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.