Radical Inclusion: Listen Up Before Dressing Up

By Yelena Filipchuk, Dio Ganhdih and Allegra Lucas of HYBYCOZO

We go to Burning Man to get free. We go there to get a glimpse of a more radical future and create the connections that will help us define and build that world together.

If we are to use Burning Man as a blueprint for that better world, we all have to take it upon ourselves to create the type of society that everyone actually wants to participate in.

The HYBYCOZO art crew would like to take a couple moments of your time to talk about creating progressive and radically inclusive environments on the playa, as well as some exclusive choices you might be making — even unknowingly — on your journey to Radical Self-expression.

We hope to open up a discussion of spiritual and cultural significance, diversity, and civic engagement at Burning Man and beyond.

So, what’s going on? As Burning Man has grown, we the authors have been shocked to see many people donning war bonnets and feather headdresses to party in. Those of us who are Native feel hurt and disrespected by this behavior. Just like the Burning Man community would not tolerate people walking around in blackface or perpetuating other racist stereotypes, we think it’s important to address the issue of appropriation from indigenous cultures.

We hope that sharing how this affects us will allow everyone to feel safe enough to share their own experiences and to fully hear the experiences of others. And we really hope that dialogue will lead Burners to question this practice and make more inclusive, more beautiful art together.

Participant experiencing a spinning cylinder with LED lights
(The Convulsatorium by Cris Wagner, photo by Rick Egan)

What Is the Problem With Appropriating Native Dress?

First, Native Americans in the U.S. and First Nations people in Canada have explicitly requested headdresses and war bonnets not be worn by people outside of the tribes that they come from. In Native communities, these items aren’t fashion choices, but rather are earned as symbols of respect, honor and achievement. As Dennis Zotigh of the National Museum of the American Indian says, wearing a war bonnet you didn’t earn is like tying a Medal of Honor or Purple Heart to your chest that you didn’t serve for.

Second, headdresses have a tendency to shed feathers, which is a major MOOP problem, so they probably shouldn’t even be at Burning Man in the first place.

Third, you might be thinking, “But what about Radical Self-expression?” The question I would ask you: How is appropriating someone else’s culture your self-expression? If you’re wearing the ceremonial dress of people who tell you you can’t have it, how can you claim that expression as yours? Simply because you feel free to express yourself in a festival setting does not imply that it’s okay to appropriate someone else’s cultural heritage in the name of a killer Instagram shot.

The history of the dominant white culture is one of aggression, colonization and subjugation of people, extracting resources from their bodies, their cultures and their lands. That history is painful. You might think you’re celebrating those people, cultures and places by wearing their dress as fashion, but to them, it might just feel like more painful taking. Instead of inflicting that pain, why not listen to those people? Why not take the opportunity to explore your own heritage or more personal modes of expression?

To illustrate these points, our sister Dio, part of HYBYCOZO, virgin in 2015, and a member of the Iroquois Nation, would like to share her experience.

Dio Ganhdih, Queer, Mohawk-Indigenous, First-Nation Rapper, Artist, Tech Diversity Consultant

“Like so many others, my first round at Burning Man was an experience I’ll never forget. As a human, artist, healer, musician, dancer, time traveler, I was completely enamoured by the freeing nature of Black Rock City.

At first, I was able to see Burning Man as an environment that stripped away our differences as humans and placed us all on a common denominator in the desert. I fell in love with the playa’s beauty and felt awe at the large-scale art that was birthed.

But I soon realized that as a first-nation indigenous person, my experience was going to be drastically different from my peers’ as I had to watch shirtless bros in american flag shorts dance around wearing headdresses. Yah, we tried to create conversation, we tried to intervene, we looked to educate, we listened but were continually silenced by appropriating Burners.

I prepped for months for my first Burn, got all the right gear, the best non-perishables, traveled with my closest friends and allies. What I wasn’t prepared for was a distressing environment that diminishes the complexities of my own indigenous identity. I believe that we at Burning Man have a wonderful understanding of diversity and inclusion, but this misuse of cultural symbols diverts from this part of Burner identity, and it causes me to question Burning Man’s idea of Radical Inclusion.”

BM81379_Brickhead EARTH by James Tyler-scr
Brickhead EARTH by James Tyler (Photo by Glen Fidler)

We’d also like to share another perspective from Allegra Lucas, HYBYCOZO Mama and fifth-year Burner.

Allegra Lucas (a.k.a Laser Cut Leggs), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Diversity and Inclusivity Trainer

“The Burning Man organization celebrates that Black Rock City had its most diverse population to date last year, which is thrilling. I am a black woman, and I love Burning Man. It has changed my life and altered my perception of what’s possible when the human imagination is given a multi-dimensional canvas to express itself freely. The question is whether or not the culture of BRC can evolve to support and sustain the diversity of its ever-expanding community.

At the event’s inception, there were no street signs, vehicle passes or apps designed to help you find your friends on playa. Over the years, the event has refined its infrastructural components to increase safety for its participants and to strengthen the container so that folks could freak out more freely.

Well, we stand at a cultural crossroads now. Can we as a community inspire a shift in consciousness that says yes to Radical Self-expression and says no to the appropriation of traditional indigenous attire?

A war bonnet is NOT a party hat. It is sacred to the indigenous people of this country who have been wronged repeatedly by the dominant culture. And guess what? If someone is telling you that your actions or your choice to put on their culture’s significant icons are hurting them, you don’t get to decide that it doesn’t actually hurt them.

If you are for peace, if you are for love, if you are for transcendence then you will stand in solidarity with the indigenous and with the black and brown Burners who want this practice to stop. You will stop buying and wearing war bonnets or any feathered headdresses resembling traditional indigenous ceremonial garb.

As a diversity and inclusivity trainer, something that stood out to me was the lack of tools and communication skills I saw among Burners once this conflict emerged. It happens in my work repeatedly: A person of color brings up a painful experience, and a white person goes out of their way to defend their own position rather than becoming curious about what the person from the marginalized group has to say.

Just a few pieces of advice about cross-cultural discourse at Burning Man.

  1. If you are a lead in a Theme Camp, integrate a statement or discussion about diversity into the fabric of your camp culture. Not talking about difference doesn’t make us all the same. It makes us avoidant and cultivates an attitude of denial. If you don’t bring it up, it might emerge in a not so pleasant way. Usually in the form of a conflict.
  2. Try to have these discussions sober. Rational thought and a good handle on your impulse control are vital when broaching these topics.
  3. Reflective Listening: Person A shares their perspective // Person B listens, then repeats verbatim to Person A // Person B can then share their perspective // Person A listens and repeats verbatim. This slows down the process and gives each person an opportunity to metabolize what the other is saying. The function of this process is for each participant to hear and be heard.
  4. And finally, if you are a person who identifies as white or from the dominant culture, please just listen. Listen with your heart and check your ego. If you can manage to do so, the potential for love, community, connection and repair are boundless. And that I believe is what we are all looking for out in the dust anyway.”
HYBYCOZO (Photo by Luke Szczepanski)

So, beautiful Burner, you have meticulously packed your killer outfits, you’ve packed gifts to give others, you have your baby wipes, your furry bike, and you are ready for your transformational time in the desert. But right now you may be thinking, “Why are you trying to kill my vibe? I am just trying to express myself; I’m not hurting anyone.”

But cultural appropriation does hurt. You just might not be listening to the voices of people hurt by it. And now that you understand these voices better, you can DO better!

By all means, you should dress as sexy as you damn please. But is there a way to dress sexy without mocking someone’s violent history? Answer: Yes! Yes there is! Be creative! Research your art form with integrity! Up your fashion game with wisdom! Be radically expressive! It is Burning Man!

The ability to be sensitive, inclusive, and responsive to the concerns of people of color takes the willingness to listen. When you hear that your costume choices represent cultural appropriation, consider whether you want to be parading in regalia that send this message: I am not willing to stand with these people and their centuries of pain and say, I respect you, I hurt with you over the trauma that separates us in history, I love you and choose to make your concerns my priority. Instead, let’s make a shared, creative effort of love and identity that is respectful and grounded in the intent for peace and healing.

We hope, at least, that we all might become better listeners to the concerns of others. Radical Inclusion is not easy, folks. We are the sum result of our ethnicity, historical memory and upbringing. Add politics and economics, and it’s a thick damned shell to crack! It can be done. It’s happening little by little. May we all meet in the dust!

(Top image: HYBYCOZO – Deep Thought, photo by Wendell DeLano)