This Is What a Real Diversity Conversation Looks Like

Sometimes a moment that nobody plans for crystalizes the truth of an issue better than any prepared remarks ever could.

A GLC panel last week led by Project Radical Inclusion, a participant led effort to include more minorities and people of color at Burning Man, came up with a number of practical, actionable, and reasonable approaches – but it was a moment where things went off the rails that illustrated the nature of the conversation we are having, and just how difficult it will be.

The room the panel was held in at the Oakland Marriott had a “dream catcher”-esque decoration on the wall above the podium, and during her remarks one of the panelists said “I’m going to take that down. It’s not a real dream catcher, it’s not being used appropriately, and it represents exactly the problems we’re working against,” and then did remove it from the wall – to applause from the room. (Myself included – I thought she was completely right.)

But then, during the Question and Answer period, the first question that came out of the audience was from a white male asking her, “Can you explain what a dream catcher is and what it means? Where it is and isn’t appropriate?”

She responded that members of the oppressive cultures asking members of oppressed groups to explain their cultures and educate them represents work – and that they can’t demand that oppressed peoples undertake this work on their behalf: they have to be responsible for educating themselves and taking that initiative.

And only half the audience applauded.

Then the third question from the audience challenged the panelist on this, saying that she’d been asked an honest question in good faith, and that shutting that down – even shaming it – was counter-productive and inappropriate.

Two questions later, a person of color who identified himself as belonging in part to an indigenous culture said that he regarded the “dream catcher” as a symbol that had grown into universal status, and that he had been hurt and disturbed when the panelist had removed it from the wall – even though he recognized her pure intentions and the spirit of what she was trying to do.

Moments later, the session ran out of time.

And there it was, the nature of the conversation we’re trying to have crystalized in front of us in real time, with all its pitfalls visible.

Now everyone in the room agreed that we should find new ways, consistent with our values, to invite more people of color to join the Burning Man community and find methods – again consistent with our values – to get them out to the playa and make them feel welcome. “Project Radical Inclusion,” is working to identify theme camps that are willing to open their communities up to new Burners of color who might be concerned about going to a strange and remote place where they know no one, and to get camps that have extra tickets to (wholly voluntarily) offer them to people of color interested in attending. And they are actively looking for ways to get more artists from diverse communities displaying work at Burning Man.

All of this strikes me as tremendously useful – exactly the right kind of approach to supporting diverse populations who might want to be Burners, rather than “marketing” ourselves at communities of color.

But at the same time, as simple a question as whether a dream-catcher-like-thing should have been on the wall and whose responsibility it is to explain why or why not broke the conversation into schisms – not just between members of different cultures but within members of different cultures.

Diversity isn’t something you can just say “yes” or “no” to: there are many visions of “diversity” and what it implies, and people of good conscience from all backgrounds have conflicting ideas of what a diverse community looks like and how it behaves. In fact, it looks suspiciously like even if we were to put together an agreement amongst ourselves about what diversity at Burning Man is, the people we’re trying to reach might disagree.

While the discussion was conducted with respect and compassion, it also became very uncomfortable. As well it should. Anything less than an uncomfortable conversation is probably window dressing. Uncomfortable conversations are useful because they take us past the idea that there are convenient answers we can lean on and motions we can go through. We may have to try to “be” diverse without ever agreeing on “what” exactly diversity is.

And that’s okay, as long as we’re doing the work with respect, compassion, and even inspiration. Radical Self-Expression is as much a principle as Radical Inclusion, and actually agreeing with someone isn’t required to include them.

 Cover photo:  a crowd outside Que Viva! Camp, 2015

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

22 Comments on “This Is What a Real Diversity Conversation Looks Like

  • Jimmy Kimmel says:

    My apologies to Matt Damon; we ran out of time

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  • Scott says:

    Asking ‘dumb’ questions is a critical step on educating yourself. Refusing to answer them just sounds like being a dick.

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    • Fin says:

      It’s important to remember, Scott, that no one is required to educate other people, no one is required to answer a question that they, for whatever reason, do not feel comfortable doing so.

      A woman asserting her boundaries on what she is willing to do for a man is not “being a dick”, and that’s a very important reminder for our community.

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      • JV says:

        This is where identity politics and viewing the world through the lens of intersectionality collapses in on itself. It’s not “doing work” to answer a genuine question. It’s being a human being. People have different areas of experience and expertise. For someone to shut down an attempt at dialogue and understanding like this seems counterproductive to me. If it were me asking that question, I’d come away from the experience angry and unwilling to further understand or accommodate whatever it is that was being asked.

        As for diversity in general in BRC, I honestly can’t believe we as a community have ever discouraged it. But, one of the core concepts of the event is radical self-reliance. If you can get your ass out there, you are welcome to join us. If you aren’t doing that, then who cares?

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      • The REAL burning man says:

        So I shouldn’t ask Native Americans about their culture.

        But when I looked online to find out about Native culture, most websites told me not to do internet research because the info out there was so bad, but to instead talk to Native people.

        The way you engage with a culture and learn about it is by talking to people from it. It’s not my job to learn about your culture. I’m perfectly happy in my life. If my lack of knowledge of your oral traditions offends you then it’s up to you to do something about it.

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      • creatur says:

        not answering a question about an action you took is being afraid to defend your action. hence no answer, but an insult. who is the oppressor??

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  • Mauna says:

    The problem starts when we begin to put our identity fully into our view of the world and then start proselytizing it as the right way. At that very moment there was an opportunity to turn the conversation towards the root of the problem, self-righteousness, and how that impacts our new social interactions within the framework of the ten principles.
    Self-righteousness is radical seclusion.

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  • Diogenes says:

    Reminds me of the infamous amended ‘rule’ in Animal Farm:
    All animals are equal ; but some animals are more equal than others.

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  • Trilo Byte says:

    Good post, and interesting moment. I’m of the opinion that there is something inherently wrong with crying out about something being offensive, and then not explaining why. From what you’ve posted it doesn’t sound like the person asking the question was trolling or baiting the speaker, and in that case the refusal puts the brakes on learning and understanding. Also, was the art even clearly labeled with the words ‘dream catcher’ or was the speaker merely reminded of a dream catcher by the piece and so took it upon themselves to be offended and to remove the art themselves. Let’s think about that for a minute, can you imagine what Burning Man would be like if people just started randomly taking down other peoples’ art because the participant saw fit to take offense? I kind of hope it was some kind of shill-tastic plant, like maybe it was a prop put there specifically so the speaker could have staged their moment of outrage… and not another person’s art that was made or donated for the event.

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    • Nexus says:

      “…they can’t demand that oppressed peoples undertake this work on their behalf: they have to be responsible for educating themselves and taking that initiative.”

      While I can understand where this is coming from, the people in this room where there TO educate themselves. The GLC is geared to be an opportunity for co-learning, among other things.

      And there were certainly uncomfortable moments, as another breakout session titled “Respect 101: Defining and Understanding the Language of Race and Privilege and Us” certainly was. But they are also supposed to be productive, which their decision to provoke by way of the act of taking down the dream catcher but then disengage certainly wasn’t.

      In terms of making Burning Man a more diverse event/experience/community, I’ll reference something from the Respect 101 breakout session which I really appreciated.

      The speaker simply said that if folks think that Black Rock City needs to more diverse (in whatever diversity might or might not manifest itself in your own life), the place to start is within your own community at home, and with your own circle of friends.

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    • Moziah says:

      excellent point Trilo.

      Don’t steal a creation, make a sarcastic comment about its proper use and the NOT say what the proper use is…just arrogant ignorance personified. Because I doubt if the individual truly knows what the real use of the Dream Catcher was intended…otherwise he/she would have simply summed it all up quickly. But he/she had time to be arrogantly ignorant and pompous.

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  • The REAL burning man says:

    It’s “not a real dream catcher” and it’s not being used as a dream catcher and nobody else called it a dream catcher, but I’m taking it down because Native Americans have a monopoly on circles with strings and feathers.

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    • Paul D. says:

      when a dream catcher comes from the culture of several native tribes that made them as a medicine symbol for a specific person. the dream catcher had a ritual behind making it for the well being of the person of the person who asked for it and disposed of it after it’s intended use. if it is not used in it’s intended context then yeah it’s not a real dream catcher like a censer being used as a dangly bit of jewlery hanging off your rearview mirror isn’t really a censer.
      responding to the unpacking of why the speaker didn’t feel like explaining several hundred years of religious oppression and governmental repression of native ritual and spirituality in context with commercialization of native symbols and governmental oversight on who was considered a native, and/or what constituted native art and craft while on the side selling religious artifacts for 200 years of America’s existence. See Jimmy kimmel’s comment at the top of the page

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    • Moziah says:

      it was very selfish to call it a dream catcher, take it down and then state “it’s not being used the right way”…and then not telling the group how it is truly supposed to be used was just condescending, arrogant and pompous. Was the dream “snatcher” Native American? I doubt it…but it’s typical of those who want to covertly oppress others to steal symbols of culture, define them and to become arrogant as to it’s (the symbols) rightful use. Whatever is was…it was created and to steal another’s creation and to place a sudo-definition on it.. is just theft! the thief should not have been allowed to continue speaking…but time ran out…so the karmic energy reigned.

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  • Kate says:

    Every commenter above refusing to own their privilege and demanding further emotional work of oppressed persons as a condition for convincing persons of privilege out of their prejudice is the reason POC aren’t coming to BRC in greater numbers. I’m ashamed of us. Read a book. Start with the “Syllabus for white people to educate themselves”
    But don’t be mad at this woman because she didn’t have the emotional reserve that day to explain all the nuances of how to have this conversation with respect since it’s clear a lot of folks were starting at zero. It’s complicated. Let’s start trying a little harder.

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    • Nexus says:

      If she were just another participant or attendee, sure, I would totally agree with you. But she was on the panel, an invitation she freely accepted.

      If she didn’t have the emotional reserve to be part of a panel to have that conversation, she should have recused herself. Being on a panel at any of these breakout or unconference sessions was work that those panelists were willing to partake. If this person didn’t want to do the work of being on a panel about this particular topic, then she should have said no to the invitation which happened the day of, as she wasn’t part of the original panel.

      Let’s also be clear, if the person who asked the question hadn’t, I was about to, and I am not a white male.

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  • roissy says:

    As I have observed: Those who claim not to care are the ones always counting…

    For true diversity you have to stop counting…

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  • Demobius says:

    The symbology of the Burning Man is straight out of European tribal tradition. Anyone who studies history knows that the Burning Man dates back at least to the early iron age Celts in the British Isles. We don’t know if, like Stonehenge, it was adopted from the earlier megalithic culture. There are other cultural relics still celebrated today, like Halloween and May Day. We still send maidens out to wind bright colored garlands around the god-penis May Pole. We still celebrate Freya’s Wheel at Yuletide. Maybe Native Americans would be less concerned about cultural appropriation is Europeans didn’t discount their own tribal traditions.

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  • Voo-Doo says:

    Woah! Heavy stuff.

    If you want diversity- You’ve got to NOT want diversity.
    You don’t organize random.
    Stop counting and simply let it happen.

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  • Moziah says:

    And…as far as diversity at Burning Man goes…JUST GO!

    people have to stop counting who there and who is not. Just go and BE the experience.

    And when people do…. Just GO! Don’t count, just experience!

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