Diversity & Radical Inclusion: Erin Douglas and the Black Burner Project

This is the fourth entry in a long-form series designed to spark conversation about diversity, Radical Inclusion, and differences in the global Burning Man community.

Erin Douglas started Black Burner Project in 2018, a project that aims to spread awareness of the people of color who attend the Burning Man event in Black Rock City through photography and personal stories, and help them prepare for the week in the desert. She first visited Black Rock City in 2017, and is an artist and photographer based out of Baltimore.

Transcript edited for clarity.

Dominique: How did Burning Man come into your life?

Erin: Several years ago, a great friend of mine had gone for the first time and she couldn’t stop talking about it. Some seven years later [in 2017] she gifted me a ticket for my birthday. I had no intent on going, I don’t know if I’d mentioned I would go in conversation, but she never really pushed. She just always spoke about it but never really went into much detail or really trying to convince me, so it kept me curious but not curious enough to take action myself. So she just gifted me a ticket. I didn’t know how much it cost, I just knew that it was generous, and I felt like it was pretty intentional, as if she felt like I needed to be there, and so I just said OK and that was it. She said don’t worry about a tent or a bike, just get your flight and your food.

Photo by Isiah Roberts

So up to that point in 2017 had you ever heard of Burning Man?

I only heard of it from her. When she gave me the ticket, that was her seventh year, and I knew her before she became a Burner. I didn’t have a perception of it. I just knew [it as] this place that was kind of life-changing for her.

It just so happened that as soon as she came back and spoke about it, [it started to feel like] every event I went to I [would hear] the words “Burning Man.” It was so weird to me. My friend [had] just [returned], it’s the first time I’d ever heard about it, and now I’m meeting everybody who seems to have something to say about Burning Man.

What were your first impressions of Black Rock City?

Leading up to Burning Man, I was nervous unlike I had been nervous before. I’d never had nerves like I had when I was preparing mentally for Burning Man and what it could possibly be. I have a diverse group of friends, but this was so out of the box for me. I [didn’t] know if [I would] see any people of color. It was a really weird dynamic of emotions because it wasn’t like I wasn’t used to being the only person of color when I traveled. But I knew this would be different, there [were] going to be so many new things for me and perceptions. I just wasn’t sure if it was for me. [It] was very hard for me to find another person of color to ask, “Am I gonna be OK?”

I finally found a friend [of color] and his girlfriend who I totally forgot had gone [to Black Rock City]. He gave me the rundown and said, “You’re going to be fine. Go out there, just be open to it. You’re gonna have a blast.”

Then he put me in touch with his girlfriend at the time, and you know, we spoke about hair. I remember thinking, “Man, that simple fact I couldn’t even ask anyone about made this huge difference.” Those simple, short conversations really eased my nerves. 

Then I remember finally getting out there. My campmates, who I hadn’t met before, picked me up from the airport. We had been in [the Gate] line for hours during the day, and by the time we got in it was dark. We rode in on some street that was [filled with] crazy‑looking camps. We were all virgins and I just remember us all being lost for words and then me just being like, “I have no clue what we just stepped into.” I couldn’t really figure out what the next day was going to be like or what people do out there. It was totally different than what I had expected.

Photo by Erin Douglas

So walk me through your progression. You’ve been to the playa three years in a row now. How has it been?

There [have been] huge changes every year. I had never camped before [going to Black Rock City for the first time]. I had never put up a tent, I hadn’t been in the desert. I was super nervous about being cold at night. My campmates and friends were great with getting me situated, but I didn’t really go out much on my own the first year. I was timid and just uncomfortable. I spent so much time baby‑wiping myself, I probably lost a whole day. I remember not allowing myself to “just let go” in my head. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back another year, but [I knew] if I did that I would totally do things differently. 

The next year was such a progression. I was definitely more free and I allowed myself to let go and not think about things too deeply, like how dusty or “ashy” I felt. I was like, “Whoa, this is huge for me.” The fact that I talked exuberantly with my hands looking crazy and I wasn’t freaking out about them or what the other person may be thinking. That was a huge turning point.

Photo by Erin Douglas

Where did the Black Burner Project idea come from?

Leading up to my first Burn, I thought, “Where are these nerves coming from? Why are they so prevalent? Why do I feel this way?” I also had a hard time finding people of color [on playa]. So that stayed with me.

When I returned home after my first year and began posting photos I had taken I started receiving an influx of messages from people about Burning Man. They would say things like, “I never knew anybody who looks like me goes to Burning Man,” or “I’ve known about it for so long, but put it on the back burner because I figured we don’t go.” So many messages and they all said the same thing. Or I had people who were just like, “What is this dusty place that you’re posting?”

Honestly, that’s really where it came from because on one side, I’m like man, there are people who’ve known about it for longer than me and actually had interest in it, but aren’t going because there’s very little evidence that people who look like them attend. I thought that was super unfortunate, they were missing out on a possible transformative, life‑changing experience. Who knows what going to Burning Man would have led to for them if they had gone 10 years prior when they first heard about it?

Then for those people who didn’t know about it, I felt there were cultural reasons for why we don’t know about it. Not many of us go [to BRC], so you don’t see other people [there] and, thus we don’t talk about, then you don’t know about it or hear about it. It’s just a cycle.

Photo by Erin Douglas

So that’s really where the idea came from. People were messaging me, and I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll go back and take photos of people,” and [like I said previously], I really wasn’t sure if I was gonna go back. It was really different for me to think about putting myself out there in that way. I wasn’t sure how it would work exactly, but I figured I would just go out there and see. Honestly, it wasn’t until I came back and [started] going through and editing and being like, “Oh, I’m liking what I’ve got.”

Is that when you came up with the name, “Black Burner Project?”

At first I didn’t have a name for it, but then I realized, “Oh man, I’m gonna need an Instagram page” and a project name. I had no clue what I was doing. I actually didn’t want to name it Black Burner Project because I didn’t want it to solely focus on black people. But it just sounded better, and I also thought everybody is mixed with black somehow. So I went with that, but [the intention] is to speak about people of color in general. I put a lot of energy behind it. I remember sitting on the plane coming back [from Nevada in 2018], and having headphones in my ears, blasting music, and just scribbling and rocking out. I’m not one to rock out like that on a plane without thinking of what people may be thinking of me, but I couldn’t stop. It was all this creative energy of ideas and excitement bursting out of me like I’d never experienced before.

The group photo kind of put things in perspective. I started to tell people on [playa] on Wednesday [of my first year] to meet me [for the photo] on Friday at 6pm. I didn’t expect even two people to show up. I was riding out [to the meet-up spot] convincing myself to be happy if three people showed. But then all these people showed up. At that time, 25 to me was…I mean…a lot. I cried riding back to my camp. It was like everybody had heard about it. It meant so much to me on so many levels at that time. 

Photo by Erin Douglas

The 2019 photo seemed like a way bigger group. What do you attribute that to?

People were so excited and thoughtful. People came to find me all week. They’d walk in my camp and my campmates would just say, “She’s over there,” and point them towards me. It was just the weirdest thing, and it took a lot of energy out of me. I spent a lot of time talking to people and they were saying the most beautiful things and I just wasn’t used to it, like how [the project] meant so much to them and what I meant to them. I had to learn how to accept and receive beautiful words of affirmation and love from strangers. This past year more people were hearing about it and spreading the word like wildfire. It actually became a stressful week for me. I still had no clue how epic it would be.

The day of the photo shoot, I was getting close to the Man, and I saw like 50 people, and then more people starting showing up. I had kind of an out-of-body experience, I don’t know what happened after that. One of my campmates put a megaphone in my hand and told me “this is your moment,” and I just tried to organize everyone in this formation I’d had in my head. It didn’t go as planned but it was more beautiful than I ever expected. When it was done, people were [coming up to me] and crying.

Photo by Erin Douglas

One thing that jumps out to me most on the website is the simplicity of the tagline at the bottom, “You belong here.” It’s short, and sweet, and powerful. Can you tell me what that means in the context of Black Burner Project and the context of your life and what you’re working on?

As a black girl who has been unsure and not the most confident, and a little timid or not the one who stands out, knowing that I belong in the state that I want is [important]. Pulling from my journey and evolution as a woman of color and an artist, and how much that’s changed just from my first step into the dust. Then knowing how many experiences people have missed out on, solely because they feel like they don’t belong [at Burning Man].

Sometimes we keep ourselves in a box and we’ve made it OK to not know how to quote‑unquote “swim” or not know, not chant, or not do these things. Or you feel weird if you find interest in things that aren’t culturally what we do.

The fact that [some] people think they don’t belong at Burning Man, I just wanted that to be a thing where you’re like, “You belong. It doesn’t matter what you think people do [in BRC] because it’s such an individual experience and event. You can connect and you can totally understand what it’s all about. It’s just literally for you.”

When people reach out to me [they often say] that they didn’t think it was for them. That’s also just a cultural thing. We’ve kind of allowed ourselves to define what is black or black enough, or we limit what we are open to doing. If it’s me showing that other people of color do things that we aren’t normally known to do, that’s the gift I’m trying to give. I’m taking ownership and not really putting it on someone else to do the work.

Photo by Erin Douglas

What do you want white Burners to take away from the “You Belong Here” message? How do you explain the need for that to those who don’t necessarily experience it themselves?

I’ve obviously received so many amazing, beautiful messages and feedback from white Burners or non‑people of color. But I definitely have had some people who just don’t get it. I always find it interesting because I think the biggest reason why people don’t get it is because they don’t have to. If I am making a statement and I’m a person of color, then all you have to realize is that if I’m saying this, then there must be a reason. If there’s a reason then the best you can do is listen. The worst thing you can do is say I’m wrong, it’s not a big deal, or minimize what I’m saying or act in any way like you can relate. You can’t know the answer about the feelings or the reasons why this is important because you aren’t a person of color. Just ask a question and then listen.

Photo by Erin Douglas

I’ve been at our camp’s bar and said to [non] people of color, “I’m working on this project documenting people of color [at Burning Man],” and I see their faces change because they’d been going to Burning Man for years and just the notion of the lack of diversity never even crossed their mind. They’re like, “Oh, my gosh. It’s not diverse here.”

No, it’s not, and you never had to think about it or feel it. I can’t blame you. You don’t have to feel it, so why would you even think about it? It’s not something that would be on your mind. If the tables were turned and you were in a mass of people who don’t look like you, you would be uncomfortable. If you saw a group of people who looked like you, there would be a sense of calmness [or] comfort, and you would want to go over to them. But [Black Rock City] is a great space to have these conversations. I’ve found more people do listen and want to understand and are supportive and realize the beauty in a project focus like this. You can take all of that back into your regular life.

Photo by Brian King

Top photo: Erin on playa in 2019. (Photo by Brian King)

About the author: Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley

Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley

Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley is Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Communications. Dom manages press/media relations, external communications strategies, and social media, to name a few things. On playa, he helps run Media Mecca with a team of amazing volunteers. Burning since 2013, Dom’s playa name seems to change every year. Prior to joining the Burning Man staff, Dom spent almost six years on the breaking news desk at CNN in New York.

14 Comments on “Diversity & Radical Inclusion: Erin Douglas and the Black Burner Project

  • Juno says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and for creating the Black Burner Project, Erin! So inspiring and it makes me hopeful about the future of Black Rock City and Burning Man culture becoming more diverse and inclusive.

    Report comment

  • Brian says:

    Erin!! You’re amazing!! THIS is amazing!! So happy to see this here and can’t wait for what the future holds!!

    Report comment

  • Geomom says:

    Yay yay YAY! I’m excited to see these transformations. BRC always had that white hippie/ Silicon Valley/ Euro cast to it, with exceptions of course. As you said, not intentionally, but there nonetheless. A couple of years ago one of our camp members started blasting mariachi music at the portapotties in the morning (plus narco, tejano, basically his iPhone mix). Except for the yoga camp across the way, we overwhelmingly had a positive response. As my campmate said, he met more Mexicans (+) that all of the previous twenty years. Last year, he did the call to prayer at sunset. We immediately were visited by people of Islamic faith, with tears in their eyes. And one very angry young man who had renounced the faith of his childhood, which led to an hour long discussion that included combat veterans, children of Persian expats, students of religion and ended with a lot of hugs … So yes. Please keep doing what you do. If the planet needs anything right now, it’s for people to be themselves, be present, and be with others not like themselves. Talk, love, celebrate, mourn the past, build the present.

    Report comment

  • Sunny Dacklin says:

    I’m totally on-board for this movement you helped put into action. It is a beautiful, necessary, and much needed. I like a rainbow of people. Diversity is good.

    Report comment

  • Radical inclusion. Wahoo!!
    I admitted to being surprised and ashamed of myself for not having noticed the lack of diversity when a friend from France who has a very dark complexion mentioned being nervous about being black on the playa. I was so incredibly proud and relieved when she said she felt nothing but acceptance and love after. It would have changed everything if that wouldn’t have been what she experienced.

    I would love to join a camp that’s all about the rainbow of diversity in every way.

    Thank you so much for being a part of this voice!

    Report comment

  • This resonates very much with me. In 2019 I wore a bright pink sombrero to the Temple burn in honor of both of my grandparents who passed last year. There was a couple behind me as I sat down who complained about my sombrero, “can you take that off, you’re blocking our view…” of the temple burn. I turned to them and shared why I was wearing the sombrero, to honor my roots, but I couldn’t help but feel that sense of judgment and white privilege. I took it off to not cause disruption of why we were there but it made me feel bad. Thank you Dominique and Erin for opening up the conversation even further about radical inclusion and diversity at the burn. I am a proud Mexican burner and I would love to hear more stories from all people and indigenous communities. I’m trying to get my sister to the burn this year, and I think this is one of the deterrents in her feeling comfortable with joining the burner experience – not feeling like she’s seeing her people. The more we communicate and take the time to understand one another, the better long term change we create in the world.

    Report comment

  • Dasha says:

    This past year the night of the Burn I was set to find Afrobeats. I found it on an art car!!! I’d love to see your project progress into more African music on the Playa.

    Report comment

  • Conifers says:

    Love this story on diversity and especially black burners in particular. The Playa is an amazing, liberating experience. It frees many who attend from the social/ emotional boundaries we’ve built up from our individual and collective hurts and fears. It is a chance for black, white and everyone in between to experience shared humanity in a different way. Hope this project grows.

    Report comment

  • Captain Vic says:

    Thanks for this story. Very interesting. It seems to me that the best measure of “radical inclusion” is not how many people of various backgrounds or skin color BRC attracts, but rather how those who do attend feel about their experience. Do they feel welcome, do they feel included?

    Report comment

  • My two cents says:

    I love that the tone is to inspire more people of color to attend, rather than blame white people for not including them, which is the usual SJW route.

    Report comment

  • Nicole Gwyn says:

    So grateful to learn about the Black Burner Project. I first learned about Burning Man in the 90’s from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of my favorite groups. My friends and family could never understand how I could be a fan of Chili Peppers, let alone wanting to attend the Burning Man festival. I’m more inspired than ever to attend.

    Report comment

  • Mercedes Krause says:

    Has your community address the topic of cultural appropriation in any systemic way?

    I know the Lakota man was asked to participate/attend after meeting some of your folks at standing rock and has showed how disappointing it was publicly. He felt very tokenized and shared an experience with a fake ceremony at your event. I tried to turn into your drum circle but it was cut off and it was weird to me that you had pictures of jingle dress dancers that we knew and I know that they weren’t there but their images were used…

    Report comment

  • What a movement?! I’m new to the idea but am intrigued by what I’m reading. The comments are also incredible (especially about the pink sombrero and how that made her feel). Thanks for the article and I look forward to reading more!

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.