This is the second entry in a new, long-form series designed to spark conversation about diversity, Radical Inclusion, and differences in the global Burning Man community. Topics will include: where the lines are for cultural appropriation of art, music, and fashion, is “Why aren’t there more people of color at Burning Man?” the question we should be asking, how far the 10 Principles stretch beyond the playa, and what being a year-round, worldwide culture means for the inclusiveness and diversity of Burning Man.
Marlon Williams is the Assistant Director for Public Sector Innovation at Living Cities, a national organization that works to build more racially and economically equitable urban centers in the United States. Marlon wants to build cities where “you don’t have to be lucky to get ahead.” He was born in Guyana and grew up in Brooklyn. Marlon first visited Black Rock City in 2011 and has camped with Chakralicious and People of Color Camp.
Transcript edited for clarity.
Dominique: How did Burning Man become a part of your life?
Marlon: Burning Man first came to me through a storytelling podcast. It was this weird place that I Googled at work and I said, “OK, that seems like a great thing, but I don’t really have access or an entry into it.” [That was] until I met my now current wife and found out that she had gone to this incredible thing. She lived in San Francisco and I think going to Burning Man was a little bit of a rite of passage, but I hadn’t planned on going back until we got together. Then I went to Burning Man for my first time and, it was just all the cliches of a transformational experience.
But even in that [first experience] I felt there was a difference between going to Burning Man and being a Burner versus being a Burner of color. I’ve been to the Burn seven years now and it took me a number of years to try and figure out a way to reconcile those two things.
Was there any hesitation on the front end for you being a person of color going out to Black Rock City?
Yeah, so my primary motivation to go the first time was that I’m a planner by trade. My work primarily focuses on building more equitable cities throughout the world, and for me, “better” means ones that are more racially equitable.
So going to a place where you get to rebuild a city from scratch every year seemed to be the perfect learning lab. I just wanted to see how that works, what that meant, and just experience that opportunity. Because mostly when I work, you’re working with what you’ve got, and the idea to just be able to recreate something every year [really] resonated with me as a planner.
On a personal note, as a person of color, I remember the thing I was most afraid about: I could prepare, I could buy the list of things that I needed, but the thing I was most afraid about actually was what I was going to wear. A lot of being a person of color navigating through the world, and particularly navigating in very white spaces, you’re constantly trying to figure out, “How do you safely navigate those spaces and try to fit in?” The idea of radical expression terrified me a little bit, right?
Because it was about trying out, “How do I move among these folks?” For me there was a sense of like, “I’ve spent so much of my life trying to be grounded and solid in my identity as a black man that wearing some sort of costume felt like a turning back away from that.” I was trying to be myself authentically in all the spaces I could show up in, and wearing a costume just seemed like a backwards step. I was afraid that I wouldn’t find something that felt real or authentic to me.
You’re working to build more equitable cities. Looking at this issue of diversity from your professional experience and also your personal experience as a Burner, what do you have to say generally about the diversity that you have seen and experienced in Black Rock City? Is it an equitable city?
Where I start with that conversation is to remember that people often say, “Burning Man is on another planet.” I really like to remind folks that in my travels to Black Rock City, I am traveling through America, and that Black Rock City is a very American city. Even [through] the typical ways in which it tries to have a constitution and Principles and trying to have inclusion, without affirmatively trying to move forward on that ethos, [it] just replicate[s] all the things that already exist within the default world.
Black Rock City is not on another planet. It’s very much on Earth, and specifically the United States, with all the challenges of our racial histories. That comes into that space because our racial history is in the groundwater of all the places that we are in. So it infects all those pieces and sets up disparities in the pipeline of who can see this as a place they might want to be or feel faith in.
I also like to think about the differences when you set up a table and you say, “Everyone is welcome.” Are you setting up a table behind closed doors and saying, “Everybody could get here and find it,” or are you actually going out into the world and trying to bring people to the table that you’ve created?
Those are two very different actions. I think we say, “We want to have Radical Inclusion,” but I think we really just settled on being inclusionary in thought and in design, [but] we haven’t been radical about it.
To be radical about it would be to take more action and to be affirmatively moving individuals to understand, “What would it take for this to be a place that other folks might feel safe to be in?” Right now, we just kind of have set up those expectations of, “It’s inclusionary.” Inclusionary for whom? When you think back to our Constitution that says, “All men are created equal,” even within that idea is the assumption that the Constitution originally meant just all white, land‑owning men. Even though we have Radical Inclusion [as one of our 10 Principles], it often gets interpreted as Radical Inclusion for white people who have felt excluded from a lot of other experiences.
In some earlier conversations we had, you’ve brought up the notion that Radical Self‑expression might stem from white privilege. Can you expand on that?
When I think about what makes Burning Man special, I think about the Principles that it’s built upon. But even within those 10 Principles, [they’re still] tied to some of the challenges we have as a country.
What is the primary privilege of whiteness? The privilege of whiteness allows you to be an individual while everybody else gets categorized by their [race]. Self‑expression was always something really challenging for me, because in my daily life in the default world people always approach me and see me first as a black man before any other data point gets to be expressed. Oftentimes I don’t have the opportunity with most people I encounter with to go any deeper than that. One of the primary privileges of whiteness is that you get to be trusted and embraced as an individual without having any [of your] actions taken as a representation of your entire race. So Radical Self-expression really is based on the principle of white privilege and individuality. Many people of color show up in the world representationally, where I am first a ‘black man’ and I never get to be just a ‘man.’
Having a Principle that’s based on white privilege makes it difficult for people who don’t have that privilege to both see themselves as part of that community and to navigate through it. At the same time, I also think that’s been part of the transformation of what has attracted me to being in that space because I get to try and think about what it mean[s] for me to be fully expressed in a way that is not only about my own expression but my expression as a black man where I can hold those things together.
When you get to Black Rock City every year, what are the things that are different about Burning Man than say New York City, Detroit, Houston, or wherever it may be, when it comes to diversity and to your experience as a black man?
I remember my experience of coming to Black Rock City on my second year and getting to the gate and being met by the greeters and going through that practice of them saying, “Welcome home and you are beautiful.” I remember doing that one year after they had just done account after account of our black men being shot down by the police, and I felt like I was escaping a little bit into Black Rock City.
Next to me there was a white women who was also going through the very same ritual through the very same gates and she was told, “Welcome home and you are beautiful.” I remember her saying, “Yes, I am.” That broke my heart in that moment, because for her coming into the space where Radical Self-expression is emphasized and into this community it’s a reaffirmation of all of the things she had been told both in Black Rock City and in the default world about her.
While for me, I didn’t get to ever hear those words outside of those city walls. [Burning Man] was a respite, [a] time to recover from all the things telling me that I was less than and not beautiful, and ugly, and scary, and something to be feared. Though we were both citizens of the city, we were coming in with very different experiences of what it meant to arrive.
How have you navigated being a person of color in Black Rock City?
So, one of my favorite things about being black is “the nod.” The nod is [a] recognition that other people of color give each other when you’re in spaces that you’re not really supposed to be in.
I love the nod. Whenever I see a lot of folks of color, you just acknowledge each other. The nod just says, like, “I see you, you see me, it’s a fucking miracle that we’re both here and there’s a story behind that.” It’s just a way we recognize each other and how implausible, because of all the things that exist in the default world, that we’re both here in this time and space. Those random embraces I have with other people of color never [stop] feeling like magic.
I also recognize that the nod is a way in which we cope in a world that doesn’t fully feel like ours. We don’t fully feel like we belong. The nod is about saying, “We need community and we’ve got to stick together, because there’s something else here that doesn’t feel just right, sometimes.”
I go through [Black Rock City] where [it can be] a challenge to recognize that. I get lulled into feeling like, “Everyone is beautiful and we’re all here,” and you just get caught up in the thing of the moment. But the moment you see another person of color, or you have an experience that really challenges you, you kind of think back to the fact that the challenges of getting to this space and this place are really high.
I would argue that there’s a way in which we as people of color need the [Burning Man] experience more [than others]. A place where you can go to be seen, to be celebrated, to explore who you are in a deep way is I argue, more important for people of color than white folks who have that experience and opportunity in so many more spaces. That’s part of why I’m really committed to bringing more people of color out to the Burn, because of that privilege I want more people to be able to enjoy.
The structure of our default society, which extends into Black Rock City, keeps too many people of color from having access to it. That’s something I’m trying to work against and break down.
What can white Burners do to recognize what you’re talking about as real and not as just an isolated voice, and what can they do about it?
A couple of things are coming to mind. I think my first thing is a little bit from before is that I want people to recognize that Black Rock City is an American city and that we need to really understand our racial history in the United States. What is the impact it has in terms of racializing our geography, racializing our relationships to each other and the ways in which it separated us from ourselves? [We need to think about these things] so that we can try to undo that intentionally in the creation of this city that we have the privilege and the opportunity to recreate every year.
I want folks to think about not just what it means to be open but what it means to reach out and try and connect. We Burners have [these] values around connection, but how do we be truly radical?
Not just being open, but being radically inclusive. Not just saying that you can express yourself, but actually creating the space where people [who are not the same as you] can do that both in Black Rock City and beyond. I think having the requirement that someone has to go out to the desert to be a Burner is a false one, but how do we get people to be part of a community where there is power in the belief to try things.
One of the things I experience as a person of color is that the cost of taking risk is so much higher for me than for my white counterparts, because of the ways in which our society is organized. What do we do to try to create a place that’s trying to undo a lot of the impacts of the current default world and becomes something truly radically different?
I’m curious to know if you have thoughts on Immediacy, Civic Responsibility, or any of the other Principles.
As an American and as a Burner I sometimes feel heartbroken that I am in love with a country and a place that never fully accepted me as part of its identity. How can you love a country that doesn’t love you back? How can you love a place that never had you as part of [its] vision? [There’s a] distance that that creates within a person and their ability to show up fully as a citizen.
As a black man, there’s nothing that I say that is not analyzed for its consequences by a white model, because the consequences for me of the words I [say] and the actions I take are just always so much more intense.
Being radical and having Radical Self-expression and trying to live in the Immediacy, when the consequences are so much higher, that works against everything I’ve learned in order to survive. I remember after the Burn one year, we were back in Reno and some [Burners] were walking around and playing [in public] with toy weapons on them and I was like, “If I did that I would be dead.” It’s something that other folks didn’t have to think about.
Finally, another piece that always resonates with me is that sometimes the process of “becoming white” involves a disconnection from community. For many white folks, the idea of Communal Effort and being able to be part of a community effort in creating a city and a camp and an experience is so transformative, while for me that’s everything that [I’ve experienced] in order to survive. It’s what we did in order to survive in systems, in structures, in places that put us on the attack. I always find it interesting that people find Burning Man to be sometimes their first experience of Communal Effort. That’s been the thing that [has] kept me alive to this point.
Can you explain that idea?
If you live in an imperfect system from a racial standpoint, then it’s the aunts, the mothers, the grandmothers telling [you] to be careful. They’re looking out for [you], it’s us looking out for each other. It’s the pulling a child aside and giving them “the talk,” which is not about sex. It’s about how your interactions with the police [can] turn dangerous. It is about pooling resources together, because of the way systemically, we haven’t had access to wealth‑building, just so that the child could go to college, or [so] that someone could buy a home, or so that somebody [can] eat. Those are ways in which, at least in my community, we build community and support each other. It’s always been for our mutual survival.
But I think if you have the privilege of living in a system that allows you to have advantage[s] and is built for your success, you never have to rely on those communities, because you have a system that’s about your privilege. [Living] with Communal Effort seems so natural to me, while I see that for some [Burners] it’s revolutionary.
Anything you want to add?
Narratives are really important and even despite your policies, practices, even your actions, the narrative about who you are as Burners and who you’re trying to be is going to predetermine if anybody’s willing to see your actions or feel welcome into the place. I do really feel challenged, [like the 10 Principles] sometimes [don’t] represent me, and that [they] represent the manifestation of white privilege in all its many ways. I still struggle to resolve being a Burner and being black, because [of] the ways in which there’s dissonance with the idea of the Principles. It’s a healthy conversation though, and it’s important to engage with it.
Each year I find myself making the pilgrimage back to Black Rock City for many of the same reasons I came that first time. My life’s work is about building better and more equitable cities, and I believe that getting to “better” is going to take a lot of iteration. Driven by a set of radical ideals we must test bold ideas, learn from what works, and let go of the ideas and strategies that no longer serve all of us. I can’t think of a better place to practice this than Black Rock City, a place that is born and burned again each year so we can strive to get closer to our dreams.
Top photo: Meeting the morning sun at the Temple in 2013. (Photo by Cali Williams)