The State of the Diversity Conversation (Observations From the Field)

I don’t want to talk about diversity right now — I don’t have anything new to say about diversity at Burning Man that I haven’t already said elsewhere (such as here, here, and here).  But I do want to talk about the conversation about diversity.

Let’s get meta.

I’ve recently been traveling around to different areas of the U.S., talking to Burners, and the topic of “diversity” in some form has come up every time. Anyone who thinks “this isn’t something Burning Man talks about” is clearly not paying attention, because from what I’ve observed over the last several years, it is a topic that most people who consider themselves an active part of Burning Man communities are actively trying, passionately trying, to talk about. (This includes Burning Man headquarters, for sure.) The amount of attention paid to it, and verbiage spilled on it, is enormous.

So why, if everyone wants to have this conversation, has it led to what pretty much everyone agrees is too little progress? Talking with Burners on my recent trips, I have two observations about that.

A Comments Section Is Not a Conversation

The first is the extraordinary degree to which these conversations are different when they are conducted in person and when they are conducted online.

While of course I have seen in-person conversations about diversity go off the rails, I have now had enough conversations about diversity at Burning Man online and in person to say that, in my experience, they are predictably different things. The recent in-person conversations I’ve had about diversity with Burners have been as far from online’s angry screeds and call outs and defensiveness as one could possibly get.

Participants were firm in their convictions, absolutely, but they were also compassionate. They understood just how difficult the conversation can be, and how conflicted we can be about it based on our own backgrounds and histories.  They listened as much as they talked, and wanted to listen more. They were not blaming anybody, just looking for solutions. They were saddened by the way these conversations seem to turn into something completely different online, where people don’t so much talk as comment at each other.

And obviously “people who go to my book events” is not a representative sampling of “Burning Man participants,” let alone a larger population still. Some people are also trying to troll in person, too. Yet it did clearly demonstrate to me that not only is a different, better kind of conversation about diversity possible, but that people are having it in person.

This, I think, matters to know. By definition the conversations that happen online are more visible — but they are not more representative.

Hard Conversations Take Practice

The second observation is something that many people brought up in place after place, location after location: however eager we are to “solve” this, we also need to recognize that this is not a conversation we are good at having. That is something we need to be more aware of every time we talk about it: we are not good at talking about this, and need to proceed as though we’re learning the basics, rather than leading a graduate seminar.

However much we want to jump to the end and “solve diversity” right now, I don’t think we’re ready.  In fact, a big part of our problem is that even among people of good will, doing and speaking in good faith, there is no clear agreement on what a “solution” looks like. We have identified a problem, and are clear on the direction we want to move in, but we don’t yet agree on where we’re going, or what success actually looks like.

When you think it about it, it’s quite appropriate that a discussion on “diversity” includes many diverse viewpoints, rather than a singular vision. But all too often we act as though there is a single page we need everybody to get on, and we proceed to discuss it as if that were the case.

We are bad at this. Not uniquely bad: the idea that Burning Man is worse at talking about diversity than other institutions in our culture is laughable. For all that it is a righteous one, this is a wickedly hard conversation. Our problem is that, because Burning Man is seen as culturally enlightening and in possession of moral authority, people (ourselves included) assume we must be good at talking about tough subjects. We’re not.

We value Radical Inclusion. We still struggle with it. The two are both true at once. (In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere that it is the nature of Radical Inclusion that you struggle with it. If it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.)

A Hopeful Thought About Where We Go From Here

For all that we are bad at this, I left these conversations more optimistic than I started. To realize that the diversity conversations online are not actually representative of the diversity conversations happening in person is comforting — and to see them happening with insight and compassion is deeply gratifying.

And the thing about hard conversations is, we can get better at them.

Indeed, if there is a common thread that has been linking my recent thoughts on the hardest topics Burning Man culture faces, it is this: Burning Man doesn’t need more rules or rubrics — about diversity, about art, about economics, about plug-and-play — nearly as much as it needs community members who practice having hard conversations enough to get better at them.

Rules are, almost by definition, one-size-fits all, and after a certain point won’t serve a genuinely diverse community, while people who are genuinely good at hard conversations with people not in their immediate community have a much better chance of finding truly inclusive solutions that also allow us to move forward — not as one single entity, but as each of the thousands of communities that make up “Burning Man” around the world.

To me, what this suggests is that conversations about diversity are best handled locally, in person. By all means, look to far off thinkers and insightful articles and commentaries as inspiration — but have the conversations with the people around you, and nearby, about the situations you’re actually in.

To the extent I’ve seen that happening, those conversations about diversity have been genuinely inspiring, and I’m grateful.

Top photo: “Open Hearted Meditator” by Swig Miller, 2018 (photo by Mattias Löw)

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

21 Comments on “The State of the Diversity Conversation (Observations From the Field)

  • leonard oken says:

    Not really sure what you mean by ” diversity “.I would like to see Burning Man really stay out of politics. Burning Man is opened to everyone who wants to attend, as far as I know, let’s keep it that way.

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  • Eboni says:

    New to the possibilities of Burning man … I’ve been curious from the side lines “spectator”, because I wasn’t sure if there was a space for me to “participate”’. As a mature woman of color I’ve grown tired of fighting for opportunities to insert myself, it’s tooo much fucking work to constantly explain that “we” can learn from each other. Damn! Can I just Be? Tired of being a token anything and and my question was, how would this be any different at burning man?

    And Boom!!! It hit me, asking the question made me realize the only way I’ll know is to “go” and approach the burn in my true self from a black woman’s perspective with no expectations whatsoever. So I’m actively seeking access from multiple sources with the same attitude I want to go, yes “I just soo happen to be black” but I’m also a dope ass person, who’s creative and confident… let’s see what doors open/close. In a nutshell attempting to gain access through the application of the 10 principles that reflect the communities culture. We’ll see if Black Rock is ready for Black Girl Magic. Thank you for the perspective

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    • Mark says:

      Amen. Just go and be you. I think that’s a great plan!

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    • Robin Alexandra says:

      Being a 54 yr old woman who is a 9 year attendee, I highly recommend just going! Like you would to any other new place or event.
      Please make sure to practice self care on playa. I bring an open mind and my sense of wonder, and the art was plain off the hook this year! Also, I find folks just plain friendly on playa! A smile goes a long way no matter where you are.

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    • David says:

      Elboni— You mentioned the magic word…. “magic”! Our camp, Naked Heart may be just the nest you are seeking. Check us out and apply if you feel called:

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    • Ricky says:

      The best advice I could ever give is exactly what you seem to be leaning into… gotta go! The truth is, nothing can prepare you for the human magic of your first Burn, the overwhelming sense of community, creativity, awe, and the impact it might have on you. The spontaneous moments of the goodness of the human spirit on the playa are like no other places on earth!

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    • Enara Hug says:

      “Loved what Ricky said..”The spontaneous moments of the goodness of the human spirit on the playa are like no other places on earth!” I am a little old lady (74) and had my own concerns about inserting is THE BEST THING I have ever done. 2019 was my sixth time on playa and my Social Security annual budget revolves around my pilgrimage to Burning Man. All I can say is “GO, DEAR LADY. GO! Bring your MAGIC!”

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  • Yollo says:

    It comes down to who your friends (the kind you invite to BM) really are, and who you merely acquaint with.

    Birds of a feather, kinda thing.

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  • SinglePly says:

    I’m glad you are discussing your diversity problem. Burning Man is inherently racist because it is has been a playpen for affluent white people. You may or may not have intended it to go that way but it did. Your company controls who gets in to Black Rock City. Your company can make meaningful improvements to your diversity problem by implementing 100 percent directed ticketing and inviting diverse artists and performers and volunteers to participate.

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  • iCloud login says:

    Be aware of unconscious bias. Building awareness is the first step toward real change. …
    Communicate the importance of managing bias. …
    Offer diversity and inclusion training. …
    Acknowledge the holidays of all cultures. …
    5. Make it easy for your people to participate in employee resource groups. …
    Mix up your teams.

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  • Silver says:

    What we need to do with this conversation is be more honest. There is both tremendous diversity at Burning Man and lack of diversity at Burning Man. This diversity discussion is really about Black People of Color. Just say it. To add to your point, Burning Man has created a vast regional network which places Burns within the geographical and financial reach of many folks, yet from my observations, the Black People of Color at regional events are also underrepresented. BMORG is not doing anything to prevent regionals from creating events that increase diversity – so why isn’t it happening? If we want more diversity at the main event, then improve diversity at regionals. Dear regionals – step it up.

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  • Chuck says:

    The first step to address this issue is radically honest communication. When you say “diversity”, what you mean is racial diversity. The Burning Man community is diverse in many ways, but not so much racially. There I said it. It has to be OK to use the R word if we are going to have non-double speak conversations. I think it is critical to Burning Man’s core principles that EVERYONE be invited, welcomed, and included in the community. It has to be an ongoing task of self-examination to insure that this is true. We have to realize, however, that not everyone wants to participate in the Burning Man community. Racial and ethnic groups do have a propensity to auto-segregate. Burning Man is an entirely optional thing. It is not like access to education, health care, or public transportation. Participants have to want to be a part of the BM community. Is it really our agenda to entice/coerce people to join in so that we can hit our target diversity numbers? That seems profoundly disingenuous and wrong. Quotas should not be the metric for success in racial diversity. Is it Burning Man organization’s explicit agenda/mission to solve society’s racial inequalities? That is a tall order and it is not clear BM org is to be entrusted with making social engineering decisions for all of us. No IMO the best way is for the BM community to level up in their personal dedication to Radical Inclusion. I am sure most BM participants do not consider themselves racist. The fact is ALL OF US have latent preconceptions and biases based on race. It is part of the human condition. Until we accept that, we can’t be aware of the unconscious everyday decisions we make that cause us to auto-segregate our community. If you really have a dedication to Radical Inclusion, you must examine how your own personal choices may excluding people from your life. In the long run, I think BM diversity can ONLY succeed if it comes from the community. Explicit acts to directly manipulate the racial makeup by BM org are likely to backfire. BM org can and should examine what it can do to help the existing BM community to honestly check themselves on their Radical Inclusiveness and brainstorm what actions they can take in their person lives to expand their own life experience with greater inclusivity. People need to understand that they may be missing opportunities in their own life if they are not creating relationships with people who look differently, speak differently, have differing values and customs. Radical Inclusiveness is not just an ethical duty, it is an opportunity for a richer human experience. BM org can best facilitate greater diversity by sharing that vision with the community and inspiring the community to take action.

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  • Steve says:

    I think Burning Man could, and should, be more diverse. After all, if we’re creating something positive out there, we want that to be experienced by as many different people as possible. As an observation, I have personally heard black people say quite definitively, “I don’t camp”. From what I could gather, it was sort of a personal distaste for being somewhere where it was more difficult to maintain hygiene, and where more physical discomfort could be encountered. That’s the case for regular camping too, not just Burning Man. Anyone who has been camping in a national park can probably also attest to the lack of people of color in parks and on the trails. So the question is, how do we encourage more people to enjoy experiences like Burning Man, and feel welcome? Of course, this is limited by the fact that Burning Man sells out every year now, and it’s hard for anyone to get a ticket.

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  • Over it says:

    Ugh ….. God help you if you have any Real issues in life.

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  • Neil says:

    Diversity. After everyone defines that word to what the mainstream has programmed us to understand that word to mean, let’s break that negative cycle and try to embrace real diversity, not programmed diversity. How about diversity of thought and belief? Let’s raise the bar and make diversity more interesting and less definable, open our minds to a higher standard and calling, that’s ultimately what we want, we really LIKE and APPRECIATE. That’s Burning Man.

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  • Philip Schwartz says:

    I attended the Radical Inclusion Must Mean Racial Inclusion March at Burning Man this year. The leadership of the march told us that they had contacted the Org about the march and someone from the Org promised to have someone present on behalf of the Org – no one in leadership for the Org showed up. This was a well organized march with an associated petition to the BM Board of Directors prior to BM. Having no one show up certainly gave me the impression that BM does not care about racial inclusion. While I appreciate that Radical Inclusion is a broader concept than Racial Inclusion, I think it clearly should be included within the broader concept.

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    • Di says:

      It is included. Neither racial, cultural, sexual, ethnical, idealogical nor snarkikal receives any kind of spotlight…in fact, to give any of them such elevation would be a celebration of that identity as it is elevating some over others for the duration of that march rather than a celebration of radical inclusion.
      A march for radical inclusion would be simply carrying a banner that said “everyone welcome” or something to that effect.

      That said, to prevent a racial inclusion march would also be against that principle and the moment that happens I’ll stand with you.

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  • Brenden Darby says:

    I think that Diversity and Inclusion groups being offered a seat at the table to the planning of Burning Man can really help. If POC, Queer, Female, ect. groups are supported (with resources and finances) by Burning Man Org and are able to directly express their needs to Burning Man Leadership then you can really see how to be a more inclusive environment.

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    • Di says:

      There are applications for staff positions sent out via the newsletter often. I’m sure that with the right candidate that could indeed happen! (or already has, I have no idea who’s on the board these days)

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  • Di says:

    I see more and more burning man art and culture grow infected with politics. This troubles me deeply as an ever-increasing culture of entitlement and sensitivity has already cut a deep swath through my local community…our weekly meetup is a thing of a past, we now have 2 regional burns one of which has is headed by two of our largest camps which could no longer stand the nonsense…

    All this talk is dragging us away from the culture we have in common and replacing it with a culture we do not, all in the name of a common cause which our common culture was already a champion of.

    Stop this madness, please. I miss my community and I hate to see more of it become divided and slip away.

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