Diversity & Radical Inclusion: Yodassa Williams on Being a Black Femme Burner

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

Yodassa Williams is an accomplished storyteller and writer in the Bay Area. She is an alumna of The Ohio State University and University of Delaware for undergrad and graduate studies in fashion. In October 2019, Yodassa launched Writers Emerging, a wilderness writing retreat at Fly Ranch for women of color and non binary writers of color. She is crafting a memoir on her experiences as a black femme burner, but most excitingly, has just published her debut novel, “The Goddess Twins.” This young adult fantasy is being hailed by critics as a ‘black girl magic adventure.’ Yodassa first attended Black Rock City in 2014 and found the experience spiritually transformational. She has attended each year since, performing at Center Camp and on Burners Without Borders panels discussing greater inclusivity for the event, and most recently camped with GenderBlender.

Transcript edited for clarity.

Dominique: How did Burning Man come into your life?

Yodassa: I had never heard much of Burning Man growing up, but I do remember one year that it got published in the news and my mom saying, “Oh, they burn things in the desert. That’s devil worship.” It wasn’t until I was an adult and moved to the Bay Area independently for work that I started hearing more about it. I was working in the fashion industry and facing my quarter life crisis, thinking “Is this the person I wanna become?” I had a lot of ingrained scripts [about] what it meant to be an adult, what it meant to be successful, what it meant to have my family proud of me as a first generation American. My family is Jamaican, so education and getting to a certain title and income was always very important. [But] I started to mentally make disconnects because I felt like the life I was in, even though it was prescribed to me as success, didn’t feel good in my bones. I was working this job [that] was really emotionally killing me. I started to have a lot of physical illnesses and the doctors weren’t sure what it was, but it was stress.

That following year I continued to privately spiral. My hair was falling out. I could barely look at myself in the mirror. I’m lying to my mother saying, “I’m doing great, everything’s fine,” and then I get off the phone and I’m crying. My best friend from high school, Drew, had just attended Burning Man in 2013. As I cried to him that I felt trapped in a life that was killing me, he shared that the event had given him an emotional release from his own suffering. He saw that this was what I was needing, and he was insistent. “You need to come with me to Burning Man this year. What you’re experiencing is like your soul trying to run away from this trap that you have created. I think this could be the break for you.” When someone you know loves you and sees you better than you can see yourself, it’s hard not taking their advice to heart.

So, I started opening my mind to the equation, me plus Burning Man. I asked Drew, “What is it like out there? What do you do? What do I bring? What if I get sick?” I remember watching a movie called “Spark,” doing research on the 10 Principles, and watching YouTube vloggers talk about Burning Man. It was so curious and colorful and dangerous, so very different from the careful life I had always led! I even started dreaming about being there. I couldn’t quite visualize how the event would affect me, and that was both scary and thrilling. Something could actually happen to me by experiencing this Burning Man thing. I reasoned the result [couldn’t] be worse than continuing on the way I [was]. Attending Burning Man that year, in 2014, was a major personal and spiritual challenge. I was afraid of continuing to be emotionally dead and I was going to try to save my life.

You’ve told me before that you came back from your first Burn and you were writing a lot. When did you begin to identify as a Burner and write about Burning Man? Did being a person of color play into that?

Oh yeah, that’s all a complex stew! Before I went out [to Black Rock City] the first time, I asked Drew, “Is it gonna be miles and miles before I see another brown face?” I was only one of two [people of color] in my camp of 25 people. I could already tell the ratios were off. When I landed, I felt right away that there needed to be more POC’s [on playa]. I remember riding around the desert, screaming new life into my body, and thinking, “I know so many people who need this but would never do it because they think Burning Man is only for white people.”

Yodassa in Black Rock City, photo by Ama Nkwa

I feel so privileged to have the unique experiences of creative play with others at Burning Man. These scenes have become highly impactful to who I have evolved into when not on playa. They have fed my humanity, which the default world is constantly trying to deny black women. Combined with the interactive art, workshops, and furious dancing, I have crafted the cauldron of healing that has changed my life from inside out. Burning Man granted an opening to liberation that has jolted me out of the mental traps of depression, anxiety, perfectionism, self criticism and people pleasing, to name a few. As someone who suffered silently in trauma and mental illness for years, I feel deeply for others still in their places of pain. There were others who need what Burning Man has given to me, even more than I did. I do think of playa as home, and as a rare black femme burner, I needed to share the magic with others like me. So, I felt I could use my writing to share my inner healing and journey.

After my first Burn, I started working on a story about black girls developing magical powers and defeating a powerful foe. This was the type of story I had always wanted to read as a child. I loved science fiction and fantasy tales but wondered why there were hardly ever POC characters at the center. My week at Burning Man was a powerful portal that jump started my own creative juices. I remember gasping at double decker busses turned into unicorns that shot fire and lights and music and thinking, oh, that’s what we’re doing? Okay, I want to make something incredible, too! 

That’s awesome. I’ve had some of those moments too. What’d you decide to do?

I used the energy from my real life made miraculous, a black girl discovering she was more than she could ever imagine, and began weaving the threads and writing and writing. After four years, this story has blossomed into a young adult fantasy, “The Goddess Twins.” It’s about Caribbean American twins who discover they are goddesses when their mother goes missing. I am so excited to bring readers into my imagination, into a black girl magic universe that is funny and loving and smart and beautiful. This is the biggest creative project I have ever completed, and to me it sparkles, shoots fire, plays dance music and has the impact of a giant unicorn. I’m so thrilled that this novel is now released to the world!

I also wondered personally, could I make Burning Man digestible enough for other people of color to see that they actually might want or need to try attending too? I started talking to black and brown people about Burning Man and what it had done for me. I tried expressing my raw experiences almost like parables from the Bible. I tried hitting on the secrets that no one was talking about. How to do Burning Man as an introvert. How to do Burning Man when you’re the only person of color in your camp. How to do Burning Man when you get overwhelmed. How to do Burning Man in a way that can save your life. 

They would say, “Wow, I’ve had people talk about [the event] to me for days, but the way that you put it [makes me] actually wanna go!” I started having some traction from my stories of transformation as a black woman at Burning Man. I felt grateful for the reflection that my perspective was valuable and thought, maybe someone will get their healing one day because I was vocal about mine.

Yodassa on playa in 2019.

Around this same time, I was working on my novel and attended local readings to hear writing. At one reading series I met an experienced Burner and storyteller, Jeff Greenwald. We exchanged our ‘Burning Man’ stories, and he was insistent that mine needed to be told widely. So he signed me up for a live storytelling performance. I was terrified of speaking to a large crowd, but I felt encouraged to be brave in this new format. I knew my story was bigger than me, that I was just a vessel for the transformational power available in the universe. I honestly thought, okay, it’s like the Oracle, she was once a quiet young girl, but then the universe bestows her with a message and she becomes more. So I performed as passionately as I could and I got a standing ovation. Several people were literally crying to me that they had never heard a more powerful story. I left there shaking, like, what just happened? I was hooked from then, on the alchemy of crafting my life into art for performance storytelling.

So it was 2016, I was storytelling twice a month, I was writing my novel, I was doing fashion pop-ups to make money. I was following my intuition and starting to find my identity. People on the street would call out, “Hey you’re the Black Burning Man girl” from seeing me at a show. I liked the nickname. I’ve felt blessed to be a part of a special selection, black people who have tried Burning Man. There are Burners of Color, but not nearly enough. The perspective of a Burner of Color is so uniquely necessary, especially during these times. After that year’s Burn, I wrote an article about being a black woman at Burning Man that went viral. It was exciting to see the resulting authentic conversations around the event and it’s value or harm to people of color. The Org’s communications team reached out to me to confirm they saw the article and asked me what else I was doing. 

I realized there was definitely a need for more open discourse on what radical inclusion should look like. I find it sad and problematic that there are black people who hold the assumption that they couldn’t ever be safe or have a good experience at Burning Man. I knew a personal invitation to join the landscape and be a part of the culture would be vitally important to allowing this to happen. I also knew the perspective of early adopters is essential to make a cultural shift. It felt like the universe was making an opening, and I realized there needed to be a memoir about Burning Man from a person of color. So I started the early stages of writing one.

One of the themes of this series is to explore questions beyond the classic, “Why don’t more people of color come to Burning Man?” It’s an interesting question, and we could spend a lot of time talking about that. But let’s be more open-ended. What is the question around diversity in the Burning Man community that matters most to you?

I think it’s, “What does inclusivity look like to the Burning Man community in an authentic way?” 

This applies to the [Black Rock City] event, regionals, and even events that happen in the Bay Area. For one issue, there’s this large general expectation of financial well‑offness to be a part of this community. It feels very exclusionary in that way.  It’s a challenge [all across] America but it feels alarming that it’s a challenge to being a part of a community that says its aim is full connectivity and inclusiveness. I include events that happen in San Francisco there, because to be a part of any event that I’ve wanted to attend outside of BRC, I’ve had to be a volunteer in order to acquire a complimentary ticket.

Sometimes it feels like the things happening in the Burning Man community are constantly wrapped up in privilege. Money is one of them. Location privilege is huge too. Being able to escape responsibilities for a week in the desert, even the concept of “being an artist” is one of privilege. Growing up in Ohio I had no real access to any of these things. I am still very connected with friends and family who think my involvement is confusing and “other.” So the community can feel very insular.

When I think of you, the word “storyteller” comes to mind above everything else. What’s the story white Burners need to hear? What’s the story that people out there, when they read this, might resonate with and kind of take home a new perspective about not just the desert, but what it means to be a black Burner?

The default Burner is white. To be a black Burner feels like we have to put a stamp on something that did not include us from the start. We’ve put our name on something that didn’t count us. So, there’s some sense of pride for me because I know it means something special. When other black people talk to me and they know that about me, there’s a different layer of questioning to who I am because it’s like, “Oh, you made it into that Burning Man thing. How do you do that? I know, there’s not a lot of us in there.” There’s pride in the way being a black Burner has connected me to other black Burners, [just like] being black connects me to other black people. There’s power in the voice and perspective of a black Burner. We have depths of information that is uniquely insightful for the community, and to even people who don’t ever intend on attending the festival. As a black woman, I’m sensitive to things other people have zero sensitivities to. People might say, “I’ve been going to Burning Man for a decade and I never noticed [those things],” whereas [for me] my first year I was like, “What’s up with this?” 

Yodassa at the Man burn in 2019

Can you expand on why that perspective matters?

The history of being a black woman in America is to be one of the most disrespected and uncared for people in society. Malcolm X historically said this and still black women consistently take on more without full consideration of their worth or humanity. The worst is the history of torture of black women because of the expectation that they are ‘thicker skinned’ or less feeling. Black women still experience this, even when seeking medical advice. There is a wide expectation of being strong despite whatever you suffer.

I grew up seeing this stereotype everywhere, even as I realized the most vulnerable groups to American trauma are black people and women (including trans women). If you listen to the needs of black women, you will get the truth about what is wrong with this country; not everyone is given an equal chance. I’ve seen that truth, that the black woman is really holding a lot of suffering in America, that she sees and feels all the cracks in the system. I grew up with a single mother who was constantly warning me to stay quiet and play by the rules, announced and invisible, for fear I would be hurt. So yes, I feel a great deal of sensitivity and awareness that black women are expected to excel, yet not achieve in a society not concerned for our lives.

But for the first time in my life, I’m experiencing the widening of conversations around blackness and mental health beyond merely surviving whatever comes. Questions like, where do black people get our liberation from trauma? Can we end generational curses in our lifetime? Why do black women think we deserve to suffer? For me, when I think of ‘black girl magic’, I picture the alchemy of transforming generations of pain into radiating personal empowerment. Of owning one’s story, including the darkness, and reflecting all the light the ancestors were denied to show. I’m grateful for the opportunity to process experiences being in America and being a Burner in my writing. Thank you for the chance to share my voice and perspective with the community today.

Top photo by Tracy Williams

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.

12 Comments on “Diversity & Radical Inclusion: Yodassa Williams on Being a Black Femme Burner

  • some seeing eye says:

    Thanks for this! It is community-building while we are all are at home planning the beautiful future.

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  • G-Bear says:

    I am a white, elderly man of privilege who cannot begin to imagine what Yodassa and other People Of Color have experienced. Yodassa, your writing about your experience at Burning Man has been a huge eye-opening to me and I hope many others from which I come. At the encouragement of my step-daughter last year became my and my wife’s first Burning Man experience. I pray I have many more and I also pray that I meet you and many other POC’s….maybe we need a way to help make it possible for more POC’s to participate and help us all become more aware and sensitive to the injustices around us. Please keep writing and pursuing the truth of your life. Peace.

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  • Rachael Leila Smock says:

    Thank you for sharing

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  • Tech guy says:

    Thank you Yodassa for all the work you do to help and inspire others. You’re a good soul. Wishing you the best of luck with The Goddess Twins and all your work in the future.
    Thank you ❤️

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  • Nexus (he/him/his) says:

    Thank you, Yodassa!!

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  • grossepieuvre says:

    Brown Supremacism article

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  • uri says:

    Thank you so much for writing this!I sincerely hope that the Burning Man org does what it can to make this event more accessible to folks. I’m a latinx from the Bay Area, so as I grew up I learned about Burning Man from white friends and techies, but none of my hometown black and brown friends were ever interested. I always knew I would love the event, but it took me 5 years to be able to get a ticket, since it seems to either be based on pure dumb luck or knowing someone who knows someone (which I did not)

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    • Julia Mills says:

      based on this comment i am wondering if there is a reserve of tickets or thoughts of such a reserve for POC burners or burner hopefuls? Just curious, i do know about art grants and low income considerations so that could help someone with lesser financial means but perhaps there should be some mentoring of POCs by big camps or the like.

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  • Sharifa says:

    Thank you Yodassa for your courageous and generous heart. Sharing your stories with us teaches and inspires and helps us change. I will keep learning more and more how to support BIPOC in and out of Burning Man.

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  • crunkykd says:

    As a minority also (but not of skin color), with a lifetime of shit as a consequence, I too had a giant eye-opening at my first BM experience those 6 years ago. People generally notice most what’s different, not what’s the same. Since their lives are all different they naturally say different things about what BM is about. One thing I can say it showed me is everyone is a wounded minority in some way. And when a community decides to drop all pre-conceived attitudes and decides to meet all strangers as default new best friends magic happens. That’s what BM seemed to be saying. Sounds impossible, but then I saw it with my own eyes.

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  • Honeyman says:

    Your interview tugged on my heart strings, Yodassa. I’m wanting to let you know that you and ALL people who have been abused by individual racists or sadists or morons or institutions have a few old white guys like me as allies. Thinking that the ideals and atmosphere at the burn must be universal, I have wondered for years why minorities are underrepresented out in the dust. Then, a couple of years ago, a guy wrote about his own first burn and, in spite of being loved half to death in BRC, felt the deepest of terror out at the man burn among a sea of white people. So it finally dawned on me. I am of the opinion that the more people I meet that don’t look like me, the smarter I get. Tell all of the POC people you know to come join us so we can love them half to death & make us smarter.

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  • grateful says:

    Thank you for this article! ❤️

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