they’re being oppressive. I will take the time to educate them. Yes, there are times when I’m met with apathy. There are times when I’m met with confusion. The worst is when I’m met with denial. I have had to let go of quite a few friends, small businesses, and organizations in order to align with my principles. I noticed that when I feel like engaging with people in a combative way it’s because something inside of me is upset with the state of the world. I internalize it. I will blame myself. I’ll view myself as part of the problem and take it out on people.
A friend of mine who is an activist gave me some great advice about self preservation. Make sure you don’t hold the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can say no sometimes. Maybe a protest isn’t the way you want to be active. That’s okay, sometimes I don’t enjoy being in a crowd either. Take a break from the news. You don’t always have to expose yourself to the trauma happening around the globe. Talk to folks who are doing something about the problem.
I still feel remorse for the way I treated Isaiah. I’ll always feel appreciation for the way he reflected characteristics I never saw before. I don’t believe in regrets or changing the past. While going through the experience of Burning Man was miserable I needed a swift kick in the ass. I got humbled real quick. Now, a year later, I realize this experience was integral for me to be able to do the work I am doing now. Just wish it wasn’t at other people’s expense.
It wasn’t all tears. I still saw sunsets. I saw art that is only possible in the desert. I got to live in a world that’s whimsical and unreal. I had laughs that pushed permanent laugh lines into my face. For that I am grateful.